SOE News

NICHD funds study of rural children for five more years

Lynne Vernon-Feagans, William C. Friday Professor of Early Childhood, Families and Literacy, has received funding from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to continue research on nearly 1300 rural children, now turning three, who have been studied since birth. This $12 million grant has been approved for funding starting July 1, 2007.   

Established in 2002 with a $16.5 million NICHD grant, the Family Life Project examines the biological, individual, family and community processes that lead to good or poor outcomes for rural children. The participating children live in three rural, high poverty counties in North Carolina and three in Pennsylvania.  

In the original study, the children and their parents were visited nine times over the child’s first three years of life. During the three-hour home visits, the project’s 23 investigators and hundreds of staff gathered extensive data on a multitude of variables, including parent-child interactions, home environment, parent variables such as work situation, optimism/pessimism and depressive symptoms, and child variables such as temperament, reactivity and language development.

Over the next five years, the investigators will study the children as they make the transition to school, beginning with their pre-kindergarten settings.  

Findings to date are more optimistic than some might expect.

In one study, Vernon-Feagans examined whether parenting makes a difference when a child is in an environment of “cumulative risk” ─ where many risk factors are present.

For example, a child who is living in poverty with a mother who is young, uneducated and depressed is in a cumulative risk environment.

Vernon-Feagans analyzed parent-child interactions that occurred when parents played with their children and looked at picture books with them.

“We found that when parents talk a lot to their children and are sensitive and engaged with them, we see good outcomes in the children, even in situations of cumulative risk,” Vernon-Feagans stated.

“These results show that parenting does make a difference,” she explained. “Poverty does not automatically lead to poor outcomes for children. Even in the highest risk environments, children can be buffered from poor outcomes if their parents talk and respond appropriately to them.”

The investigators expect that these and other findings will provide the basis for developing prevention programs for children who are likely to experience school failure.

The co-principal investigator for the renewal grant is Mark Greenberg, Edna Peterson Bennett Professor of Prevention Research at The Pennsylvania State University.