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Monday, June 07, 2010

The Dark Side of preschool

We all hear things, good, bad, both with supported evidence and findings. Finally, we had to make a decision, what is the wiser way? Take a look at the flip side of the coin, a report that is scarcely heard nowadays, especially with frantic parents all over the world rushing to send their still-learning-to-walk pretoddlers to school.

The dark side of preschool:

Peers, social skills, and stress

© 2006 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved

You send your child to preschool, hoping she will learn better people skills. Instead, she comes back with new behavior problems—-increased rudeness, or whining, or aggression. Spending lots of time with peers doesn’t seem to have improved her social skills. It’s made them worse!
It’s an experience shared by many parents, according to researchers at Stanford and the University of California.
Drawing on a massive, national database of over 14,000 children from diverse backgrounds, researchers examined the effects of preschool attendance on interpersonal skills, self control, and rates of aggression.
The results were remarkably clear:
“We find that attendance in preschool centers, even for short periods of time each week, hinders the rate at which young children develop social skills and display the motivation to engage classroom tasks, as reported by their kindergarten teachers” (Loeb et al 2005).
We might guess that the problem lies with poor quality preschool centers. But even high income children—-who presumably attend the better preschools—-showed increased behavioral problems if they had attended at least 15 hours a week (Loeb et al 2005). Moreover, the effect is dosage-dependent. The more time children spend in centers, the worse their behavior becomes.
Similar results were reported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD), which conducted a rigorous longitudinal study on the effects of childcare on children under 5 (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development 2003).
Over a thousand children were tracked from infancy to kindergarten by investigators at over 20 prominent research universities.
Researchers found that the more time kids spent in non-maternal care during the first 4.5 years of life, the more behavioral problems they developed.
Problems included defiance--like talking back, throwing temper tantrums, and refusing to cooperate. They also included aggressive behaviors--being cruel, destroying toys and other objects, and getting into physical fights.
In addition, kids who spent more time in childcare were rated as less socially competent by their mothers and kindergarten teachers.
Is bad social behavior caused by too much time in childcare centers, or not enough quality time with parents? Both may be true. But some evidence suggests that extended peer contact is part of the problem.
Consider the findings from the Stanford / University of California study. Kids who received non-parental care outside of childcare centers (for example, those cared for by grandparents or nannies) did NOT suffer increased social problems. According to this study, it wasn’t necessarily being away from parents that made kids misbehave. It was spending many hours in group care with peers (Loeb et al 2005).

Stressed-out preschoolers
Other evidence suggests that spending time at preschool-—or daycare-—is downright stressful.
Daycare or preschool stress can be measured by the levels of cortisol-—a stress hormone—-that children produce during the day. In normal, healthy people, cortisol levels follow a daily rhythm, peaking when they wake and then falling over the course of the day. Cortisol levels are the lowest just before sleep (Sapolsky 2004).
But stress changes the pattern. If you are under stress, your cortisol level rises, regardless of the time of day. In the short term, this helps your body respond to the crisis. But chronic stress, and chronically elevated levels of cortisol, can cause health and developmental problems (Sapolsky 2004).
Because cortisol levels are easy to measure in young children, researchers have collected samples from children who attend daycare and children who stay home. In study after study, the results are the same.
When children stay home, their cortisol levels show the healthy pattern—-rising at waking and decreasing throughout the day. When children attend daycare, the pattern changes. Cortisol levels increase during the day (Geoffroy et al 2006).
Although it’s not entirely clear what aspects of preschool attendance are stressing kids, some possibilities can be ruled out.
For instance, it’s not about being separated from parents. Kids who receive home-based care do not have elevated cortisol levels, even when their parents are absent (Dettling et al 2000). Nor is it about differences in daytime resting. Kids in group-based childcare show more stress even after taking into account any possible differences in napping or resting opportunities during the day (Watamura et al 2002).
Many researchers suspect the culprit is social stress—-in particular, dealing with peers. Megan Gunnar, a University of Minnesota psychobiologist who has studied cortisol levels in preschoolers since the 1990s, agrees. “There is something about managing a complex peer setting for an extended time that triggers stress in young children” Gunnar (ResearchWorks 2005).

What's wrong with peer socialization?

To many parents and teachers, these findings seem to defy common sense. Surely we learn social skills by interacting with other people. What could be more natural than letting your preschooler loose in a social world of her own peers?
In fact, part of this reasoning is sound. You do need people to learn people skills. The question is--which people? Preschoolers need to learn empathy, compassion, patience, emotional self-control, social etiquette, patience, and an upbeat, constructive attitude for dealing with social problems.
These lessons can’t be learned through peer contact alone. Preschools are populated with impulsive, socially incompetent little people who are prone to sudden fits of rage or despair. These little guys have difficulty controlling their emotions, and they are ignorant of the social niceties. They have poor insight into the minds and emotions of others (Gopnik et al 1999).
Yes, preschoolers can offer each other important social experiences. But their developmental status makes them unreliable social tutors. A child who copies other children may pick up good habits—-but she may also pick up bad ones. And peers do not always provide each other with right kind of feedback.
When a child offers to share his toy with a caring adult, he gets rewarded with gratitude and praise. He also learns that he will eventually get his toy back. When he offers to share with a peer, he may not get rewarded at all. Without adult guidance, these experiences can undermine social development by teaching the wrong lessons.
Moreover, it’s hard to see what’s natural about herding together a bunch of children who are all the same age. From the evolutionary, historical, and cross-cultural perspectives, it’s an unusual practice.

Preschool is an evolutionary novelty

Throughout most of human history, people lived in small foraging bands of around 25 individuals. In such small groups, children rarely had playmates of the same age. Socialization meant interacting with people of all ages, from infants to grandparents (Konner 2005). In modern foraging groups, children play in multi-age playgroups (Hewitt and Lamb 2005) and may be watched over by multiple caregivers, including older sisters and grandmothers (Hrdy 2005).
Even after the rise of agriculture, the “warehousing” of small children would have been rare. Like foraging groups, village-based communities are characterized by multi-aged playgroups and older sibling caregivers. Historically speaking, segregating children by age is a relatively new idea. It is favored in industrialized societies where people lack the support of extended families and parents work outside of the home.

What you can do

Spending long hours with peers can cause problems. But this doesn’t mean that preschool can’t be a positive social experience. In fact, kids benefit from opportunities to play with peers. The key is balancing peer play time with plenty of affectionate, sensitive parenting. Here are some specific tips on getting the best out of preschool or daycare.

Stay tuned into your child's needs

Time spent in daycare effects your child’s behavior. But it’s NOT the most important factor. The NICHHD study found that the most important predictor of social competence was maternal sensitivity. Sensitive mothers are warm and supportive. They understand their children’s emotional needs and demonstrate respect for their children’s autonomy. According to the NICHHD, the kids with the best behavioral outcomes had mothers who scored highly on maternal sensitivity (NICHHD 2003).

Remain your child’s primary social tutor

See this article on preschool social skills. These include talking to your child about her emotions and encouraging her to form at least one friendship with a peer at school.

Reduce daycare / preschool hours to a minimum

The negative influence of daycare depends on a child's age AND on the total time spent in group care.
Compared to children of other ages, preschoolers may be especially vulnerable to the disruptive effects of group care. Kids between the ages of 39-60 months are more likely to experience elevated cortisol levels than are younger and older kids(Geoffroy et al 2006). Moreover, the NICHHD study reports that kids between 37-54 months were especially likely to show delays in social competence when they spent longer hours in group care.
However, researchers suspect that the length of time spent in daycare matters more than the age of the child. It's probably the cumulative quantity of care—-long hours over many years-—that causes the most behavioral problems (NICHHD 2003). If you can, try to combine preschool / daycare attendance with other kinds of quality care.

Find classes that are small and intimate

Find caregivers who can give your child warm, individualized, personal attention. According to one study, the least stressful preschool environments were small-scale--classes with no more than 15 students and 4 teachers (Legendre 2003).

Make sure kids have room to play

Look for preschools or daycare centers that provide ample space for kids to play. Adults don’t like to be crowded. Neither do kids (Legendre 2003).

Look for teachers who enforce friendly, polite behavior

Some schools are more permissive and laissez-faire than others. Avoid schools that let kids get away with angry, antisocial or disobedient behavior.

Look for teachers who use inductive discipline

Inductive discipline emphasizes explaining the reasons for rules and the consequences of bad behavior. Preschoolers raised with inductive discipline show more self-control and have the best social skills (Hart et al 1992).

Communicate regularly with your childcare providers

Find out what your child is doing at school. If your child is being rejected by his peers—-or is involved in rejecting another child—-take corrective action (see my article on preschool social skills ). Similarly, get involved if your child is hanging out with a “bad crowd.” When preschoolers play in peer groups characterized by negative emotions or anti-social behavior, their social development suffers (Denham et al 2001).


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Dettling, A. C., Parker, S. W., Lane, S. K., Sebanc, A., & Gunnar, M. R. (2000). Quality of care and temperament determine whether cortisol levels rise over the day for children in full-day child care. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 25, 819-836.
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Loeb S, Bridges M, Bassok D, Fuller B, and Rumberger, Russ. 2005. How Much is Too Much? The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children’s Development Nationwide. Presentation at the Association for Policy Analysis and Management. Washington, D.C. – November 4, 2005
National institute of child health and human development early child care research network (2003). Does amount of time spent in child care predict socio-emotional adjustment during the transition to kindergarten? Child Development, 74: 976-1005.
ResearchWorks. 2005. How young children manage stress: Looking for links between temperament and experience. University of Minnesota website. (visited on December 31, 2006).
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