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ABF Research Professor James Heckman Leads Groundbreaking Study on Early Childhood Development in Rural China

March 14, 2019, ABF news, University of Chicago News

A groundbreaking new study by ABF Research Professor and Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago, James Heckman, found that at-risk children in rural China who received both nutritional and educational support showed significant advancements in their language skills, social and emotional development. 

The innovative study, entitled the "Rural Education and Child Health" project, was led by Heckman and fellow scholars from the University of Chicago who worked with the China Development Research Foundation to collect data on child health, development and home environment. The goal of the study was to evaluate the long-term impact of providing nutritional support and psychosocial stimulation to at-risk rural children in China, who are left alone in their rural communities when their parents travel to urban areas for work, which numbers over 60 million. 

Conducted from 2014-2017, the study combined China's existing Children Nutrition Improvement Project in Poverty-stricken Areas (CNNIP), which provides free nutritional supplements to children living in poverty, with a home visit by a trained educator who taught parents and caregivers about early childhood development and the benefits derived from adult-child interaction. 

During their weekly visits, the educators watched the parents interacting with children and encouraged them to be more nurturing and caring, as well as to teach their children through activities such as games and songs. 

"These are aspects that we know are important to a child's long-term trajectory," Heckman is quoted as saying in a recent University of Chicago news article about the study and the impact of its findings. "Early spoken language is a precursor and predictor of later life development."

Early analysis of the study's results demonstrated significantly better performance, including improved language skills, among those who were treated for the study compared to those who were not. 

"Program leaders believe that teaching parents why it is important to interact with and talk to children will directly impact their early childhood development," explained Jin Zhou, who is quoted in the University of Chicago news article. Zhou is a University of Chicago postdoctoral fellow who worked with Heckman on the project.

The format for Heckman's "Rural Education and Child Health" project was based on the "Jamaica Parenting and Psychosocial Stimulation Curriculum," an intervention in the 1980s in which 127 children who had not developed properly received physical, sensory and emotional games/activities, and nutritional intervention. The "Jamaica Parenting and Psychosocial Stimulation Curriculum" found that the underdeveloped children who received the psychosocial support earned 25 percent more income than underdeveloped children who did not, the same level of earnings as children who had developed normally. 

In 2014, Heckman's study was applied to 1,500 randomly selected families throughout Huachi County in Gansu Province, who had children between the ages of 6-36 months. From 2015-2017, Heckman and his team collected three rounds of data using early childhood instruments to assess the children’s health and development, their relationship with their parents, and the social, emotional and cognitive support of their home environment. The results showed that psychosocial support had a greater impact on children's development than nutritional support.  

The University of Chicago article notes that China's President Xi Jinping is committed to addressing rural poverty in China and the challenges faced by the tens of million of children in need. Heckman hopes that the study's early results will influence China’s national and provincial policy regarding these issues and lead to better parenting and nutrition programs throughout the country's rural areas, according to the article. 

Heckman and his project team will continue to assess the children in coming years to prove the long-term impact of their interventions and the effects these interventions will have on subsequent children, extended families and the broader community. 

"He believes such interventions could change the trajectory of children’s lives across the country, helping them to be more productive and successful, and creating a foundation of successful parenting practices that will shape future generations," the University of Chicago news article says. 

To read the full article on the University of Chicago website, click here

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