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Studies find day-care children more competitive

The opening article of this series (Oct. 7) examined the effects of day care on a child's academic performance in early school years. Today's article looks at its effect on a child's social behavior. SANDRA Gotkin has taught kindergarten in Brookline, Mass., an affluent suburb of Boston, for 14 years. Commenting on her kindergartners, she notes, ``As a group they're more competitive -- and those who are not, I think, stick out more.''

She points out, too, that current kindergartners tend to be more ``demanding of adult attention,'' something that might well result from long experience in competing for such attention in a day-care setting.

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What are this longtime teacher's impressions of the effects of day care on the children she teaches?

``I think we've gained in some respects and lost in some respects,'' Mrs. Gotkin says. On the plus side, she finds that children from good day-care programs ``listen for longer periods and know a little bit more about sharing.'' The main minus she sees is the loss of ``a certain kind of playfulness'' that comes from spending time by oneself, ``more introspective play, fantasy.''

For young children, day care is, perhaps above all else, an intensive socializing experience. They are in the company of their peers -- often a dozen or more of them -- at a younger age and for longer periods of time than would have been the case in past generations.

Some researchers view this as having a marked effect on the behavior of children. Ron Haskins, until recently at the University of North Carolina and now a congressional science fellow in Washington, says that studies have indicated that day-care children ``are more outgoing, that they initiate social contact more easily.'' On the other hand, he continues, research also shows that children who have spent a significant portion of their time in group care tend to be more aggressive.

Dr. Haskins points out that ``aggressive'' is a word open to interpretation. Call it ``assertive,'' he says, and the negative connotation is largely gone. Gotkin's term, ``competitive,'' may fit in the same general category of behavior. Essentially, what's being described is something akin to self-confidence or independence at an earlier age, and, often, some tendency to resist or challenge authority.

Alison Clarke-Stewart, a professor of child development at the University of California at Irvine, agrees that most research is ``consistent'' in finding some increase in assertiveness among children in day care. But you have to understand the context of these studies, she affirms. Many of them focus on ``kids from poor families who've been waited on hand and foot'' in a day-care center or Head Start program, she explains. When they leave the program for regular school, they are suddenly bereft of the i ndividual attention they've been used to -- for many, a frustrating experience. ``For a time they act out a bit,'' Dr. Clarke-Stewart says.

Another possible reason for assertive behavior among day-care children, suggests Haskins, is their tendency to get used to ``peer norms,'' rather than the standards of behavior held up by adults. Since a large portion of their preschool years are spent with children their own age -- a much different experience from being in the company of younger or older siblings, Haskins says -- their ideas of suitable behavior are heavily influenced by interaction with other youngsters. Aggressiveness, in

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this context, may become a ``strategic ploy,'' he says.

As with intellectual development, however, any effects of day care on behavior tend to wear off as children enter school. Leslie Isler, from Wayne State University in Detroit, says that differences between children ``soon equalize as kids move through the elementary grades.'' For one thing, she explains, children from home-care backgrounds ``soon find some independence.'' Concurrently, youngsters from day care quickly discover that ``schoolteachers do not like aggressiveness,'' says Haskins, and most of

them modify their behavior accordingly.

Although the majority of scholars contacted see evidence that day care can have some effect on children's behavior, some emphasize that findings are far from conclusive.

Jerome Kagan, an education professor at Harvard, for instance, says that day care is not likely to have much more influence on a child's behavior, on his or her sense of discipline, than summer camp has. ``Would you do an article on the impact of summer camp?'' he asks.

Dr. Kagan, who at one point helped design a day-care program in the Boston area and closely observed the children who went through the program, firmly states that home, not a child-care facility, `is still the primary influence'' on young children.

All researchers stress that the quality of care being provided is a key variable. Bettye Caldwell, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas, observes that some parents feel day-care environments are ``too permissive.'' She notes, too, that the staffs of many centers are simply overrun by ``too many children clamoring for attention.''

But these issues are going to be handled at well-run day-care facilities, she says, and problems with aggressiveness should proportionately decrease. Day-care providers can be trained to show children that there are alternatives to aggressive behavior, she and others assert.

``Remember,'' says Dr. Caldwell, ``there's good day care and bad day care, just like there're good parents and bad parents.''

Tomorrow: The effect of day care on a child's values.

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