Before head start: Income and ethnicity, family characteristics, child care experiences, and child development

The NICHD Early Child Care Research Network

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38 Scopus citations


The present study describes the early life histories of a large sample of three-year-old children from different ethnic backgrounds living in three levels of family income—poverty, near-poverty, and above-poverty. The study examined the developmental characteristics of children in the three groups and related them to family characteristics and experiences in child care. To no one’s surprise, significant differences associated with income were found for most of the family measures. Poverty and near-poverty families were more likely to have mothers with lower education, less sensitivity, more depression, and lower HOME scores. Correlatively, for the child development measures, there was an upward progression associated with income. Poverty children consistently showed the greatest deviation from established norms for cognitive and social behavior. A striking finding, however, was the considerable variability found on all the measures—a pattern not sufficiently stressed in related research. This finding has major implications for curriculum planning in Head Start programs. The analysis also showed that child care experience cannot be disregarded as a significant aspect of the history of a prospective enrollee in Head Start or other intervention programs geared to low-income children. Fewer of these children are likely to have a child care history, as families that used at least 10 hours of child care per week were less likely to be either poor or near-poor and thus eligible for enrollment. While this may reflect selection factors associated with child care usage, it also indicates that availability of child care is essential for borderline families that try to stay out of poverty. Number of hours of care per week and age of enrollment did not predict developmental level when the full income sample was considered. However, when only poor and near-poor children in care for at least 20 hours a week were used in the analysis, higher quality of care was associated with more favorable developmental outcomes in the children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)545-576
Number of pages32
JournalEarly education and development
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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