Child & Youth Care Forum

, Volume 39, Issue 3, pp 129–150 | Cite as

A Comparative Study of Structural and Process Quality in Center-Based and Family-Based Child Care Services

  • Nathalie Bigras
  • Caroline Bouchard
  • Gilles Cantin
  • Liesette Brunson
  • Sylvain Coutu
  • Lise Lemay
  • Mélissa Tremblay
  • Christa Japel
  • Annie Charron
Original Paper


This study seeks to determine whether center-based and family-based child care services differ with respect to process quality, as measured by the Educative Quality Observation Scales (EQOS, Bourgon and Lavallée 2004a, b, c), for groups of children 18 months old and younger. It also seeks to identify structural variables associated with process quality in these settings. The study included two types of regulated child care settings located in the greater Montreal area (center-based: N = 53 and family-based: N = 36). Results indicate that process quality was lower in family-based child care than in center-based child care for the majority of elements measured by the EQOS. Hierarchical regression analyses indicate that higher levels of process quality were associated with structural variables, including a lower adult-child ratio, the presence of more staff with specialized early childhood education training, and center-based care. The discussion focuses on strategies to improve these types of child care services.


Process quality Structural quality Center-based child care Family-based child care Infant 


Child care services (CCS) for young children have been an integral part of the Western social landscape since mothers of young children have become much more active in the labour market. In Quebec (Canada), the percentage of working mothers with children 6 months old or younger rose from 31.5% in 1976 to 77% in 2006 (Statistique Canada 2006). To meet the needs of families with young children, the Quebec government added three new policy measures to its family policy in 1997. One of these policy measures led to the creation of a network of CCS that was more accessible in terms of both cost and the number of available places. The government committed itself to creating low-cost places in these CCS and to increasing the total number of places available over the following 7 years. These two policy measures were intended to make CCS more accessible and as such, to foster the equality of opportunities for children with regard to subsequent school performance. These policy measures transformed most subsidized, not-for-profit CCS centers and family-based CCS in Quebec into a non-profit network of early childhood centers (officially named CPEs, for Centre de la petite enfance).

Intended for children from birth until kindergarten (5 years old), these new services were meant to enable children “…to benefit from a framework that fosters their development, to gradually become familiar with a stimulating learning environment, and to acquire the skills needed for success in school” (unofficial translation, Gouvernement du Québec 1997). Table 1 illustrates the evolution of available places in Quebec’s CCS between 1998 and 2008 (Gouvernement du Québec 2008).
Table 1

Evolution of the number of places in three types of child care services in Quebec between 1998 and 2008


Non-profit center-based


Profit center-based

Total of places





























































Note: All the three types of child cares services are charge 7$ per day for one child. Source: Agency for Family Services, September 30, 2008

aFor March 31th

bFor September 30th

The implementation of this CPE network was informed by research that demonstrated the importance of making sustained efforts to attenuate the risk factors that compromise child development and to enhance protective factors that support development (Appleyard et al. 2005; Campbell et al. 2002; Hubbs-Tait et al. 2002; Middlemiss 2005; Reynolds et al. 2001). Early research suggested that attending high-quality CCS could be an important protective factor for at-risk children (Burchinal et al. 2000; Capizzano and Adams 2003; NICHD ECCRN 2003, 2005). Even though the main intended beneficiaries of Quebec’s CCS were not necessarily families characterized by socioeconomic insecurity, one of the government’s objectives in developing the CPE network was to facilitate access to high quality educational services for low-income families and for families presenting several risk factors (Gouvernement du Québec 1997).

Recent research into the relationship between out-of-home CCS and child development is based on a more complex definition of the child’s environment than definitions used in early research. It is widely recognized that children’s level of development cannot be explained simply by whether or not they attend child care; it is important to investigate specific characteristics of child care settings that might foster or hinder child development. In addition, researchers recognize that many other related factors have to be taken into account (Li-Grining and Coley 2006; Papero 2005; Vandell 2004; Vortruba-Drzal et al. 2004). Accordingly, recent research often adopts an ecosystemic approach that considers variables present in various contextual systems, from the most proximal to the most distal (Bigras and Japel 2007; Bigras et al. 2004a, b, 2008a, b; Bornstein et al. 2006; Scott-Little et al. 2006).

Among these factors, the quality of CCS has been shown to be particularly important, especially during the first year of life (Aboud 2006; Sylva et al. 2006). Indeed, research shows that infants have particular needs given their young age and their accelerated rate of development (Lally 1998; Surbeck and Kelley 1990). It is argued that these characteristics make them more vulnerable to exposure to less favourable conditions, such as poor quality of care, negative adult-child interactions, or stimulation that is not adapted to their needs (Belsky 2006; Leach et al. 2008).

Two broad families of variables are included in the concept of child care quality: structural quality and process quality (Bigras and Japel 2007; Bigras et al. 2008a, b; Cryer 1999; Doherty et al. 2006). Indicators of structural quality include those characteristics that are often controlled by government regulation. Structural factors most frequently related to child development outcomes include adult-child ratio, group size, and staff training and experience (Tout et al. 2006). Process quality refers to elements related to the activity program and to interactions between staff and children. These elements include child care providers’ warmth and sensitivity, their capacity to organize a physical and social environment that meets the needs of children in relation to their developmental level, and their positive interactions with children and parents.

Process Quality

Process quality is typically measured using observation tools such as the Infant Toddler Environment Rating Scale (ITERS; Harms et al. 1990) and the Family Day Care Rating Scale (FDCRS; Harms and Clifford 1989). Although several studies using these measures have been conducted in the United States and elsewhere in the world (Burchinal et al. 2002a; Phillips et al. 2000; Phillipsen et al. 1997; Scarr et al. 1994), there is little information about the levels of process quality in Quebec’s CCS offered to infants. Questions have been also raised about the applicability of these measures to the context and program of CCS in Quebec. To remedy this problem, Quebec researchers developed the Educative Quality Observation Scales (EQOS, Bourgon and Lavallée 2004a, b, c). This measure makes it possible to assess process quality in relation to the prevailing educational curriculum for child care settings in Quebec in ways that are adapted to the specific age group and child care type (center-based vs. family-based services).

Goelman et al. (2006) pan-Canadian study You Bet I Care! was the first study to measure process quality following the creation of the CPE network in Quebec. Conducted across Canada in 1998, the study’s sample in Québec consisted of 16 groups of toddlers (children less than 30 months old) and 32 groups of preschoolers (children between the ages of 30 months and 5 years old) in non-profit and for-profit child care centers (Goelman et al. 2006). This study indicated that the level of process quality offered to toddlers in these settings, as measured by the ITERS, was lower in Quebec than in other Canadian provinces. Indeed, the quality level was rated as minimal. Note that for this scale the scores were between 1 and 7, with 1 indicating an inadequate level, 3 a minimal level, 5 a good level, and 7 an excellent level. However, as Bigras and Cantin (2007) note, this study was conducted at the same time as the implementation of the most important step in the development of the new CPE network, a factor which might have contributed to the lower scores observed in Quebec compared to CCS in the rest of Canada.

A second wave of this pan-Canadian study focused on family-based child care settings. Conducted in 1999, the study included 42 family-based child care settings in Quebec (Doherty et al. 2006) that were evaluated using the FDCRS. These settings obtained an average score indicative of a minimal level of quality, which was equivalent to scores obtained for the 231 other Canadian family-based child cares services that participated in the study.

Subsequently, a separate study, Quality Counts! (Japel et al. 2005a, b) used the sample of a larger study Étude longitudinale sur le développement des enfants du Québec (ÉLDEQ), to examine child care quality. The ELDEQ study used the same series of measures used in the two waves of the You Bet I Care! study, specifically, the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, Revised, (ECERS-R, Harms et al. 1998b), and its equivalent, the FDCRS to evaluate the quality of CCS. A total of 728 groups in non-profit CPE center-care settings, 296 children in for-profit regulated center-based child care settings, and 337 family-based child care settings were evaluated between 2000 and 2003, when participants were two and a half years old (2000), three and half years old (2001), 4 years old (2002) and 5 years old (2003). The results (Japel et al. 2005a, b) revealed that the majority of the participating CCS displayed minimal quality. In other words, although children’s health and safety were generally not compromised in these services, the educational component was evaluated to be minimal. Only a quarter of the services displayed overall quality levels of good, very good or excellent, and nearly one-eighth of the services were inadequate with respect to the quality of care dispensed to children.

While the results of the latter study are useful for initiating a discussion of child care quality and for understanding the limitations of each type of CCS, it is important to note that these results pertain only to services attended by children over 30 months of age (two and half years old). This study did not investigate the quality of services offered to children less than 30 months old, that is, the population for which the most concerns have been raised regarding child care quality (Belsky 2006; McCartney 2006). Given the significant, deleterious effects that early, long-term experiences in low quality CCS can have on cognitive and socio-affective development (Vandell 2004; Belsky 2006; Leach et al. 2008), it is important for studies of educational service quality to focus specifically on this population.

One additional study of child care quality in Quebec, the Grandir en Qualité study (Drouin et al. 2004), examined process quality in CCS offered to infants as well as older children. This study was conducted in 2003 with more than 800 groups of children in three types of Quebec CCS (341 center-based CPEs, 296 for-profit child care centers, and 155 family-based child care settings). The study was intended to help identify measures to support and improve the quality of Québec government-regulated CCS. It used the new EQOS, that had been developed to evaluate specific characteristics of the educational program applied throughout the Quebec network (e.g., its health and safety standards, the core values and principles of its curriculum). The results indicated that, while the level of CCS quality in Quebec was generally rated as acceptable, there were important variations as a function of the type of service attended. The measurement scale of this quality observation instrument is made up of four levels: scores between 1 and 2.5 indicate insufficient quality; those between 2.5 and 3 are viewed as acceptable; those between 3 and 3.5 are rated as good; and those between 3.5 and 4 are viewed as very good (see “method” section). In particular, it was revealed that center-based child care settings serving children less than 18 months old obtained higher scores on all of the measured dimensions of process quality than did regulated family-based child care settings or center-based child care setting that exclusively served older children.

In sum, the three most important studies of regulated CCS quality in Quebec revealed that the majority of CCS in Quebec were of “minimal” or “acceptable” quality. However, the Grandir en qualité and Quality counts! studies showed that center-based child care settings generally display higher quality levels than those observed in regulated family-based settings. Note that, given the small number of child care centers that participated in the You Bet I Care! study, no claims can be made about higher quality levels in any of the child care types. Results are contradictory with regard to child care quality experienced by children less than 30 months old. Indeed, whereas the most recent study in Quebec (Drouin et al. 2004) revealed higher quality levels for center-based CPEs that serve infants, the earlier pan-Canadian study You Bet I Care ! (Goelman et al. 2006) indicated that CCS serving children less than 30 months displayed the lowest quality scores in Canada. Note that the Quality Counts! study did not measure the CCS quality experienced by children less than 30 months old.

As Bigras et al. (2004a, b) have noted, differences in either the time point (when the studies were conducted) or in the measures used in these two studies may have contributed differences in their results concerning the quality of care offered to infants in Quebec. The earlier 1998 You Bet I Care! study used measures of quality developed outside Quebec and was conducted during a critical time period in the development of the Quebec child care network. The 2003 Grandir en qualité study used measures developed to assess quality specifically in terms of the educational program adopted in Quebec at a time when the network had had time to consolidate. A primary objective of the present study was to examine whether levels of process quality currently offered to infants in the Quebec network differ across two types of child care settings (center-based vs. family-based). While international research indicates that the key elements of quality are fairly universal, Quebec child care researchers have developed quality measures that assess these elements in the particular context of the Quebec Child Care Educational Program (Gouvernement du Québec. 2007).

Structural Quality

In considering structural quality, the literature repeatedly stresses the importance of considering child care workers’ education level and specialized training in early childhood education, their participation in ongoing education activities, and their job satisfaction, as well as the setting’s adult-child ratio and overall group size (de Schipper et al. 2007; Gerber et al. 2007; Goelman et al. 2006; Saracho and Spodek 2007; Zaslow and Martinez-Beck 2006). These variables are among those that have been most strongly and regularly associated with higher process quality scores for CCS. These relationships are viewed as particularly important because of policy leverage; influencing these structural variables may foster greater process quality.

In previous work by Fukkink and Lont (2007), child care workers with a higher level of education (university and college) provide better personal care (Davis et al. 1996; Honig and Hirallal 1998), are more sensitive to children’s needs (Burchinal et al. 2002; Clarke-Stewart et al. 2002; Ghazvini and Mullis 2002; Honig and Hirallal 1998; Howes 1997), have more frequent interactions with children (Blau 1997; Burchinal et al. 2002; Ghazvini and Mullis 2002), and are more knowledgeable about appropriate educational practices (Siraj-Blatchford et al. 2002) than child care workers with lower educational levels.

Other work has shown that child care workers who have a specialized diploma or degree in early childhood education provide higher quality CCSs than do workers without such training (Fukkink and Lont 2007; Ghazvini &Mullis 2002; Saracho and Spodek 2006, 2007; Tout et al. 2006). Child care workers with specialized training in early childhood education are better prepared to provide an environment that is adapted to children’s developmental level. They are better equipped to plan and provide varied and stimulating activities that foster children’s social, language and cognitive development, and they have more knowledge about implementing an educational program that promotes the development of children’s ability to understand (Saracho and Spodek 2007).

Ongoing education activities (i.e., participation in professional development activities while employed) also appears to be closely related to higher levels of process quality (Burchinal et al. 2002). Both Fukkink and Lont (2007) and Norris (2001) report that family-based child care providers who regularly participate in professional development activities provide higher quality services than those who participate less. In Quebec, the Grandir en Qualité study (Drouin et al. 2004), conducted with, among others, a sample of 155 family-based CCS, confirms the importance of the regularity of ongoing education as a predictor of process quality in both family-based and center-based child care.

The authors of the You Bet I Care! study (Doherty et al. 2006; Goelman et al. 2006) also note that the job satisfaction of child care workers, another structural quality variable, is associated with higher process quality scores. The claim was also supported in results documented by Drouin et al. (2004) in the Grandir en Qualité 2003 study, which showed that family-based child care providers’ job satisfaction was positively associated with overall quality and with the quality of the relationships they maintained with both children and their parents. The job satisfaction of child care workers who worked with infants in center-based care was also related to the quality of interactions with parents.

Lastly, with regard to the characteristics of the group in which children find themselves, it is acknowledged that a larger group size (i.e., a greater number of children) and a higher adult-child ratio are associated with lower process quality levels, as much for center-based as for family-based child care settings (Bellm and Whitebook 2004; de Schipper et al. 2007; Dowsett et al. 2008; Gerber et al. 2007; Pessanha et al. 2007). For example, de Schipper et al. (2006), observed lower quality interactions between child care workers and children when groups had more children (5 vs. 3), especially when the groups were composed of children less than 2 years old. In light of these studies, it would appear that the quality of center-based and family-based CCS are not influenced by the same structural characteristics. As such, it is important to examine the differences between these two types of child care. Accordingly, a second objective of the present study was to compare the structural characteristics that predict process quality for center-based and family-based child cares in Quebec.

Differences Between Center-Based and Family-Based Child Care Settings

Several studies have noted that, given their varying levels of quality, the type of CCS also needs to be taken into account when attempting to understand the effects of child care attendance on children (Belsky 2006; Drouin et al. 2004; Goelman et al. 2006; Japel et al. 2005a, b; Leach et al. 2008; Love et al. 2005; Van Beijsterveldt et al. 2005). Dowsett et al. (2008) compared the characteristics of structural and process quality found in CCS provided by family members, center-based child care, and in family-based child care. They reported consistent differences in the characteristics of these different types of services when children were 2, 3 and 4 years old. While child care centers had higher adult-child ratios and larger group sizes, their staff was more likely to have higher education levels and specialized training in early childhood education. In this light, it is interesting to note that Dowsett et al. (2008) found that children who attended center-based care received more cognitive stimulation, had more language interactions with adults, experienced fewer negative interactions with adults, and watched less television than children attending other types of CCS (Dowsett et al. 2008). Perhaps higher levels of training allow center-based staff to deliver higher quality services, despite larger group sizes and higher adult-child ratios.

Other studies report that center-based child care settings provide children with more space and more toys and educational materials than that which is available in other types of CCS (Love et al. 2003; Vandell 2004; Van Beijsterveldt et al. 2005). In centers, educational activities are more structured, spatial organization is better adapted to children’s needs, and the educational program is applied more faithfully (Fuller et al. 2004; NICHD ECCRN 2004). As Bigras et al. (2004a, b) note in this regard, the Grandir en Qualité study found that the level of quality of center-based child cares (specifically CPEs) serving infants was higher than that found in family-based child care settings.

In sum, recent research on child care quality conducted in Quebec, Canada and elsewhere consistently reports that center-based CCS have higher process quality scores than family-based CCS. These studies also note the importance of taking into account structural variables related to the group of children (ratio and size) and to the child care staff (education, specialized training in early childhood education, participation in ongoing educational activities, and job satisfaction) when seeking to identify the elements that promote or inhibit process quality as measured by valid observational instruments. However, few studies have examined structural predictors of process quality in CCS offered to infants in different types of child care settings.

Research Objectives

The present study is in line with previous research on educational child care quality conducted in Quebec. The instruments used in this study to measure process and structural quality are adapted to Quebec’s realities and context. This study’s first objective was to determine whether center-based and family-based CCS serving infants in Quebec differ with respect to process quality scores measured by the EQOS. The second objective was to identify the structural quality characteristics associated with higher process quality scores in these two types of settings.


Participants and Recruitment Method

This study’s sample, which is part of a larger longitudinal and correlational study, is made up of two groups (53 center-based child care settings and 36 family-based child care settings) from 89 Quebec regulated CCS serving children 18 months old or younger. The CCS that agreed to participate in this study were all located in the greater Montreal area. Observations were conducted with groups that included at least one study child.

Recruitment took place between 2005 and 2006. CCS located in the greater Montreal area were recruited to participate in a larger longitudinal study of children entering child care in the first year of life. Letters describing the research project were sent to child care centers and to the coordinating offices that manage and monitor regulated family-based child care settings. In Quebec, a coordinating office for family based child care is a CCS permit holder who is Ministry-accredited to coordinate CCS offered by family based providers in a given territory. As a follow up to the letter, management personnel were contacted by telephone. In addition, the director of the research project went to all the monthly meetings that took place in the fall of 2006 in order to present the project directly to family-based child care providers. In the event a provider was interested in participating, he or she filled out a form at the meeting and was contacted over the following few days to confirm the interest of the parents whose child met the selection criteria.

In total, 200 center-based child cares (100 in the Monteregie region and 100 in Montreal) were contacted, 53 of which are included in the present study (36 in the Monteregie region and 17 in Montreal). Twenty-nine family-based child care coordinating offices (14 in the Monteregie region and 15 in Montreal) were contacted, 23 of which (13 in the Monteregie region and 10 in Montreal) invited us to present the project to their respective providers during a monthly meeting. Coordinating offices gave two reasons for not participating in the study: participation in other studies and recent changes to administrative rules. For their part, providers gave refusal motives invoking an absence of children less than 1-year-old at the time of recruitment or a reluctance to participate in a longitudinal study that entailed several direct observation sessions (providers were worried that the presence of a stranger during the observation periods would upset the children’s routine).

Table 2 presents the education levels of the child care workers according to CCS type. Some significant group differences can be noted. More center-based child care workers have a college diploma than do family-based care providers (child care workers: 70.7%, FBC providers: 33.3%). On the other hand, fewer child care workers than family-based providers have a university degree (child care workers: 7.3%, FBC providers: 29.6%). It should be noted that the majority of these degrees are from foreign universities and are, for the most part, in disciplines other than early childhood education. More center-based child care workers have received recognized training to work with children in CCS (child care workers: 84.6%, FBC providers: 64.1%).
Table 2

Sociodemographic characteristics of staff and chi-square of educational level and specialized diploma


Infants (0–18 months)





Educational level




 High school or less





 College degreea





 University degree





No. of child care workers




Specialized diplomab





No. of child care workers




Note: CBC Center-based child care workers, FBC Family-based child care providers

aIn Quebec, college (cégep) refers to 2–3 year post-secondary educational program offered after final year of high school (equivalent to the 11th grade in other North American educational systems). Students completing this college degree then proceed to the job market or undertake a 2 year university baccalaureate program

bSpecialized diploma or degree in early childhood education

p < .05, ** p < .01

Table 3 presents the work experience and number of hours of ongoing educational activities for child care personnel in both types of daycare. Groups differ significantly only with respect to work experience. Center-based child care workers have more work experience with children (M = 9.51 years) than do family-based child care providers (M = 6.87). No differences were noted for the number of hours of ongoing educational activities during the previous year. These differences are taken into account in the interpretation of results presented here.
Table 3

Means, standard deviations and analysis of variance for staff work experience and ongoing education activities


Infants (0–18 months)









Work experience








Ongoing educationa

 Hours per year







Notes.CBC Center-based child care workers, FBC Family-based child care providers

aNumber of hours of ongoing educational activities during the previous year

p < .05


The evaluation of CCS took place in several waves over time. For this article, the process quality of CCS was measured using the appropriate version of Educative Quality Observation Scales (EQOS; Bourgon and Lavallée 2004a, b, c; see below for more information about different versions of this measure). This scale was completed following 5 h of observations conducted by an evaluator with 30 h of training who was familiar with work with infants and toddlers. To ensure inter-evaluator reliability, a second evaluator was present for 10% of the observations. Some items were completed by means of a supplementary 20-min interview with the child care worker responsible for the observed group. At the same time, questionnaires which had been previously mailed to and completed by the child care workers were collected. These questionnaires measured structural quality variables and were filled out by the groups’ child care workers in both center-based and family-based CCS.

Measurement Tools

The EQOS (Bourgon and Lavallée 2004a, b, c) is an observation tool created to evaluate process quality in the Quebec child care network. The tool was developed in the context of a large study that was conducted in Quebec in 2003 (Drouin et al. 2004), involving more than 800 groups in public center-based care, family-based care and private center-based care. This tool measures process quality based on the principles outlined in the Quebec government’s recommended educational program for child cares. Specialists in the field created three versions of the EQOS adapted to the specific characteristics of different child care settings (center-based care vs. family-based care settings) and different age groups. The first two scales assess quality of care in center-based care for two age groups: the first for infants between 0 and 18 months (Bourgon and Lavallée 2004a) and the second for preschoolers from 18 months to 5 years of age (Bourgon and Lavallée 2004b). The third scale assesses quality of care in family-based care settings for children from 0 to 5 years of age (Bourgon and Lavallée 2004c).

The three versions of the EQOS (respectively designed for infants in center-based care, for toddlers and preschoolers in center-based care, and for children 0–5 in family-based care) include between 74 and 85 items. The measure provides an overall quality score as well as scale and subscale scores: (1) the Physical Characteristics scale (21 and 25 items) which includes two subscales (1.1, Furnishings and Layout, 1.2, Equipment and Educational Material Available); (2) Structure and Variation of Activities scale (21 items), which includes four subscales (2.1, Activity Planning by the Educator, 2.2, Observation of the Children by the Educator, 2.3, Daily Schedule, 2.4, activities); (3) the Interactions between Educators and Children scale (28 and 35 items), which includes four subscales (3.1, Educational Value of Play, 3.2, Democratic Intervention, 3.3, Communication, 3.4, Interpersonal Relationships), and (4) the Interaction between Educators and Parents scale (four items), which evaluates the cooperation between child care providers and parents that is observed when parents bring their children to child care in the morning. All items were scored on a four point scale (1 = Poor, 2 = Minimum, 3 = Good, 4 = Very Good). Mean quality scores are calculated by averaging across all groups in the same age category. Resulting scores are categorized into six levels of quality: (1) Very Poor = 1–1.49; (2) Poor = 1.50–1.99; (3) Average Poor = 2.00–2.49; (4) Fair = 2.50–2.99; (5) Good = 3.00–3.49; (6) Very Good = 3.50–4.00. The three lowest categories (very poor, poor and average poor) are considered Unsatisfactory in terms of the underlying principles of the educational program (mean scores under 2.50). Scores above 2.5 are considered Minimal (for scores from 2.5 to 2.9) or Acceptable (for scores from 3.0 to 4.0) in terms of these principles.

The internal consistency is high for the first three scales, with alphas between .81 and .91. The last scale is lower (.64) because there are fewer items (Drouin et al. 2004). The degree of overall reliability among observers (Kappa) was .60 for the family child care environment scale and between .58 and .78 for the infant and toddler scale. For the present study, the inter-rater reliability calculated for 10% of the observations was .84. Concurrent validity between the EQOS and the French version of the ECERS-R, is indicated by a correlation of .36, which is reasonable and meets the expectations for this new scale. Concurrent validity of the EQOS family scale and the FDCRS was not established because these versions are considered adaptations of the original preschool measures, for which concurrent validity has been sufficiently demonstrated.

The Child Care Providers and Family Child Care Providers Questionnaire (Drouin et al. 2004) was completed by the child care provider of the observed group and includes 25 items in six dimensions: (1) working conditions (5 items), (2) previous job experience (5 items), (3) ongoing education (5 items), (4) job satisfaction (12 items), (5) personal information (2 items: age and sex) and (6) training (3 items). Additional questions measured when the setting was established, the total number of children attending, and the total number of educators working with children in the setting (used to calculate adult-child ratio for the setting).


The results are presented in two sections corresponding to the two main objectives of this paper. The first section compares the process quality scores of center-based care versus family-based care. The second section tests a regression model for all CCS using structural characteristics to predict process quality. This model gives us the opportunity to compare the predictive variables linked with overall quality scores for the two types of child care.

Process Quality According to CCS Type

A series of t tests was conducted to compare quality scores across the two child care groups (1. center-based child care, 2. family-based child care) for the different components of process quality measured here: the overall score, the four scales, and the nine subscales of the EQOS (Bourgon and Lavallée 2004a, b, c). Table 4 presents these results.
Table 4

Means, standard deviations and analysis of variance of EQOS total score, scale scores and subscale scores of center-based child care and family-based child care settings serving infants


Infants (under 18 months)

Quality scores

CBC (n = 53)

FBC (n = 36)





F(1, 87)

Overall scores






Physical characteristics






 Furnishings and layout






 Equipment and material available






Structure and variation of activities






 Activity planning by the educator






 Observation of the children






 Daily schedule


















 Educational value of play






 Democratic intervention












Interaction with parents






 Exchange between family and DC






 Supportive Subject of exchange






 Collaboration about difficult child






 Support to family integration






p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001

Center-based care groups received higher on Overall Quality scores. They were also higher on the following scales: Structure and Variation of Activities, Interaction between Educators and Children, and on Interaction with Parents. Within these scales, specific differences were found for the following subscales: Equipment and Materials available, Activity Planning by the Educator, Observation of the Children by the Educator, Daily Schedule, Activities, Educational Value of Play, Democratic Intervention and Communication. One item, Exchange Between Family and Child Care, was also higher for the center-based care. Family-Based Care groups did not receive higher scores on any quality dimension.

Data also indicated that some of the evaluated quality dimensions were ranked as “unsatisfactory,” in other words, below the average (2.5) determined as “acceptable” for educational quality (Drouin et al. 2004). Among center-based groups, one subscale was significantly lower than the cut-off score used to evaluate acceptable quality (specifically the subscale measuring Educational Value of Children’s Play, t(1.52) = 8.06, p = .000 subscale). Among Family-Based Care groups, three of the observed quality subscales were significantly lower than the cut-off score used to evaluate acceptable quality—Observation of the Children by the Educator, t(1,35) = −4.75, p = .000; Activity Planning by the Educator, t(1,35) = −4.19, p = .000; and Educational Value of Play, t(1,35) = −4.92, p = .000. That means that Family-Based Care groups were rated as providing a level of educational quality deemed to be Unsatisfactory on these specific aspects of service quality.

Predictive Variables for Process Quality for Infants

To examine the second objective of this study, a hierarchical regression analysis was conducted to verify which structural characteristics best predicted overall quality and to examine whether type of child care interacts with these predictors. We entered those staff and group predictor variables that were correlated with overall quality scores observed in infants’ groups (18 months and under) according to a preliminary analysis. These predictive variables included specialized training in early childhood education, adult-child ratio, and type of child care setting (center-based vs. family-based care), as well as the interaction terms for type of CCS with other structural characteristics. The most proximal of the selected predictor variables were entered first, followed by more distal ones. Specialized early childhood training was considered to be the most proximal variable. Adult-child ratio and type of CCS were considered progressively more distal, as they are thought to influence child care workers’ ability to apply their training. Table 5 presents descriptive statistics for and correlations among the final variables selected for this model.
Table 5

Means, standard deviations, and intercorrelations for overall quality (18 months) and staff education in early childhood, ratio and type of child care









Overall quality





























Type × education





Type × ratio




Note: n = 83

a1 for no diploma in early childhood education and 2 for a diploma in early childhood education

b1 for a ratio under .20 and 2 for a ratio of .20 and above

c1 for center-based child care and 2 for family-based child care

p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001

To predict overall process quality scores, the variable of having a specialised early childhood education training diploma was entered in the first block in the regression as a variable representing “knowledge of the educator in early childhood education,” the most proximal characteristic. The second block included the “adult-child ratio in the group” considered to be the next most proximal environmental variable. The third block included type of CCS (center-based vs. family-based care). The last block included interactions of type of CCS with: (1) “knowledge of the educator in early childhood education” and with (2) “adult-child ratio”. Some variables (higher education level, staff satisfaction, number of children in the group) were excluded from the regression analysis because of multicolinearity (Tabachnick and Fidell 2001). The results of this hierarchical regression analysis are found in Table 6.
Table 6

Summary of hierarchical regression analysis for structural variables predicting overall quality scores (process quality) at 18 months for children in child care





Step 1

 Education in early childhooda




Step 2





Step 3

 Type of child carec




Step 4

 Type of child care × education




 Type of child care × ratio




Note: n = 81, R2 = .09 for Step 1 (ps < .01); ∆R2 = .10 for Step 2 (ps < .01); ∆R2 = .05 for Step 3 (ps < .05); ∆R2 = .03 for Step 4 (ps > .05)

a1 for no diploma in early childhood education and 2 for a diploma in early childhood education

b1 for a ratio under .20 and 2 for a ratio of .20 and above

c1 for center-based child care and 2 for family based child care

p < .05, ** p < .01

The first step of the regression equation suggests that “diploma in early childhood education” is related to the overall process quality score, explaining 9.4% of its variance, F(1, 79) = 8.19, p = .005. The Beta coefficients indicates that groups in which the staff had specialized education diploma had higher quality scores (β = .306, p = .005).

The second step of the regression equation reveals that “adult-child ratio” was related to overall process quality score, F(1, 78) = 9.39, p = .003, adding on its own 9.7% to the variance already accounted for by staff specialized training. The Beta coefficients indicates that a group ratio over .20 (one adult for 5 infants or less) is associated with a higher quality scores (β = .314, p = .003) than a ratio under .20 (one adult for six or more infants).

The results for the third block of regression indicates that the type of CCS was also related to overall quality score, F(1, 77) = 5.57, p = .021, even after controlling for other indicators of structural quality, adding on its own 5.5% to the variance already accounted for by the other variables. The negative beta coefficient indicates that family-based care is linked to lower quality scores (β = −.266, p = .021).

The results for the last block of the regression indicates that the two main effects “diploma in early childhood education” and “adult-child ratio” do not interact with “type of child care,” F(2, 75) = 1.315, p = .275.


The present study sought to determine whether center-based and family-based CCS offered to infants in Quebec differ with respect to levels of process quality. It also sought to determine whether structural quality characteristics, including provider training, adult-child ratio and group size, were associated with process quality.

Quality According to Child Care Type

First, we can note that the process quality scores obtained for family-based child care settings serving infants are lower than those for center-based child cares serving infants. These results were obtained for most of the dimensions measured using the appropriate version of an instrument specifically designed to measure quality in the Quebec child care network (the EQOS). Family-based care are settings in this study were weaker than center-based settings with respect to Activity Structuring (Planning, Observation, Daily Schedule and Activities with Children), Interactions between Child Care Workers and Children (Value of Playtime, Democratic Interventions and Communication with Children), and Interactions with Parents (Dialogue Between Families and the CCS). These results confirm findings that have been widely reported in the literature and suggest that quality process is generally better in center-based child care than in family-based child care (Bigras et al. 2005, 2008a, b; Dowsett et al. 2008; Vandell 2004). The present study adds to these findings by demonstrating that these results pertain to CCS offered to infants in this sample of Quebec child care settings.

The lower scores observed in family-based child care can no doubt be attributed to certain features specific to this type of setting. Regulation in Quebec is particularly undemanding with regard to minimal education levels required of family-based child care providers. They are only required to take a 45-h initial training program in order to obtain accreditation. They are also required to take at least 6 h of ongoing education courses annually. Data from this study confirm the fact that fewer of the family-based child care providers in our sample have a government-recognized early-education diploma than is the case for center-based child care workers. These results confirm what is generally observed in the literature on the subject. Typically, fewer family-based child care providers have specialized training in early childhood, as compared to center-based workers, and the job qualifications for them are less stringent (Goelman et al. 2006).

It is also possible that the particular context of family-based child care are services, which are offered in private residences and which involve activities which must be adapted for children of different ages, could explain differences observed between the two types of child care in this study. However, the observational instrument that we used in this study was adapted to the particular context of family-based CCS. The principal differences between the two versions of this measure are found in the assessment of Furnishings and Layout, which was adapted to reflect services offered in a private home, and the assessment of Activity Structuring, which was adapted to reflect the presence of children of diverse ages. Finally, it is important to note that the weakest scores for the Activity Structuring dimension involved the Planning and Observation of Activities, aspects that we return to later in the discussion.

It is notable that an important number of both the center-based and family-based settings in this study were rated as offering unsatisfactory process quality. Shortfalls were noted on quality dimensions relating to observational and activity planning practices; the educational value placed on playtime activities; and the accessibility of equipment and material, especially in family-based child care. The importance of rigorous practices and work methods among child care workers, such as observation and open activity planning adapted to the needs of children, is widely acknowledged in the literature (Katz 2007; Gouvernement du Québec 2007; Hohmann et al. 2007). Indeed, in light of several studies on the subject, it has been noted that this kind of active-learning approach is more favourable for child development than are programs based on direct, explicit teaching. The advantages of the direct teaching approach are often transitory and limited to cognitive development (Dunn and Kontos 1997; Rogoff 1998; Sawyer 2004). In contrast, children in active learning settings display more creativity, self-esteem, and problem resolution strategies, they exhibit stronger social skills with regard to the capacity for taking initiatives, they have a greater capacity for establishing stable interpersonal relations, and they show stronger intellectual and motor skills than do children in more formal learning environments (Montie et al. 2006; Schweinhart et al. 2005; Schweinhart and Weikart 1993a, b).

In a child care context, observation practices enable child care personnel to gain a better understanding of children’s needs and interests (Berthiaume 2004; Hohmann et al. 2007). Regular observation by child care personnel also enables better planning of a stimulating physical environment and open activities better suited to children’s needs and development stage (Berthiaume 2004; Hohmann et al. 2007). The ways that activities are organized, including whether playtime is valued (e.g., accompanying children in the process of planning elective activities or choice of workshops), also play a determining role in what young children learn. Montie et al. (2006) note that 4-year-old children who had more opportunities to initiate activities themselves have more developed language skills at 7 years old than those who were given directed activities. They also observed that children who spent less time in group activities and more time in activities they initiated themselves in small groups displayed better scores on five dimensions of cognitive development: spatial relations, quantity, time, memory, and problem solving. In this light, it is worth noting that child care providers’ role includes fostering a physical and social environment that enables children to initiate activities by themselves, by providing them with accessible educational material adapted to their needs and accompanied by warm, sensitive interactions based on dialogue. Accompanying and supporting children in the organization and planning of activities that they themselves want to initiate is also part of valuing playtime. Observation and identification of children’s needs are crucial in this process.

These results are consistent with those obtained by Drouin et al. (2004), who noted that planning was almost absent in the majority of CCS observed, center-based and family-based alike. In this regard, it is interesting to note that although center-based child care workers in this study were more likely to be given time for planning, interviews conducted with them to learn more about their planning activities revealed that they appeared to be confused about what it was they were supposed to be planning. The weakness of this aspect could be related to a weak integration of the basic principles associated with active learning, in which planning is a key element. In this light, the low scores for observational practices would appear to be logical, given that observation precedes the planning stage in the context of organizing a setting that fosters active learning.

Hohmann and Weikart (1995) define active learning as “learning in which the child, by acting on objects and interacting with people, ideas and events, constructs new understandings” (p. 17). The direct, immediate experience of reality and the process of reflection that accompanies this experience permits the child to better understand the universe that surrounds him. Several factors can facilitate the quality of this experience at the level of activity structuring, including certain aspects measured in this study. For example, a regular schedule facilitates learning because it allows children to situate themselves in time and to become more autonomous in their activities.

The daily routine should allow sufficient time for a planning-action-reflection process that allows children to express their intentions, realise their projects, and reflect on what they have accomplished. This process takes place in a group format. This process should itself be the object of evaluation by the educator to ensure that all of the necessary energy and resources are available for observing children, intervening with educational activities, and planning future activities. If certain of these elements are weak or absent, children have fewer opportunities to learn (Bigras et al. 2004a, b). Future research should examine the causes of these inadequate practices. In particular, identifying factors that foster or hinder practices around the observation, planning and implementation of activities that children themselves want to initiate could provide a better understanding of the processes inherent to the process quality in active-learning settings, and suggest strategies to ultimately foster their improvement.

Predictors of Process Quality for Infants

In this study, process quality was predicted from structural quality variables, such as specialized training in early childhood education and adult-child ratio. When these two variables were included in the model, child care type accounted for less variance. This underlines the importance of specialized early childhood training for attaining higher quality levels. It also suggests that higher quality levels appear to be associated with the presence of additional conditions, such as a low adult-child ratio (Drouin et al. 2004; Goelman et al. 2006). A lower adult-child ratio could enable early educators to divide their attention better and to have more sensitive and appropriate interactions with children (Leach et al. 2008). A lower ratio appears to be especially important in care provided to infants who require more care and attention than older children (NICHD ECCRN, 1996, 2002).

The higher levels of structural quality observed in center-based versus family-based care supports our other results regarding process quality differences in center-based versus family-based care. It also corroborates the literature on the subject (Dowsett et al. 2008). Indeed, certain characteristics of regulated center-based child care, such as more staff with specialized training in early childhood education and a lower adult-child ratio, appears to foster higher levels of process quality. Dowsett et al. (2008) argue that these structural differences enable staff to provide children in center-based child care with more cognitive stimulation, more language interactions and fewer negative interactions than is case for educators in other child care types. It should be noted, however, that specialized training in early childhood and the adult-child ratio did not interact with child care type in predicting process quality levels. This would indicate that these structural characteristics are equally important for quality levels in both center-based and family-based child care settings. In other words, process quality may be higher in center-based child care settings because better structural conditions facilitate better interactions, but these same structural conditions are important for processes in both settings.

Finally, contrary to what has been observed in the literature (Drouin et al. 2004; Goelman et al. 2006), neither job satisfaction levels nor ongoing educational activities were related to process quality in this study. This result could indicate that certain variables, such as adult-child ratio and specialized early childhood training, are more important for determining process quality in CCS for infants than for services to older children. Alternatively, the multicolinearity observed in the present study could suggest that the presence of highly intercorrelated variables masks the effects of certain variables. Since it is possible that the processes linking structural quality and process quality could differ according to age group, additional work comparing the relationship of structural variables to process quality for infants and for older children is needed to explore these relationships.

It is possible that ‘intentionality,’ which is a different construct than job satisfaction, is a better predictor of quality for family child care settings, as has been suggested by Doherty et al. (2006) and by Kontos et al. (1995). Doherty et al. (2006) found that higher-quality care was predicted by providers who are committed to the occupation and who take a professional approach to their work. Unfortunately, our study does not have measure of the construct of intentionality. Further study should address this question.


Like most research into child care quality, the present study is not without limitations. First, it is difficult to establish a causal link between structural variables and process quality in the observed educational child care settings since we cannot randomly assign settings to specific quality levels. Within the framework of a non-experimental study, we cannot exclude the influence of other variables that might account for our results. Among other things, we did not take into account support provided to child care workers by the center or to child care providers by coordinators’ offices. When educational personnel receive advice or supervision with regard to implementing structured activities that foster planning and observation, they are likely to provide higher quality services, as has been noted in studies of professional support (Burke and Hutchins 2007). Future studies should include these types of structural variables to examine their relationship to process quality.

Secondly, our sample is relatively small and not representative of the population of center-based and family-based child cares in the territory studied. As such, selection bias is difficult to eliminate. It is possible that the CCS that agreed to participate in this study have particular characteristics, such as a higher level of quality, than those that refused to participate. In addition, during the recruitment period in 2006, the methods used to manage and monitor family-based CCS were undergoing changes (Gouvernement du Québec 2006), which might have limited the participation of family-based child cares. Other studies including a greater number of both child care types would allow for better control of this selection bias and could confirm the results of the present study.

Lastly, this study used two distinct measuring tools. The first tool was designed to measure the quality of the environment provided by center-based child care which serves children under 18 months old. The second tool was designed to measure family-based child care settings which serve children from 0 to 5 years old. As such, we can hypothesize that these two tools do not have exactly the same psychometric value, which might have skewed the measurements.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Quality levels observed in this study were generally within the unsatisfactory range, results which are consistent with previous findings and which reaffirm the importance of supporting quality-improvement initiatives in CCS. In particular, family-based CCS should receive special attention, inasmuch as their observed quality level is lower than that found in center-based child cares. These results also indicate that certain structural variables could contribute to increasing levels of process quality. Firstly, it is urgent to target child care workers and family-based child care providers who work with children under 18 months old and where the adult-child ratio is higher than 1:5. Secondly, since our data indicate that educators in family-based child care are less likely to have specialized training in early childhood education than do educators in center-based care, and that this training is associated with higher process quality scores, an effort should also be made to encourage educational personnel, especially family-based child care providers, to increase their educational level in this regard. In this connection, family-based child care providers with only a high school education should be made a priority and the need for adjusted salaries and regulations should be explored.

In conclusion, educational CCS quality is a function of a complex global context and is affected by several variables (Bigras and Japel 2007; McCartney 2006). Although many studies in this area have been conducted in the United States and elsewhere in the world, there is little information about CCS in Quebec for infants. In this light, the present study has documented certain variables associated with the quality of regulated CCS in the greater Montreal area. Further research based on a representative Quebec sample of children attending CCS would make it possible to compare quality of services provided to children of various ages (infants vs. preschoolers) and to improve our understanding of the complex processes underlying quality CCS delivery.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nathalie Bigras
    • 1
  • Caroline Bouchard
    • 1
  • Gilles Cantin
    • 1
  • Liesette Brunson
    • 2
  • Sylvain Coutu
    • 3
  • Lise Lemay
    • 1
  • Mélissa Tremblay
    • 2
  • Christa Japel
    • 4
  • Annie Charron
    • 1
  1. 1.Département d’éducation et pédagogieUniversité du Québec à MontréalMontrealCanada
  2. 2.Département de psychologieUniversité du Québec à MontréalMontrealCanada
  3. 3.Département de psychoéducation et psychologieUniversité du Québec en OutaouaisGatineauCanada
  4. 4.Département d’éducation et formation spécialiséeUniversité du Québec à MontréalMontrealCanada

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