Starting childcare early affects personality traits in adolescence
Over the past two decades, many European countries have passed laws mandating universal childcare as a way of supporting parental employment and promoting child development. As a result, early childhood education and care (ECEC) has become an important part of children’s lives and education. In many European countries, ECEC participation rates have increased among children under the age of three (average rates in the OECD countries rose from 29% to 34% between 2006 and 2014), and today nearly all children over the age of three are enrolled in some form of public childcare.
ECEC matters, not least because participation in it influences children’s transition to school and eventual educational attainment. A number of studies have shown that public childcare attendance affects cognitive and health outcomes, but also non-cognitive aspects, for example the socioemotional behavior of children of primary school age. Fewer studies have examined medium-term outcomes in the teenage years or later outcomes, such as university enrollment or income in early adulthood.
My colleagues Maximilian Bach and Josefine Koebe and I set out to explore how attending day care early in life influences certain later outcomes, and in particular the personality traits of 15-year-olds.
In our study we focus on Germany, and specifically federal states in the western part of Germany. There public childcare attendance rates have increased substantially since the mid-1990s, initially among children over the age of three (30% in 1991, 54% in 2003, 93% in 2016) and then among children under three (12% in 2009, 23% in 2016). Since public childcare attendance is an important part of children’s lives not only in Germany, but in other developed countries as well, our findings are likely to be of broader relevance.
The study is based on two representative nationwide panel data sets. Using data from the German National Education Panel and the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, we focus on adolescents for whom we have information about age of entry into day care and examine their personality traits at about age 15. We use the instrumental variables approach, which is widely used in econometrics, to exploit differences in attendance rates across districts (Kreise) in western Germany in 1998. This technique allows us to determine how entering public childcare one year earlier than comparable children affects personality traits in adolescence.
Across districts in western Germany, the ratio of public childcare slots to children ranged from 44% to 92% in 1998. Accordingly, there were substantial differences in the ages at which children born in 1994 and 1995 began public childcare. We compare two groups of adolescents: those who had entered childcare in the year they turned three because they lived in a district with more available slots and those who had started attending childcare in the year they turned four. This allows us to rule out the possibility that the timing of childcare entry is systematically related to other characteristics of children, e.g. their parental background.
Skills developed early in life beget further skills later on, and early skill development benefits from high-quality childcare institutions. We argue that starting public childcare early, and therefore spending a longer time period in these institutions, may have a positive effect on the development of such non-cognitive characteristics as personality traits.
“We argue that starting public childcare early may have a positive effect on the development of such non-cognitive characteristics as personality traits.”
We show that within a district, there is a strong positive correlation between children’s age at childcare entry and the availability of childcare slots. We find that on average, each additional public childcare slot that was made available resulted in nearly one child starting childcare a year earlier. Based on this relationship, we further seek to determine what effect an additional year of public childcare has on the traits in adolescence that are among the Big Five Inventory of personality traits. Some of these traits have been shown to be predictive of later educational attainment and labor market success.
”The Big Five” personality traits comprise five basic psychological dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. “Openness to experience” refers to an individual’s willingness to learn, “conscientiousness” implies a tendency to be organized and responsible, “extroversion” measures an individual’s sociability, “agreeableness” suggests a propensity to cooperate, and “neuroticism” (emotional instability) refers to a tendency to be anxious or insecure.
We find that earlier entry into public childcare has a positive impact on extroversion. Adolescents who started earlier are more likely to be communicative and assertive than those who started a year later because fewer slots were available. Those who entered public childcare at age three are also more likely to be conscientious and open to new experiences.
“Further investments in high-quality early childhood education and care therefore benefit not only children themselves, but society at large.”
Extroversion and conscientiousness are both personality traits that influence later life outcomes. Studies have shown that people with these traits are more likely to complete advanced degrees and subsequently earn higher wages. A psychological study suggests that individuals who score high on extroversion are better able to respond appropriately to negative life events, as they can draw on support from others.
Since personality traits are important predictors of later life outcomes, and since the development of these traits begins in early childhood, access to public childcare can have a significant impact on an individual’s employment status and income in adulthood. Further investments in high-quality early childhood education and care therefore benefit not only children themselves, but society at large.