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Developing humans, not human capital

Published on 3/19/2022
It’s 6 a.m., your shift starts in an hour, and your one-year-old has a fever. You scroll through your contacts wondering who can watch your baby. Why, you wonder, is life never smooth, never calm? You’ll ponder that question again that night when your childcare provider calls to say she’s closing her home daycare in a few weeks. Now you have the added stress of finding a new provider.

Who can you afford? Who watches babies, is kind, has a safe environment and won’t leave the TV running all day? You find yourself worrying about the future, of years of finding new providers. You’ve read that the schools or maybe the state might start a PreK program. What a relief if they do. Maybe your bank account and life could get a break if you can survive this year or two. You’d love to have someone read more to your kid, but it never occurs to you that rule out daycare providers because they don’t. What a luxury to be choosy about childcare. If only, you could afford to ask, “How will you help my child’s social-emotional, brain development?

Across town at 6 a.m. another parent is cooing as he dresses his infant. He’ll drop the baby off in an hour at a daycare where children play in a room loaded with stimulating toys. Screens don’t exist. Adults are rocking babies, making happy faces and talking to them. In the toddler and pre-K rooms, the bathroom is right off the classroom, snacks and lunch are delivered to the room, the windows are high, the sun makes the colors pop on the children’s musical instruments. In this program, children don’t have to line up to walk across the building for the bathrooms. Their teachers don’t police their wiggly little bodies to get them to the cafeteria. The chances for amplifying disciplinary issues drop because everything, from building layout, to food service, to teacher training anticipates age-appropriate behavior.

It turns out that these small details may be the critical difference that makes effective and high-quality childcare. They may be more important than educational activities. Dale Farran has been researching childcare for over two decades. When Tennessee offered free PreK to some low-income children, she and researchers at Vanderbilt University began following the children. What she learned surprised and disappointed her. Though the state program implemented an educational curriculum, the participants fared poorly in third grade and worse by sixth grade. On average, they had lower test scores than peers who were not in the PreK program. They were more often receiving special education services and had more serious disciplinary records. Her study, published in February, suggests that some programs may have negative effects on children. Farran reported to NPR that it means we must research and understand the design of programs. It’s not just about a boost in academic skills. Young children need nurturing and healthy, long-term relationships to build emotional regulation. They need to play to foster creativity, peer relationships and imagination. The design of programs matters.

To understand the call for high-quality childcare, it helps to know the history. In the 1960s, just over a hundred kids in Detroit’s low-income areas participated in the Perry Preschool Project. It was roundly considered a success. To this day, participants have better health and depend less on social support systems. Part of its design included home visits to teach parents how to extend the learning at home. While gains in IQ and test scores evened out with non-participants, one of the side effects of inviting parents into the program was providing greater “serve and return” opportunities for young children.

“Serve and return” is what Harvard calls the kind of attention that all babies, toddlers, preschoolers, even older children need. It grows the brain and strengthens social and emotional connections. It begins in infancy, when a baby bids for eye contact, for touch, for language. Their coos and cries are the “serve.” When adults return the attention they need, it grows the babies’ neural networks. Research about brain development, as well as Farran’s research, suggests that the emphasis in early childcare should be on social, emotional, linguistic development, starting with “serve and return.” Play too is critical and still allows children to learn to sort, classify, name letters/numbers/colors, create patterns/sets/series, move, sing, and regulate their emotions or impulses in social interaction.

Farran’s study participants, about three thousand Tennessee children, have not been tracked into adulthood yet as have the Perry Project and participants in the 1970’s Abecedarian Project in North Carolina. Both of the early projects showed higher rates of school completion, lower reliance on public social services, and improved health but only studied a little over a hundred kids each. Farran’s study is far larger.

Programs can and do help but Farran’s study shows that we don’t understand all the factors yet. Perhaps attending to EQ (emotional intelligence) development as much as IQ matters.

Parents with resources choose holistic programs, and those tend to have improved outcomes. They provide wrap-around experiences at home. They have the means to help their children mature and find self-actualization. They don’t tend to focus on raising “human capital.” The challenge we face is transferring these priorities into widely accessible programs for households that struggle to make ends meet, where parents work odd shifts or multiple jobs and face more life stressors than their middle-class counterparts.