Kids spend time queuing up for help in UD researchers' analysis of child care regulations

Kids spend time queuing up for help in UD researchers' analysis of child care regulations

Regulating child-staff ratios, group sizes and caregiver qualifications "is too blunt an instrument" for improving the overall quality of U.S. child care, UD researchers report in the new "Economics of Education Review."

While smaller group sizes and child-staff ratios clearly increase the amount of time children spend focused on learning tasks, the regulatory push toward more individualized child care most likely would result in higher prices for parents, say James G. Mulligan and Saul D. Hoffman, UD professors of economics.

And, they add, even well-intended regulations may reduce the flexibility of child care providers to offer high-quality care.

Although child-staff ratios, group sizes and caregiver training are regulated in most states, the research linking these factors to child care quality is not particularly strong. To rectify that and to study ways of increasing the quality of care while holding the lid on costs, the researchers applied a "queuing model" to study child care situations. This, they say, should help correct the lack of any solid evidence and careful analysis of the likely effects of regulation on the quality of child care.

Queuing models are widely used to describe and analyze service environments in which "customers" need help and "servers" provide it, all on a random basis. They are frequently used to determine staffing needs in emergency rooms or in fast food restaurants, where service needs arise in random fashion, but, until now, they have not been applied to child care situations.

With the queuing model and national data on child-care outcomes, the UD researchers were able to determine how the quality of child care (that is the amount of time children spent on task) would vary with changes in the child-staff rations, class sizes and caregiver skills.

With any queuing model, information on the rates at which service needs occur and are attended to can be used to calculate how long a queue is likely to be for a given staff size and a desire to keep a queue to a specified average or maximum length.

Mulligan and Hoffman adapt this model to child care by describing the children as the "customers" and the child care staff as they "servers."

The queuing model captures the randomness of both the timing of a child's need for direct attention and of the time it takes a caregiver to attend to the child. Thus, the model provides a direct link between child-staff ratios, group size and caregiver qualifications. It also measures the quality of the child care setting by looking at the amount of time the child is engaged "on task" and the extent of the interactions between the caregivers and the children.

To implement their queuing model, Mulligan and Hoffman assume that children in a child care environment alternate between two behavioral states. In one, they are engaged in an activity and function either independently or in a group in a productive manner without need of individual attention. They refer to this as 'on task' time."

In the other state, the children are 'off task' and require the direct intervention of a caregiver. Off-task events would include things like a child's need to be fed, changed, comforted or directed to another activity, depending on the child's age and the range of activities offered.

In this framework, the child care staff designs an appropriate set of activities and then responds to the needs of the children. The caregivers interact with the children when they need assistance and spend the remainder of their time observing the children and monitoring activities, while offering positive encouragement when appropriate.

While most child care advocates generally say they need more resources, they aren't looking at the issues the way economists do--which is to see how to allocate existing resources in the most efficient way, the researchers say.

Child advocates do not normally make a distinction between regulations concerning health and safety issues, which are difficult for parents to assess, and those affecting the quality of the care given, which is more easily monitored by parents.

Quality child care can be achieved in may ways, yet regulations--no matter how well-intended they may be--can reduce a child care center's flexibility in providing the desired level of quality sought by parents.

For example, the highly touted national child care system in France that relies on well-trained caregivers and much higher child-staff ratios than in the U.S. would be ruled out as an option by current regulations in most states.

In sum, Mulligan and Hoffman suggest that limiting parental choice to low child-staff ratios but relatively lower-average quality caregivers may have the unintended effect of lowering overall quality while raising the cost of child care.


For press release information, contact:
Beth Thomas, (302) 831-8749

May 15, 1998

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