Quality of Child Care for Infants and Toddlers Compromised By Inadequate State Regulations, Yale Study Finds

American child care regulations are mediocre or poor in every state because state legislators are setting standards far too low, thus posing a threat to children’s development. That is the finding of a Yale University study, which joins a spate of recent reports that paint a gloomy picture of child-care quality nationwide.

In a report published this week in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, developmental psychologists at Yale and the Commonwealth Fund in New York City rated the quality of regulations governing center-based child care for infants and toddlers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Not one state had regulations that earned a combined quality score of good or better. Only one-third had minimally acceptable standards while two-thirds were rated poor or very poor.

“I feel sorry for the mothers and fathers in these states,” said Edward Zigler, director of Yale’s Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy and one of the architects of the national Head Start program. “They think regulations stand for child care that is good for their children. But it’s not true. States are setting their standards far too low to make good child care readily available to working families.”

Three dimensions of quality for regulations enacted by July 1990 were evaluated by the researchers: grouping – staff/child ratio and group size, caregiver qualifications – education and training, and program – facilities, equipment, and approach to children. Quality criteria were drawn from the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Child Care Policy, from the guidelines for infant and toddler care established by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and from the Federal Inter-Agency Day Care Regulations of 1980.

“Numerous studies have shown that child care that falls below a minimum threshold of quality is harmful – it compromises children’s optimal growth and development at a critical stage. We also know that the quality of child care improves when standards are more stringent,” said Professor Zigler, who collaborated on the study with Kathryn Taaffe Young of the Commonwealth Fund and Yale graduate student Katherine White Marsland.

Approximately 1.3 million infants and toddlers were in day care centers in 1990. Another 2.3 million were cared for in family day care homes or the homes of relatives. “Our new knowledge of rapid brain development in the early years underscores the importance of having enriching environments for our infants and toddlers,” Professor Zigler said.

In the Yale study, Minnesota was the only state to receive a rating of minimally acceptable or better for its 1990 regulations in all three dimensions of quality. A comparison with regulations enacted eight years earlier – in 1982 – showed that half the states improved their regulations for program, 13 states made improvements in grouping, but regulations for caregiver training actually worsened. The authors also noted a distressing pattern in which states with good or acceptable ratings for program earned poor or very poor ratings in the other two categories.

“Structural features such as ratios, group sizes and caregiver training largely determine quality of care,” Professor Zigler said. “It is hard to imagine that one adult can possibly ensure the safety of nine or more infants, let alone provide an appropriately nurturing and stimulating environment, yet this scenario meets regulatory guidelines in 37 states.”

The study did not consider staff compensation and turnover, which are also important factors in providing quality child care, because these issues do not fall under state regulations. Nor did the study attempt to measure the extent to which regulations are enforced in each state.

The 17 states with regulations that were rated as minimally acceptable overall are: Alabama, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Wisconsin. Four states were found to be very poor or unregulated: Idaho, Mississippi, South Carolina and Wyoming. All other states were rated as poor.

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