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Southwest University to conduct study to assist children's development in remote areas

By Tan Yingzi | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-12-08 19:04

A research team member from Southwest University in Chongqing uses Bayley3, an internationally accepted early childhood development assessment tool, to evaluate a child's development in Cangyuan Wa autonomous county in Yunnan province in 2022. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

Next year, a research team at Southwest University in Chongqing will begin tracking 3,000 pregnant women and their children from birth to age 18 in West China's remote mountain areas to find solutions to prevent poverty from passing from one generation to another.

This longitudinal study is part of a major national project jointly sponsored by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2021, which aims to provide policy support to consolidate the achievements China has made in poverty alleviation and provide potential human capital reservation for rural vitalization, according to Li Ling, professor at the university's Center for Education Policy and leader of the project.

The team will provide support for the 3,000 mothers or other family members who are often poorly educated and lack proper knowledge about raising kids. The support will include a regular family visit program to give early childhood education instructions to the caregivers, periodic follow-up evaluations of the children's development, and other assistance in the children's education.

"It is a long-term project which no one has done before in China," she said. "If conditions allow, I want to track this group to age 30, which will provide more data for our research."

China, with a population of 1.4 billion, is the largest developing country in the world and used to suffer from poverty. By 2021, China eradicated extreme poverty, lifting 770 million rural residents out of poverty according to World Bank standards.

The isolated mountain regions in inland China's Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan provinces were once among the most poverty-stricken parts of the country due to poor transportation, a challenging natural environment, and a fragile education system.

"If the country wants to cut off the intergenerational transmission of poverty, we need to pay more attention to the next generations of the once poor areas and provide them with a high-quality education system which includes early childhood education," Li said.

Li, who earned a Ph.D. at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT), has been dedicated to education policies in rural areas for decades. Southwest University also boasts one of the leading colleges of education in China.

"Early childhood education in remote mountainous areas of the western region is essential to promoting educational equity," she added.

Early childhood is the period between birth and 8 years of age, wherein a child's brain is susceptible to the environment around them, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Since 2021, the team has conducted various research in this field among the underdeveloped areas in southwestern China.

So far, using Bayley3, an internationally accepted early childhood development assessment tool, the team has evaluated a total of 1,685 children aged 0-3 years in Chongqing's Hechuan district and Youyang Tujia and Miao autonomous county, Cangyuan Wa autonomous county in Yunnan, the Yuexi county, Xide county and Mianning county in Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture of Sichuan.

Those children underwent cognitive, language, motor ability and social-emotional development assessments and baseline surveys of their growth environment.

The team also conducted MRI brain imaging, near-infrared brain imaging and EEG tests to monitor the brain development of some children in the above districts and counties.

The team combined the above data with pregnancy examination and childcare data to comprehensively analyze child development.

Those evaluations show that thanks to the efforts in poverty elimination in recent years, only 4.77 percent of the children in those areas lag behind the average level in motor abilities, 25 percent lower than a similar evaluation conducted five years ago.

"Because those children can eat much better now, their bodies become healthier," the professor explained.

The team suggests that the government should increase awareness of the importance of early childhood education among rural families, engage more social forces in this field, establish government departments, increase the quality and number of teachers and improve related data collection.

"China should invest 0.1 percent of its annual GDP into development programs for children aged 0-3 in underdeveloped areas, which would benefit 19 million children there," Li said.

"The government should incorporate early childhood brain development, brain health examinations, brain function development and parenting intervention into national development strategies such as the Children Health Improvement Action Plan (2021-2025)."

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