Quality child care leads to better grades — and future scientists

IRVINE, Calif. — The secret to creating brilliant scientists may be brilliant parenting. New research reveals high-quality child care can significantly enhance a child’s grades in mathematics and science. The research explains that children who received both emotional warmth and cognitive stimulation from their caregivers performed better in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

The connection was found to be particularly robust among children hailing from low-income backgrounds, according to the findings published in the journal Developmental Psychology. The research team from the University of California-Irvine analyzed data from nearly 1,000 families with children born in 1991 and tracked them until 2006. As part of the study, trained observers made visits to the daycare centers and preschools where these children, who were enrolled for at least 10 hours per week, attended.

These observers visited when the children were six, 15, 24, 36, and 54 months-old. They evaluated the extent to which caregivers provided a warm, supportive environment and responded to the children’s interests and emotions.

In addition, the observers noted the level of cognitive stimulation the caregivers provided. They examined whether the caregivers used rich language, asked questions to stimulate the children’s thought processes, and provided feedback that could enhance the children’s understanding of various concepts.

The California team then assessed how these students fared in STEM subjects during their elementary and high school years. They analyzed the children’s scores on the mathematics and reasoning sections of tests from fourth to sixth grade. Study authors also reviewed test scores from the teenagers when they were in high school.

Preschool teacher showing students how to build with wooden blocks
(© Monkey Business – stock.adobe.com)

The study concluded that children who had received better emotional and cognitive care performed better in STEM subjects towards the end of elementary school. This, in turn, predicted higher STEM achievement in secondary school. Moreover, sensitive and responsive caregiving in early childhood was a more potent predictor of high school STEM performance for children from low-income families than it was for those from higher income families.

“Our results suggest that caregiving quality in early childhood can build a strong foundation for a trajectory of STEM success,” says study author Andres Bustamante, PhD, of UC Irvine in a media release. “Investing in quality child care and early childhood education could help remedy the underrepresentation of racially and ethnically diverse populations in STEM fields.”

“Our hypothesis was that cognitive stimulation would be more strongly related to STEM outcomes because those kinds of interactions provide the foundation for exploration and inquiry, which are key in STEM learning,” Bustamante continues.

“However, what we saw was that the caregiver sensitivity and responsiveness was just as predictive of later STEM outcomes, highlighting the importance of children’s social emotional development and settings that support cognitive and social emotional skills.”

“Together, these results highlight caregiver cognitive stimulation and sensitivity and responsiveness in early childhood as an area for investment to strengthen the STEM pipeline, particularly for children from low-income households,” the researcher concludes.

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South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.

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