CHICAGO, March 13 (Xinhua) -- Providing nutritional support and educational interventions to children in poverty-stricken communities in rural China could endow them with significant advance in language skills as well as social and emotional development, a study released Tuesday by the University of Chicago (UChicago) showed.
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 in poverty, with an added home visit by a trained educator who taught caregivers about early child development and the benefits of adult-child interaction.
During the weekly visits, educators encouraged parents to be more nurturing and caring to the children, and to teach them through games, songs and other activities.
"We found a very substantive impact on their language development, even among fairly young children," said James Heckman, a pioneering economist and Nobel laureate at UChicago.
In an early analysis of the results, the language skills for treated children show improvement over those of untreated children, according to Jim Zhou, a UChicago postdoctoral fellow. "Treated children have significantly better performance than untreated children, which is an outcome that is not easy to achieve."
"These are aspects that we know are important to a child's long-term trajectory," said Heckman, who directs the Center for the Economics of Human Development at UChicago. "Early spoken language is a precursor and predictor of later life development."
The study is part of the Rural Education and Child Health project (ChinaREACH), and the UChicago researchers have worked with the China Development Research Foundation to collect data on child health, development and home environment.
ChinaREACH was deployed in 2014 to 1,500 families with children aged 6 to 36 months who were randomly selected throughout Huachi County in Gansu Province. From 2015-2017, the ChinaREACH team collected three rounds of data using early childhood instruments to assess children's health, overall development, adult-child relationships, social, emotional and cognitive support in the home environment.
The results demonstrate that while improving nutrition delivered positive benefits for physical and brain development, the psychosocial interventions had an even bigger impact, Heckman said.
In every category measured, performance among children in the treatment groups was better. "Even after just nine months, we saw huge improvements," Zhou said.
Heckman's team plans to continue to assess the children in the coming years to prove the long-term impact of such educational interventions. They also hope to study the enduring effect of these interventions on subsequent children, extended families and the broader community as participating parents share the lessons they've learned.
The study has been published in Dialogo magazine.