Standards Mean Results for Kids in Child Care

Julee Newberger
July 12, 1999

Reviewed and updated in 2011.

From professional baseball to professional medicine, all occupations have standards. But standards for child care vary from state to state. Key factors like the number of children being watched by one adult and the training required for caregivers is up for grabs depending on where you live.

A report from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development published in the July 1999 issue of the American Journal of Public Health suggests that standards really make a difference in children's well-being and development. It's part of a growing body of research that suggests our nationally-professed goal of having all children ready to learn by the time they enter school may be reached by establishing higher standards for child care.

Child Outcomes When Child Care Center Classes Meet Recommended Standards for Quality found that children attending child care centers meeting professional standards of quality score higher on school readiness and language tests and have fewer behavioral problems than their peers attending centers not meeting such standards.

According to Sarah L. Friedman, project investigator and scientific coordinator of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care, these findings confirm the importance of concrete standards in assuring good child care outcomes—especially small staff-child ratios for two-year-olds and staff training for caregivers of three-year-olds. As Friedman explains, "The quality is really in terms of being responsive and sensitive to children, but the standards facilitate quality. If you have the standards then quality can emerge."

According to Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign, "The NICHD study really illuminates the critical links between the quality of child care and children's readiness for school." But, says Wohl, "while research evidence is piling up on this subject, our action continues to lag behind our knowledge."

Implementing Standards: A Continuous Process

The report, which was conducted by investigators at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Services (NICHD) and 14 universities around the country, followed 1216 children and their families in 10 different locations. Researchers used standards based on recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association. While most centers did not meet all major recommendations, the report found that, particularly for three-year-olds, the more standards met, the higher the outcomes.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the largest accreditation body of child care centers in the country, also publishes standards as part of their accreditation system. Beyond the health and safety standards emphasized in the study, the NAEYC standards also target developmentally appropriate practice. "We focus on interactions," says Barbara Warman, associate director for public policy at NAEYC. "Teachers need to be able to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, getting to know children on an individual basis, working together as a team."

NAEYC accreditation, according to Warman, is a "continuous process in striving for excellence." Over 6,000 programs serving half-a-million children nationwide have achieved NAEYC accreditation. Warman says it's the work beyond the standard that people don't necessarily think about. "You have to realize that just following a standard doesn't mean you're doing your best," she says.

Working Mother magazine produced their annual rating of U.S. states on steps they have taken to improve their standards of child care. The good news is, most states have kept up efforts to expand and improve the quality of care. There's still plenty of room for improvement, however, with a number of states leading the way in public/private partnerships and tax initiatives aimed toward improving care for all children and families.

Julee Newberger, a former staff writer for Connect for Kids (now is a communications consultant who works in child & youth issues.