Low-income children who received intensive day-care and family services in an experimental program in Syracuse, N.Y., during their first five years had sharply lower delinquency rates, higher levels of self-esteem and better school performance in adolescence than a similar group of children who received no services, researchers have concluded.

The researchers studied 119 children a decade after they participated in the experimental program and found that children who had received special day-care and family services had a 6 percent rate of juvenile delinquency, while children in a "control group" who didn't receive special services had a 22 percent delinquency rate.

Girls in the program -- but not boys -- performed better in school than those in the control group. And half of the experimental group had high expectations for continued education, twice the figure for the children in the control group.

The study "yields impressive evidence that society's investment in early childhood education and in family support makes a big difference when the children grow up," said Dr. J. Ronald Lally, now with the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, formerly of Syracuse University. Lally headed the new study, funded by the William T. Grant and Harris Foundations.

In the Syracuse experiment, which began in 1969, 82 families with incomes below the poverty line were given education, health and counseling services for more than five years. Another 82 families were in a control group that did not receive special services. The mothers were mainly young, jobless, husbandless, black and without a high school diploma.

The program began in the last trimester of pregnancy and continued until the child reached age five. At age 6 months, the child started going to an enriched day-care program at Syracuse University's Children's Center.

The families received weekly visits from specially trained workers who themselves came from poverty backgrounds.

Ten years after the program ended, when the children were all 14 to 16 years of age, Lally and associates Peter Mangione of the Far West Laboratory and Alice Honig of Syracuse University located 119 of the children and did extensive family interviews:

Of 65 children who had received the special services, only four (about 6 percent) had juvenile delinquency records, but 12 of the 54 "control group" children had records.

Three-quarters of the girls who had received special services had C averages or better in school, and none was failing, but half of the control group had averages under C and one-sixth were failing. Boys in both groups did worse than the girls in school, with little difference between boys who had been in the special program and those who had not.

53 percent of the special services children but only 28 percent of the control group said they expected to be in school five years later. Lally said this indicated greater optimism.

Children who received special services generally expressed greater pleasure with their physical or personal qualities, such as personality or sense of humor