Background: Socially disadvantaged children with academic difficulties at school entry are at increased risk for poor health and psychosocial outcomes. Our objective is to test the possibility that participation in childcare – at the population level – could attenuate the gap in academic readiness and achievement between children with and without a social disadvantage (indexed by low levels of maternal education).
Methods: A cohort of infants born in the Canadian province of Quebec in 1997/1998 was selected through birth registries and followed annually until 7 years of age (n = 1,863). Children receiving formal childcare (i.e., center-based or non-relative out-of-home) were distinguished from those receiving informal childcare (i.e., relative or nanny). Measures from 4 standardized tests that assessed cognitive school readiness (Lollipop Test for School Readiness), receptive vocabulary (Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test Revised), mathematics (Number Knowledge Test), and reading performance (Kaufman Assessment Battery for children) were administered at 6 and 7 years.
Results: Children of mothers with low levels of education showed a consistent pattern of lower scores on academic readiness and achievement tests at 6 and 7 years than those of highly educated mothers, unless they received formal childcare. Specifically, among children of mothers with low levels of education, those who received formal childcare obtained higher school readiness (d = 0.87), receptive vocabulary (d = 0.36), reading(d = 0.48) and math achievement scores (d = 0.38; although not significant at 5%) in comparison with those who were cared for by their parents. Childcare participation was not associated with cognitive outcomes among children of mothers with higher levels of education.
Conclusions: Public investments in early childcare are increasing in many countries with the intention of reducing cognitive inequalities between disadvantaged and advantaged children. Our findings provide further evidence suggesting that formal childcare could represent a preventative means of attenuating effects of disadvantage on children’s early academic trajectory.