Parents face a bewildering array of childcare choices for very young children in the years prior to compulsory school age. All the more so in Singapore, where expat parents grapple with unfamiliar childcare; extensive ‘enrichment’ options; and the local and international school sectors; and where the availability of affordable, live-in domestic help is an additional consideration. Singaporean parents have learned just this year of major changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination that will come into force in 2021, fundamentally altering the grading methodology for this high stakes assessment, leaving many local parents wondering how best to prepare their children for academic success from infancy onwards.
How can psychological research help us evaluate the options available and determine the best choices for our own family’s needs? At first glance, the research evidence can make for challenging reading, especially for employed or self-employed mothers, or mothers who wish to return to formal work while their children are very young. Going to a nursery is a stressful experience for children: a recent study showed that cortisol levels (a stress hormone) were between 75 and 100 per cent higher in toddlers starting nursery while they were at nursery, compared to when they were at home. Cortisol levels reduced slightly over time, but still remained elevated five months after starting nursery, despite the children in the study showing little outward sign of stress or anxiety.
Does this mean that nurseries or preschools are bad for young children? The reality is complicated. It depends on the age of the child; each individual child’s temperament; the nature of the care provided at the nursery or preschool; and the length of time spent within such childcare each day, amongst other factors. The needs of the family, and mothers especially, are also vitally important. In many families, parents have no realistic choice other than to work to meet their financial commitments, and even where this is not the case, many women wish to work professionally for their own fulfilment and life satisfaction. Encouragingly, mothers working outside the home who enjoy their work have been found to be happier and more responsive parents, and often compensate for the time spent away from their child by spending more time actively interacting with their children when they are together at home. Indeed, this study found that the amount of direct, quality one on one contact time with young children does not vary significantly between mothers in formal employment and ‘stay at home’ mothers, who are often busy with a range of domestic responsibilities and personal commitments in addition to providing childcare.
Research evidence clearly indicates that, not surprisingly, the quality of the childcare chosen makes a real difference: so, what are the factors parents should look for to identify a suitable option for their child? The National Institute for Child Health and Human Development Early Childcare Research Network (US) defines quality childcare as: “warm, supportive interactions with adults, in a safe, healthy and stimulating environment, where early education and trusting relationships combine to support individual children’s physical, emotional, social and intellectual development”.
The reference to emotional and social development here is important; even though high quality childcare can improve school readiness and cognitive and linguistic development, the more time a young child spends in childcare, the more behavioural problems they demonstrate in later childhood. Childcare where children are able to develop close, caring and affectionate relationships with a consistently present caregiver or caregivers is well placed to meet the emotional needs of young children and to promote secure attachment relationships. It is valuable and important for a child to be able to develop a strong bond with an appropriate individual carer, whether in a daycare setting, nursery, preschool or with a domestic helper – this protects the very young child from high levels of stress and anxiety. Nurseries, preschools or daycare centres with lower child to adult ratios are therefore desirable and staff should be able to balance taking account of the needs of the whole group of children in their care, with plenty of positive individual attention (not an easy task!). Given the availability of live in domestic help in Singapore, it is also interesting to note that research clearly indicates, especially for children under 12 months old, that care from one main carer in a home (not necessarily the mother) is a better option for children’s wellbeing than care in a group setting, such as daycare, nursery or preschool.
What about parents focused on supporting their children’s academic development and seeking the best enrichment or childcare options to help their child put in place strong foundations for structured learning? The most important finding here is that the quality of the relationship a child has with its parents is a far better predictor of academic performance and social functioning than is the quality of childcare or enrichment activities. So whatever options work best for your child, your family and you, nurturing a loving, warm, empathic relationship with your son or daughter, while setting firm, consistent and age-appropriate limits, will give your child a strong foundation to thrive.
If you are seeking support with parenting challenges, the team at SACAC Counselling can provide confidential, expert help. You may also find the following resources useful:
Dr Shefali Tsabary’s books on parenting: The Conscious Parent; Out of Control; and The Awakened Family
The website of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, which has an extensive resource library: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/ This site is highly recommended for parents seeking sound, science-based information about children’s developmental needs, to inform their own parenting choices.
All research referred to in this article is cited in Music, G., 2011. Nonmaternal care and childcare. Nurturing Natures: Attachment and Children’s Emotional, Sociocultural and Brain Development. Hove: Psychology Press. Ch. 13.
By Laura Timms.