New research into early childhood education

Published on Wednesday, 04 November 2020
Last updated on Sunday, 01 November 2020

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The Growing Up in New Zealand (GUINZ) longitudinal study is following the lives of over 6,000 Kiwi kids, and along the way, it’s providing key data around child development.

GUINZ has given us insights into young children’s sleep patterns, dental health and self-control, and this data has recently been used to see how early childhood education (ECE) impacts the health and wellbeing of under-fives.

A new report by The AUT and The University of Auckland suggests that ECE attendance has social and emotional benefits for children, but also increases their risk of common infectious illnesses, so let’s look at this research in more detail.

How was the GUINZ study used?

To see the effect that ECE has on under-fives, the researchers looked at parental responses relating to children’s ECE attendance, behaviour and illness at the age of nine months, two years and four-and-a-half years.

These GUINZ responses were then linked to hospital records to paint a clearer picture of how ECE impacts young children in this country.

What is the effect of ECE attendance on children’s social and emotional wellbeing?

The researchers found that parents assessed their four-and-a-half-year-old’s behaviour more positively if they attended ECE, and that these preschoolers were perceived to have better peer relationships than those who didn’t go to child care.

When it comes to younger children, the report says that:

  • Centre-based care at the age of two, ‘May have independent benefits for children’s emotional wellbeing and relationships with peers,’ and
  • The number of hours a two-year-old spends at ECE per week doesn’t seem to impact on their behavioural outcomes. In fact, the report suggests that, ‘More hours [around 20 to 30 hours per week] may even be positive for emotional development and wellbeing.’

Overall, AUT Associate Professor, Andrew Gibbons says, ‘The findings suggest that centre-based child care can have some benefits to emotional and social wellbeing’ of children.

He explains that more research is needed to understand the effect of different ECE factors (like the type of service or qualifications of teachers) on children’s outcomes, but it is great to see that ECE attendance is generally good for youngsters’ social and emotional wellbeing.

What effect does ECE have on children’s health?

The flipside of this research is that ECE attendance can increase children’s risk of getting common infectious illnesses.

Many parents know this from experience, but in number terms, the researchers found that:

  • Nine-month-olds in centre-based care had twice the risk of ear and chest infections and were 2.5 times more likely to get gastro than infants being cared for by their parents.
  • Infants in home-based care had 1.7 times the risk of gastro, and infants in grandparent care had 1.3 times the risk.
  • Two-year-olds in centre-based care had 2.2 times the risk of ear infection, 1.8 times the risk of chest infection and 1.5 times the risk of gastro, compared to toddlers being cared for by their parents.
  • Two-year-olds attending child care for more than 30 hours a week had 1.5 times the risk of ear infection, compared to children attending for less than 10 hours a week.
  • Adult to child ratios also had an effect. Two-year-olds were found to be at a higher risk of getting gastro in a child care environment with an adult to child ratio of 1:5 or more, compared with those in a smaller group (with an adult to child ratio of 1:3 or lower).
  • Two-year-olds in home-based, grandparent or other child care also had an increased risk of ear and chest infection (but not gastro), compared to those being cared for by their parents.

The researchers acknowledge that infections in early childhood are common and can actually help children build up immunity against illnesses later on, but there was concern that some of the ECE-associated illnesses were serious.

A co-author of the study, Dr Sarah Gerritsen says, ‘One in eight preschoolers attending child care had been admitted to hospital with a chest, ear or gastro infection,’ and attending ECE for more than 30 hours a week at the age of two seems to increase a child’s risk of hospitalisation for these infections.

How can ECE services and families reduce the risk of childhood illness?

Although common infectious illnesses are called ‘common’ for a reason, the researchers stress the importance of ECE services:

There’s no sure-fire way to stop children getting sick at ECE, but quality services do have high standards around health and hygiene, and COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of thorough handwashing, cough and sneeze etiquette, and good cleaning and disinfecting procedures to help prevent the spread of illness.

In the report, the researchers also:

  • Highlight a need for public health agencies to work more closely with the ECE sector to ensure a reduction in ear, chest and gastro infections
  • Say that delaying the start of ECE until after a child’s first birthday may help them avoid serious childhood infections, antibiotics and hospitalisation as a baby, and
  • Call for child care centres and government policy to support women to breastfeed for as long as possible to help build their babies’ immune system.

We know that a later start to ECE or a longer period of breastfeeding isn’t possible for every family, but we can all take steps to learn about common infectious illnesses and help prevent them from spreading in the ECE setting.

The following articles contain practical information, and we hope your child can build their social-emotional skills – and immune system – at ECE:


Growing Up in New Zealand

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