Do crèches cause aggression?

By Claudia Grah-Wittich, March 2014

Children cared for in crèches suffer from massive stress claims Rainer Böhm, head of the Social Education Centre in Bethel. The rise in the “stress hormone cortisol” corresponded to the levels in highly stressed top managers.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Claudia Grah-Wittich from the “Haus des Kindes” in Frankfurt-Niederursel counters stress with good care.

The stress which affects crèche children leads, as Böhm says, to an increase in infections and atopic dermatitis. Furthermore a permanent rise in the stress hormone not only had a harmful effect on specific regions of the developing brain but led in the short term to behavioural problems and in the long term to an increased risk of psychiatric disorders such as depression or anxiety.

Böhm refers mainly to a longitudinal study carried out since 1991 by the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) in the USA. It has shown that former crèche children display an increase in aggressive-impulsive behavioural problems during puberty. These problems became more pronounced the earlier the child started in crèche and the longer her or she spent there.

Susanne Viernickel, professor of early childhood education, has doubts about the transferability of the study to Germany. The German education system was more strongly regulated than in the USA. Almost anyone could open a crèche in the latter. Furthermore, a gradual introduction was standard in Germany while it was almost unknown in the USA. Viernickel points out that so far no study, including the NICHD one, has been able to show whether crèche children develop better or worse than children cared for at home. Since there is a lack of long-term experience and academics themselves are still looking for an explanation, Viernickel advises caution with regard to the subject of cortisol. She warns against stoking general fears about the care provided by crèches.

Wolfgang Hartmann, head of the Professional Association of Paediatricians, and Carola Bindt, deputy director of child psychiatry at the Hamburg University Clinic, also cast doubt on Böhm’s assessment. Cortisol might be a warning signal but its meaning has not yet been sufficiently researched.

The most favourable environment for the small child is the family

Böhm rightly draws attention to a possible problem. After all, who wants to be responsible for causing health problems by sending their children to a crèche? But trained educators or concerned parents do not need the measurement of hormone levels to be able to tell how the child is doing. They can judge it just as well by using their “common sense” and looking at the appearance and behaviour of the child. The most favourable environment for small children is undoubtedly their familiar home in which they are surrounded by the members of their most immediate family to whom they relate most closely. This is where the needs of the child can be best met; here sustainable individual habits can be developed quite naturally.

As educators, we should encourage parents to ask themselves whether they have taken up a place in a crèche only on the basis of social fashion trends or on the basis of unavoidable circumstances in the life of the family. The aim is neither to make a judgement nor to provoke a bad conscience. We should encourage parents not to miss out on the most precious time with their child. On the other hand it is, of course, our concern as Waldorf educators to offer the best possible crèche places to children whose familial situation only allows for this solution. That parents should have a free choice is not just politically important but also appropriate. Modern society can no longer be thought without care facilities and that will not change. But the experiences of many educators and the research on cortisol levels draw our attention to the fact that the conditions for children in many facilities today are not optimal and will tend to get worse as a result of financial pressures which are already making themselves felt. Since I have made my way through the landscape of private and municipal providers as a consultant, I have noted that in many instances the dignity of the child is not considered. The loss of natural instincts in bringing up children and of experience-based parenting knowledge also threatens the health of children. How, then, can we as parents and families reconcile our task to bring up children and a job without damaging the children?

Denying children dignity

Many people who deal with children do not know what the dignity of the child means in concrete terms and what kind of inner attitude is required to preserve it. That is true not just of our crèches. The denial of dignity starts with the “fashionable” wish for a caesarean, continues with inappropriate clothing and dietary habits through to damaging their senses while shopping in the supermarket or while in public playgrounds and in the subway – to name but a few examples. The rights of children are currently asserted as a matter of course in situations in which they are visibly violated: when there is violence, abuse and a risk to the wellbeing of the child. But what happens with regard to the children who, instead of their name “Charlie”, hear the shrill cry “Chaaarleee” for the twentieth time in half an hour and who are permanently mistreated with shouts such as “Chaaarleee noho!”, “Not you again”, “Stop it”, “How many more times do I have to tell you?”

Good care can be seen in the way we address children, how we look after them and offer an environment in which they learn to understand themselves as free, autonomous beings on the way to independence. Communication with infants and small children is often described using the term “baby talk”: this does not refer to “coochie coochie coo” but to when we enter into a dialogue with the child through expressions and words, communicate to him or her: “I perceive you and your needs.” This strengthens the life forces of the child and serves as the basis for establishing a secure bond. It applies above all to the daily routine in the crèche.

Crèches in our society not only have the task of looking after children but they should also contribute to creating an awareness of the special nature of the first years of life for children’s wellbeing. In times like ours, the child’s developmental needs must become a central common task of crèche and parents. Instead of arguing about cortisol levels, a number of concrete tasks should be tackled.

Educational facilities should become aware of the importance of their health-bringing resources, form networks and work rigorously on the quality of their care; document their activities and work on binding educational and medical guidelines; recognise the importance of the partnership with the parents and put it professionally into practice; develop provisions for parents which make the connection between education and the promotion of health comprehensible and create individual childcare provisions for the specific family.

That requires insight from us and a corresponding attitude of awareness. We require self-knowledge, self-education and self-transformation so that we do not pass on to the children our own encumbrances or wrong kinds of attachment which have been handed down from one generation to the next. The subject of crèches represents an important opportunity to bring to consciousness the importance of the first three years of life, something which cannot be overestimated, and to jolt the conscience of society.

About the author: Claudia Grah-Wittich is a qualified social worker and works in early learning support at the »hof« in Frankfurt-Niederursel. She is one of the persons responsible for the advanced training: “Advising parents – Learning to see children in a new way” (www.der-hof.de). The next course starts in November 2014.

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