Higher child-to-staff ratios threaten the quality of child care

President Trump’s most recent plan for the country’s child care policy was introduced during his presidential campaign, and includes recommendations for increasing child-to-staff ratios in care settings.

A key report cited in the president’s plan claims that regulations regarding child care ratios fail to improve the quality of care, and the president’s plan states that increasing classroom sizes would allow child care centers to reallocate unspent funds on labor to other priorities, including reducing costs for families.

 
As an early care and education (ECE) researcher, I have followed the discussion regarding ratios and group size. While it is true that there is some mixed research about the link between low child-to-staff ratios and children’s well-being, the literature demonstrating the critical importance of small group size and low ratios in the early years far outweighs the studies with mixed results. It’s important to consider this larger body of evidence before proceeding with a plan that could have serious implications for young children. Furthermore, the research examining ratios has been conducted in ECE settings that comply with state and local ratio regulations.  Therefore, we don’t have research informing how relaxing regulations would affect child care quality or children’s development.
 
National organizations like Head Start, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children recognize the importance of low ratios in ECE settings, and all of them have set age-based standards limiting the number of young children that can be cared for by a given adult. These organizations have concluded that adequate child-to-staff ratios are essential to protecting young children’s health and safety, therefore, even if relaxed regulations increased the affordability of care, it may come at the cost of young children’s safety and development. Research shows that smaller child-to-staff ratios have been associated with fewer situations that threaten children’s safety. Moreover, when early childhood caregivers are responsible for more children than they can manage, it increases their stress and can result in the loss of the caregiver’s self-control. Indeed, the presence of a second caregiver has been associated with a lower likelihood of child abuse in the child care settings.*
 
In addition to ensuring that young children are cared for in healthy and safe environments, children who are cared for in ECE settings with lower child-to-staff ratios receive more stimulating and responsive care, and engage in more verbal interactions with their caregivers. Such interactions can foster the secure attachments that are critical for children’s socioemotional well-being and lay the foundation for children’s ability to build healthy relationships in the future. Lower child-to-staff ratios and smaller group sizes have also been associated with children’s positive development, including higher social competence, communication and language skills, and cognitive development.
 
Low child-to-staff ratios are critical to ensuring that children receive adequate care and supervision. Low ratios also set the stage for high-quality interactions between caregivers and children that can promote children’s well-being. Widening these ratios will pose a threat to children’s development, health, and safety. 

-Brenda Miranda, Research Scientist
Child Trends
(cross posted with permission from Child Trends, June 15, 2017)
 
*Howes, C. (1990). Current research on early day care. In S. S. Chehrazi (Ed.), Psychosocial issues in day care (pp. 21-53). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.