Quality childcare linked to high school STEM success

Warm, responsive and stimulating childcare and preschool education can provide a strong foundation for children to succeed in science and maths later on in primary and high school, research published in Developmental Psychology finds.

Researchers at University of California Irvine examined detailed data gathered on the childcare experiences of 979 families with children born in 1991, who participated in a study called the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. 

In that study, observers visited and rated childcare and preschool centres of all the children enrolled for 10 or more hours per week. The quality of care was rated firstly on how warm and supportive the care was in responding to each child’s interests and emotions, and secondly on the amount of cognitive stimulation.  

Researchers compared the data on those experiences to how the same children performed later on in standardised science and maths assessments in late primary and high school.

“Our results suggest that caregiving quality in early childhood can build a strong foundation for a trajectory of STEM success,” says study co-author Dr Andres Bustamante of the University of California Irvine. 

The findings reveal both key aspects of childcare quality – warmth, responsiveness and cognitive stimulation – were linked to greater achievement in science technology engineering and maths (STEM) subjects in late primary school and high school.

The results suggest that high-quality caregiver child interactions in early learning may be a key mechanism for building a foundation for STEM learning.

“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 says.

“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.”

While previous studies have linked high quality childcare to better school readiness in children from low-income families, this study shows sensitive and responsive caregiving in early childhood was a stronger predictor of high school STEM performance for children from low income families, than higher income families.

“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,” Bustamante says

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