The Family Life Project: How Does Stress Impact a Child’s Development?

Mother rubbing nose with baby boy

While there is extensive research examining the health and development of children living in urban contexts, little exists exploring the lives and experiences of children and families living in rural communities. Dr. Clancy Blair and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Pennsylvania State University identified this gap in the existing research, and launched the Family Life Project in 2003 in rural North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Earlier this month, Blair, one of the Directors of the Neuroscience and Education Lab, and his collaborators at UNC Chapel Hill and Penn State received a $25 million 5 year award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to expand on the work. As part of the NIH’s Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program, Dr. Blair’s Family Life Project, will contribute to a pool of data collected from nearly 50,000 children across the United States.

ECHO launched in 2016 as a research initiative whose aim was to capitalize on existing, ongoing longitudinal pediatric research being conducted across the US. This unique opportunity allows for the NIH to aggregate vast and robust data representing different regions and communities, and to explore the effects of environmental exposures — chemical as well as psychosocial — on health and developmental outcomes from birth through young adulthood. Dr. Blair and his research team just completed their first 2 years of data collection under the first phase of the ECHO program, and this receipt of funding will provide for an additional 5 years of scientific research with the Family Life Project sample.

The scientific goal of ECHO, a research program launched by the National Institutes of Health, is to understand the effects of a broad range of early environmental influences on child health and development.

The Family Life Project’s main research objectives are to look at the ways the experience of early life stress impacts multiple aspects of children’s development, including emotional regulation, executive function and cognitive development, and the stress response. Over the past fifteen years, the Family Life Project data collection was conducted in participants’ homes to assess a variety of aspects of children’s development and family functioning. Primary caregivers, in almost all instances the child’s biological mother, completed questionnaires and engaged in semi-structured book reading and parenting interactions with their child. Children engaged in a variety of direct assessments to measure aspects of temperament, emotion regulation, cognitive development, and the regulation of the physiological response to stress as indicated by cortisol, a stress hormone detectable in saliva. Study participants were recruited as infants in 2003-2004, comprising an original sample of 1,292 babies and their families.

As Family Life Project participants enter high school, the research aims remain the same, but the methodology is shifting. With this newly-received funding from the NIH, Dr. Blair and his team of collaborators will collect biospecimens from participants in a clinical setting. In addition to the collection of data on cognitive and emotional functioning and wellbeing, biospecimens will be collected including blood, stool, urine, hair, and fingernails. New data collection combined with recent efforts to obtain participants’ past health records will provide insight on the ways in which early environmental exposures — both positive and negative — are affecting health and developmental outcomes in adolescence.

The Family Life Project’s continued participation in ECHO allows for further exploration into the types of environments that will best support families, and enable children to lead healthy and successful lives. The data collected by Dr. Blair and his colleagues — and that collected by all of the participating ECHO cohorts — is integral to our understanding of optimal physical, social and built environments for healthy development, and to the development of programs, practices and policies that safeguard the health of our nation’s children.

For more information on Dr. Blair’s work, visit the Neuroscience and Education Lab and Family Life Project websites.