Researchers rely on Pennsylvania families for key insights on children

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Since 2003, families in Pennsylvania’s rural Cambria, Blair and Huntingdon counties have been providing Family Life Project researchers from Penn State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with valuable evidence on how parenting, schooling, and many other factors affect children and their families.

The Family Life Project is a longitudinal study of how children learn and grow in rural communities. Funded since 2002 by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the study recently received new funding to examine the academic skills of the project’s fifth graders as they continue into middle school.

“The transition from elementary to middle school is a critical period for setting the stage for children’s future academic success,” said Mark Greenberg, the Penn State principal investigator for the Family Life Project. Greenberg is Edna Peterson Bennett Endowed Chair in Prevention Research and professor of human development and psychology in the College of Human Development and Family Studies.

That success can be influenced by the attainment of an advanced degree. According to Jennifer Frank, co-principal investigator and assistant professor in the Penn State College of Education, “Thirty percent of urban adults have a college degree, but fewer than 18 percent of rural adults have one.” Further, Greenberg noted that those with only high school degrees have lost ground economically since 1970.

The new NIH funding will enable Family Life Project researchers to study children as they progress from fifth through seventh grade to learn what may hinder future access to opportunities. “Which parenting practices -- and which instructional practices -- are most important to building literacy for rural children?” Greenberg asked. “Does good instruction at elementary and middle school help our most vulnerable children achieve their potential? These are important questions.”

Community locations also may influence answers to these and related questions. Frank said that while roughly 20 percent of children in the United States live in rural communities, few studies have focused on these children. Since 2003, the Family Life Project has helped to address this gap by following 1,292 children from birth in six rural counties in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

In collaboration with Lynne Vernon-Feagans and colleagues at the University of North Carolina and several other universities, the Family Life Project has published the results of numerous studies that reveal what it means to be a child in rural America.

Angela Hall, project manager, noted, “We are grateful to our families and schools in Pennsylvania for partnering with us to understand how families and schools can support children’s success in school and life.”

Further information on the Family Life Project may be found at http://flp.fpg.unc.edu/.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017