A Longitudinal Study of Rural Low-Income Children's Experiences With Child Care Instability

Over the last forty years, mothers have entered the workforce in record numbers, such that 60% of mothers return to work within one year of their child’s birth. The economic challenges faced by poor and working-class families have created an especially strong need for mothers to work outside of the home. Furthermore, in rural areas marked by high poverty, families often experience irregular employment, exemplified by shift, part-time, or seasonal work, and parents frequently work several jobs in order to meet their family’s needs. Poverty and geographic isolation associated with rurality have placed severe stressors on families who often drive long distances to jobs, health services, child care, and schools, while juggling work and family schedules and unreliable transportation. These challenges have left many families, but especially poor and rural families, struggling to find access to child care settings offering beneficial environments for their children. These constraints are likely associated with greater child care instability, which for this project is defined as sequential changes in child care settings over time (i.e., starts/stops in care).

Even in low-risk samples, child care instability from birth to age five is common. Based on attachment and sociocultural theories, child care instability has been perceived as negative for children due to its disruption of early child-adult and child-peer relationships. Several studies have found a negative association between child care instability and children’s later social outcomes, including poor attachment security, increased teacher-child conflict, and poor social adjustment, but limited work has explored the relationship between child care instability and later academic outcomes. Despite evidence suggesting that instability is negative for children, no study has used rigorous statistical models to account for family selection into child care or followed children through third grade to determine if potential negative influences of child care instability are long-lasting. Furthermore, no study has sought to understand the mechanisms by which instability may influence children’s longitudinal outcomes, such as child attachment behaviors and learning behaviors. These research gaps are especially apparent for rural families. This study will utilize data from the Family Life Project (FLP), which oversampled for low-income and African American families to create a high-risk representative sample of every baby born to rural mothers in six high-poverty counties (N = 1,292).12 Family, child, and child care information was solicited at 11 time points from 6 to 48 months. Outcome data were collected at 4 time points from kindergarten to third grade. FLP data are well situated to study child care instability and meet the following aims:

Aim 1: Examine a) the extent to which child care instability experienced from 6–48 months is associated with children’s social development from kindergarten through third grade and b) whether children’s attachment behaviors (as measured in the home at 48 months) serve as a process mechanism through which these associations take place, after statistically reducing the influence of family selection bias through propensity score matching.

Aim 2: Examine a) the extent to which child care instability experienced from 6–48 months is associated with children’s academic development from kindergarten through third grade and b) whether children’s learning behaviors (as measured in the home and at pre-K at 48 months) serve as a process mechanism through which these associations take place, after statistically reducing the influence of family selection bias through propensity score matching.

FPG Project Staff:
Mary E. Bratsch-Hines, Principal Investigator
Margaret R. Burchinal, Senior Research Scientist
Lynne Vernon-Feagans, Senior Research Scientist
Funding Agency: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Funding Period: 09/01/2017 - 08/31/2019
Amount Awarded To Date: $77,750
Total Award Amount: $152,000