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Attending daycare can equalize social differences

Study shows that socially disadvantaged children benefit highly from institutional care.

Children's competencies develop differently from a young age - especially because the development and learning opportunities in their families differ. A new study using data from the National Educational Panel Study shows that attending a daycare facility is particularly beneficial for children from socially disadvantaged families. Differences in cognitive competencies based on origin can thus be reduced. However, it is problematic that children from disadvantaged families are much more affected by a lack of childcare opportunities than those from more privileged backgrounds.

The home learning environment plays a central role in the cognitive, social and emotional development of young children. How much children learn depends heavily on the social and economic background of the family. Attending a daycare center (Kita), on the other hand, can benefit children regardless of the conditions at home because they learn different things there than at home, for example through interaction with children of the same age or through contact with educational concepts.

Daycare attendance depends on social status
The study, which is based on longitudinal data from 992 children in the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), has now revealed which children benefit particularly strongly from institutional care in their development. The results show that children from more advantaged families are more likely to attend a childcare facility at the age of two than children from socially disadvantaged homes. However, the latter benefit more from attending in terms of their cognitive skills, for example in mathematics or vocabulary. In contrast, attending a childcare facility does not benefit children from families with a very high social and economic status in terms of their cognitive skills. It even tends to have a negative effect on their mathematical skills. Regardless of their background, the attending of daycare strengthens the social-emotional skills of all children.

What if?
In their study, the researchers were able to show that attending a daycare center reduces the social disparities in children's skills and can have a socially equalizing effect. Prof. Dr. Corinna Kleinert from the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories says: "Our simulations with a 'what if' scenario show that If all children attended daycare, social inequalities in competencies would be lower than they are today. However, if all children were cared for exclusively by their parents, social inequalities in development would increase."

Further expansion of daycare centers would help
The researchers view the access to institutional childcare in Germany critically. Although the benefits are greatest for less well-off families in particular, only 35% of children from these families attend a childcare facility by the age of two. In contrast, children from better-off families are 60% more likely to attend a daycare center. Despite an existing legal entitlement to institutional childcare, the actual take-up rate depends heavily on the social and economic background of the parents. The researchers therefore not only demand a further increase in the number of childcare places, but also easier access for disadvantaged children. Both would be a worthwhile long-term investment by the state in reducing social inequality and generally enhancing children's skills.

All results of the study can be found in the full transfer report „Führt ein Kitabesuch zu einer Angleichung sozialer Unterschiede?“  (German language only) [Transfer report as PDF

Original literature
Ghirardi, G., Baier, T., Kleinert, C., & Triventi, M. (2023). Is early formal childcare an equalizer? How attending childcare and education centres affects children’s cognitive and socio-emotional skills in Germany. European Sociological Review, 39(5), 692–707.

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