New ‘Lab’ Focuses on Behavioral Insights and Parenting

Why have interventions to support parenting among low-income families had such modest effects? How can we remodel existing parent intervention programs or design new ones to achieve greater impact and efficiency? Can we borrow behavioral insights that have proved successful in changing financial and health behavior?

These are the types of questions Ariel Kalil and Susan Mayer plan to answer as co-directors of the newly launched “Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab” at the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy at the Harris School of Public Policy.

“We know that the gaps in children’s achievement and behavior are due at least in part to the substantial differences in parenting in rich and poor families,” says Kalil, professor at Chicago Harris and director of CHPPP. “Our goal is to identify new, cost-effective ways to close the ‘parenting gap’ between rich and poor families.”

Toward that end, Kalil and Mayer, professor and former dean of Chicago Harris, have created the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab as the hub of new experimental research, student training and partnerships with community agencies. Work at the BIP Lab aims to identify and remedy “behavioral bottlenecks” that stifle optimal parental engagement and long-term behavior change among economically disadvantaged parents, notes Kalil.

The lab, which will be formally launched in the fall, will test insights from behavioral economics and neuroscience in the design and evaluation of promising new interventions with an emphasis on rapid cycle evaluation and iterative learning. “We need to be willing to try more new approaches and fail more often,” says Mayer. “We can’t afford to test only single, complex programs one at a time and wait for years to understand their effects.”

Parenting, PACT and Beyond

Kalil and Mayer have been working for several years to design and fund the BIP Lab’s new research. The first of their studies, the PACT (Parents and Children Together) project, is a randomized controlled trial with 500 parents of preschoolers in Head Start programs across Chicago, with primary funding from a private foundation.

Set to launch this summer, PACT will test whether a suite of tools drawn from behavioral economics can induce an increase in the amount of time parents spend in educational activities at home with their young children. These tools, like getting text reminders and receiving public recognition for achievement of goals, have been used “to get people to follow through with other commitments to change behavior, like smoking cessation, going to the gym or putting money in a savings account,” explains Mayer.

“If this is a way to engage parents and continue engaging them—if these nudges get parents to commit to spending more time with their kids around learning activities—we could use this, everybody could use this,” she says. “It could make all social programs out there much more effective.”

Kalil and Mayer are also recent recipients of funding from the Ascend program at the Aspen Institute for a behaviorally informed project focused on family math and financial capability. Called “It All Adds Up,” the program is a dual-generation initiative aimed both at engaging parents in their children’s early preschool math learning, and simultaneously teaching parents about financial capability.

The researchers have been collaborating with Children’s Home + Aid of Illinois on the project. CH+A’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Michael Shaver, MPP’96, shares a passion for improving practice and outcomes through the application of evidence-based research, Kalil says. CH+A has worked closely with Kalil and Mayer over the past year to develop and pilot test a variety of programs to support healthy parenting and parent-child engagement.

In addition, with financial support from the Population Research Center at NORC, the BIP Lab will design and pilot a neuroscience-based mindfulness training intervention to address stress or “cognitive scarcity” among low-income parents and its role in impeding purposeful, goal-directed parenting. Other research at the BIP Lab is examining data from the American Time Use Survey to understand the role of emotions in the time use of rich and poor parents. Collaborators on these and other projects at the BIP Lab include the behavioral economists Phil Oreopoulos from the University of Toronto and Lisa Gennetian from New York University.

Community Partnerships, Student Fellows

Kalil and Mayer are especially excited about the community partnerships the BIP Lab is creating to conduct their work with CH+A and several other social service agencies across the Chicagoland-area.

“We want to collaborate with community-level programs at every step,” states Kalil, “Our results need to be relevant and accessible to the agencies that will ultimately be responsible for implementing and scaling up new programs that incorporate our findings.”

BIP and CH+A have launched a joint summer fellows program for master’s students. The inaugural fellow, SSA student Laura Rothenberg, will work this summer on designing the family math and financial capability intervention in addition to other projects at CH+A. Separately, the BIP Lab is supporting BIP Fellows who will collaborate on various research projects; Chicago Harris Ph.D. students Sebastian Gallegos and William Delgado are the inaugural fellows, and the lab plans to appoint MPP fellows in the fall.

“We are living in an era of unprecedented child poverty and family income inequality,” says Kalil. “The need for innovative, scalable and cost-effective programs to support parenting and children’s development has never been greater.”