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Poor Rural Parents' Problems Adversely Affect Their Children, Study Says

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The intellectual, emotional, and social development of rural children suffers when their families are faced with multiple societal and health risk factors, according to new findings from a rural families study.

The findings from the University of North Carolina's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute study of nearly 1,300 rural children found that parenting deteriorates when families must address risk factors like low maternal education, neighborhood safety, and poverty.

"When social challenges mount for families, it's likely this cumulative risk negatively affects parenting, which in turn hinders child development," Lynne Vernon-Feagans, the study's principal investigator and a professor in UNC's School of Education, said in a Dec. 11 news release.

The Family Life Project has been examining the lives of poor rural children since 2003—a group that Vernon-Feagans describes as "understudied." More findings and conclusions are forthcoming from the study as the project's children transition into and out of elementary school.

The results from these latest findings, "The Family Life Project: An Epidemiological and Developmental Study of Young Children Living in Poor Rural Communities," were published in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development.

The study's investigators observed parenting at home examining how parents interacted with their children—sensitive and supportive, or harsh and controlling. They also measured how much a mother talked to her child while looking at a wordless picture book and recorded the material investments that parents made in their child's development.

The study also measured the academic and social benchmarks of 3-year-olds in the study. Investigators focused on skills that "enable children to undertake flexible, coordinated decision-making"—a key indicator of school readiness and academic achievement.

 "Overall, our findings indicated that the environment of poverty begins to shape child development very early in ways that have important implications for the child's ability to regulate emotion, attention, and behavior, as well as to use language in ways that school demands," Vernon-Feagans said in the release.

The findings reinforce the need for interventions to support parenting and other aspects of the rural child's life, such as schools, Vernon-Feagans added.

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