The early period of a child’s life is often referred to as the formative years because of the lasting impact (both positive and negative) it can have throughout life. With this in mind, new research reported on has revealed that the quality of daycare at an early age can influence a child’s behavior as well as the ability to learn.

In what is deemed the largest and most authoritative study to examine child rearing in this country, researchers followed more than 1,300 children over the course of nearly 11 years and found that poor cooperation and lower performance in school were associated with low quality care during the first 4 1/2 years of life. The negative effect lasted until their 15th birthdays, when the study stopped monitoring, thereby suggesting a lifelong potential for behavior and learning problems.

The federally funded study, which was published in the journal Child Development, was initiated in 1991 as parents began to turn to childcare outside the family circle. Concern over this trend led experts in several states to track the progress of infants from various backgrounds that encompassed a variety of ethnicities, races, and economic backgrounds.

Detailed information was gathered about the nature and quality of the daycare the kids received until the age of 4 1/2. Daycare was evaluated based on whether the caregivers were parents, relatives, nannies, babysitters or daycare providers, and quality was measured by the demeanor of the caregiver (warmth and sensitivity), availability of emotional support, and the level of mental stimulation.

The children were measured on academic and cognitive skills, and parents and teachers were interviewed to gauge the behavior of the children. The findings support previous research: Higher quality daycare resulted in toddlers having fewer behavior problems, and higher scores in math, reading, and other cognitive skills throughout elementary school.

The endurance of the daycare influence was what most intrigued researchers. Conventional wisdom has indicated that any negative effects incurred during a child’s early years would disappear over time, especially as the influence of peers and teachers became more prominent and as the child matured. The most recent data suggests that this is not the case. Interestingly, the study's results imply that children who spent more time in child care of any kind were more prone to risky behavior and impulsiveness in later years.

While the findings do not make a parent’s life any easier, they do underscore the importance of knowing what sort of environment your kids are spending their days in, and that this environment can have a lasting influence on the growth and development of your children.