New insights: Daycare centers and children in Switzerland

What effect does attending child care services have on the educational development and social behavior of preschool children? On behalf of the Jacobs Foundation, Professor Andreas Balthasar has drawn up a White Paper that provides some answers. He explains in our interview why its findings are so noteworthy.

The White Paper “A commitment to early childhood: Focusing on the child” is the first to be based on high-quality data from Switzerland. Why is that so important?
Policymakers need sound scientific evidence if they are to make sound decisions. Past studies have shown the benefits of policy engagement in the area of early childhood, but in many cases these studies are outdated, fail to consider typically Swiss conditions, or are limited to a short observation period. The three studies included in this White Paper are particularly valuable because they overcame those weaknesses. They take into account the Swiss context – Switzerland’s child care services, its school system and its culture – and they are longitudinal, continuing for up to 20 years and even longer.

What have the studies found? Are the effects of child care services positive or negative?
The relationship between children’s development and child care services is quite complex. The particular value of these studies, in my view, lies in their nuanced results, which shed light on both positive and negative effects. It appears that under certain conditions, child care services may be associated with problem behaviors such as aggressiveness and anxiety.

Overall, however, the positive effects outweigh the negative. For example, there is a positive correlation between attending a daycare center school and school progress – reflected in such measures as better grades in math and a higher probability of attending the most academically demanding secondary school type, the Gymnasium.

The White Paper draws three conclusions for policy. What are they?
The studies suggest that if child care services are to have the best possible effect, three things need to be kept in mind:

  • First, the length of time a child spends in child care services is important: Effects are most positive when children attend early childhood education and care (ECEC) programs two or three days a week.
  • Care quality is crucial: Simply put, the higher the quality, the better – for fostering the child’s development as well as for preventing negative behaviors.
  • Support for language development is the key to success: When disadvantaged children receive language support at an early age, they require less support later on in their schooling.

The three studies in the White Paper were conducted by several research institutes. However, there are certainly still gaps in our understanding. What additional research is needed so that we can make child care in Switzerland both effective and efficient?
First, we need good data. Switzerland’s Federal Statistical Office starts collecting data about children’s educational trajectories as soon as they enter school, and later information is gathered about their careers. What we lack is data about early childhood education. Since the cantons are responsible for this area, we need an initiative – possibly organized by the Conference of Cantonal Social Services Directors – aimed at having the cantons make systematic efforts to collect information about ECEC and submit it to the Federal Statistical Office.

A second important gap relates to the gathering of information and the evaluation of the quality of early childhood education. First of all, we need to define what quality means, and then we need to develop and test survey instruments. Large-scale surveys should subsequently be carried out to learn more about these issues. The QualiKita Standard developed by the Jacobs Foundation could then be used as a tool to further enhance quality in day care centres.

The first steps have been taken to analyze the effects of early childhood education in Switzerland, but much more remains to be done!

Andreas Balthasar, Interface

Professor Andreas Balthasar teaches at the University of Lucerne. His research focuses on health care and evidence-based policy-making. Professor Balthasar founded the private research institute Interface in 1991 and advises a number of federal departments on matters of evaluation and strategy.

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