Twenty percent of children in the United States grow up in rural communities, often experiencing higher rates of poverty and geographic isolation. Poverty is known to be stressful for young children and is associated with poor developmental outcomes. These effects can start to appear as early as 15 months of age. But the how and why—what scientists call the “mechanisms”—that lead to these poor outcomes have remained largely unknown.
To learn more, the NICHD’s Child Development and Behavior Branch funded the Family Life Project in 2003 to study childhood development in rural areas. The Project is led by Drs. Lynne Vernon-Feagans and Martha Cox at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Drs. Mark Greenberg and Nan Crouter at Pennsylvania State University.
A recently released monograph reports the first 3 years of results from the Project (PMID: 24147448). The findings help illustrate the critical role that parents and caregivers play—particularly in rural settings—in lessening the effects of poverty on children’s outcomes.
Previous studies on poverty and child development offered researchers a useful starting point, but the research had limitations. Only rarely did studies of infant and child development actually begin when such development does, at birth. Furthermore, most of the studies on child poverty focused on adolescents in urban settings. The studies seldom focused on children in rural areas, where isolation and limited resources might make life different from what children experience in cities.
The NICHD’s Family Life Project is designed to fill these knowledge gaps. To learn more about the study and its preliminary findings, select a link below.
Future of the Study
The Family Life Project began with 1,292 newborn infants and their families, recruited in 2003 and 2004. Families were enrolled in the study at the hospital, on the day after their infant was born. Researchers then visited participants in the home five times during the child’s first 3 years. They also visited each child’s outside-the-home care facility four times during the same time period and completed seven telephone visits.
Study families lived in six rural counties, three each in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where major industries have left the areas, along with well-paying jobs.
Both the counties and the families were chosen so that they represent the much wider population of rural families in the United States. None of the counties were near a large urban area, and none included a town larger than 50,000 people. More than one-half of the children in each selected county were eligible for free or reduced school lunch. The North Carolina counties had a large African American population, and the Pennsylvania counties were primarily white.
In virtually all of these families, one or more household members held a job (often with few benefits and non-standard or irregular work hours), and some held more than one such job. Nearly 80% of the mothers in the study had at least a high school education, and 15% had a college education, which suggest that high school graduation and employment alone do not protect against poverty in rural America.
To understand how rural poverty affects child development, the researchers developed a “cumulative risk index” for each family. This index included a measure of the families’ poverty as a proportion of the federal poverty threshold.
The researchers also factored in other variables to the risk index, including:
At each home visit, the researchers observed parenting interactions (positive and negative) between the mother and child. Positive parenting interactions were ones in which the parent was sensitive and responsive to her child’s needs and expressed positive feelings toward her child. These were animated interactions that stimulated the child’s development. Negative parenting interactions were ones in which the parent expressed harsh, negative feelings toward her child, or otherwise exhibited harsh and controlling behavior toward her child, with the parent’s agenda dominating. Also at each home visit, the researchers observed how the mother spoke to her child—specifically, the number of different words she used and the complexity of her language during a shared picture book session.
The children themselves were tested for behavior, language development, and executive function. Executive function is a particularly important measure because it involves self-regulation, working memory, and self-control. Executive function is what can make children able to sit in school, pay attention, and control their behavior; high executive function is associated with school achievement in the early elementary grades.
With 1,123 (87%) of the original 1,292 families still involved 3 years into the study, the Family Life Project is the largest study of childhood development ever attempted within the context of rural poverty.
The cumulative risk scores highlight the challenges parents and their children face.
In their monograph, the investigators stressed that the questions they seek to answer in the Family Life Project are complex and that their results are only preliminary. However, the data already show that the cumulative risk scores—the combined measure of depth and timing of poverty, social risk, and environmental risk—predict behavior problems, behavior competence, and executive functioning in the children.
These observations raise important questions. For example, are there turning points where the deficits created in early life can be remedied?
“The Family Life Project paints a vivid portrait of what it is like to be born into and grow up in rural poverty in the United States,” explained James Griffin, Ph.D., Deputy Chief of NICHD’s Child Development and Behavior Branch. “To date, the research findings demonstrate both the high number of risk factors these children face and the important role their parents play in how these risk factors affect their development. Because of this study, much more is now known about what aspects of parenting and family life affect development.”
Today, the Family Life Project has complete data sets on about 85% of the original study families, through the children’s third grade year. The study continues to collect data on these families through phone interviews, and the researchers hope to follow the children as they transition to middle school and into adolescence.
The data from the first 3 years of the children’s lives will soon be available to qualified researchers as a public access data set located online, at the University of Michigan’s Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) website.
In the future, researchers aim to build on these early findings and learn more about the risks associated with rural poverty and how to develop effective intervention strategies to improve outcomes for these children.
To learn more about the Family Life Project, select one of the links below.
Originally Posted: March 18, 2014
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