How does external childcare affect behavioural problems in children?

How does external childcare affect behavioural problems in children?
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New research delves into how external childcare could contribute to behavioural problems in children.

Behavioural problems in children can be a result of various factors, from life changes such as moving house to the ways difficult behaviour was addressed before. However, understanding the impact of external childcare on behavioural problems in children is relatively understudied.

To fill this research gap, researchers at the University of Zurich surveyed 1,300 Zurich school children, their parents, and teachers to discover whether the more time children spent in external daycare was associated with behavioural problems in children.

The consequences of external childcare on behavioural problems in children

The Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development at the University of Zurich conducted a study examining how external childcare influences the development of children into young adulthood. The analysed data were collected as part of the Zurich Project on the Social Development from Childhood into Adulthood (z-proso) and consisted of around 1,300 school children aged between seven and 20 in the city of Zurich.

The study found that around 67% of the children in the survey received external childcare before entering kindergarten. 32% of these children attended a daycare centre, and 22% attended a playground. Furthermore, another 22% received care from an external family member, 3% from acquaintances or neighbours and 12% from daycare mothers.

The researchers asked the participants and their parents and teachers about externalising or internalising delinquency, substance abuse or behavioural problems in children. The survey highlighted that the observed behaviours in primary school-aged children differed depending on the respondents and the type of external daycare.

The parents noted that primary school pupils were more likely to show aggression, display symptoms of ADHD, and experience anxiety and depression the more time they had spent in a daycare centre before entering school. The children also supported this finding in their own assessments. The teachers stated that behavioural problems in children such as hyperactivity, lack of impulse control, inattention or aggression were more likely to occur in young people spending more than two days a week with a daycare mother or at least three days a week in a playground.

The effects do not appear to be long-lasting

“It’s possible that external childcare may lessen the strength of child-parent attachment and interaction,” said first author Margit Averdijk. But it is also possible that children in centre-based care or playgroups learn problem behaviour from their peers and sometimes use it to get attention from caregivers.

“Although we can’t directly check which of these mechanisms is the most likely explanation for our results, both of them support our findings,” explained the researcher.

The good news is that the behavioural problems in children decrease as the child gets older and mostly disappears from the age of 13. Symptoms of ADHD were the only ones to persist into adolescence.

The researchers analysed whether external childcare could link to delinquency and substance use in adolescents, but they found no evidence to back this up. An exception was the link between daycare attendance and substance use, which persisted into young adulthood for those from vulnerable backgrounds.

“Our study indicates that these children are also more likely to experience anxiety or depression as they grow older, which may become more acute as a result of the parent’s absence,” Averdijk explained.

“Our study sheds light on some possible unfavourable links between external childcare and children’s later development,” said last author Manuel Eisner. However, the professor of sociology urges not to jump to conclusions. He added that while the study meets the highest scientific standards, it is based on observational data and surveys that do not always allow clear conclusions to be drawn about causation. Furthermore, the study was not able to take into account the quality of childcare received outside of the family.


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