Nudging Families Together

Many of us rely on our phones to tell us when to hit the gym, arrive at meetings and check our bank account balance. Could digital reminders also motivate parents to read more to their children? According to recent findings of two Chicago Harris professors, a few simple nudges could make a big difference, helping parents realize their aspirations while narrowing the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students.

Educational inequity affects even the youngest learners in the United States, and it begins with experiences at home. Research shows that children who live in poverty often enter preschool already lagging behind their higher-income peers, and these discrepancies frequently persist throughout childhood. Programs designed to close this gap in low-income early education centers tend to be very expensive and time-consuming, and they frequently do not result in lasting effects on the most relevant child outcomes.

Ariel Kalil and Susan Mayer, co-directors of the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab, take a different approach. “We can think of parenting in terms of a series of habits that, to promote optimal development, one has to engage in every day or almost every day,” says Mayer. By applying insights from behavioral economics, the BIP Lab focuses on light-touch, low-cost behavioral tools that can influence parental decision-making, and thereby improve outcomes for kids.

Kalil notes that while it is difficult for anyone to adopt a new habit with long-term benefits (tomorrow always sounds like the best time to start your diet, she jokes), for low-income parents who may be especially focused on the present, it can be particularly difficult. “Parenting can be stressful,” Kalil says,“and it requires giving up our own leisure to engage with our children in a way that promotes their school readiness.”

A year ago the BIP Lab began the Parents and Children Together (PACT) study by conducting a randomized controlled trial of 169 families from Head Start centers across Chicago. “We wanted to design an intervention that helped parents meet the goals that they themselves already had for their children,” Mayer explains. Each family was given a digital tablet for six weeks that included a library of hundreds of English- and Spanish-language children’s books.

The tablet application audio- and video- recorded each reading session. While all families received the tablets, only the experimental group received behavioral nudges designed to influence the amount of time parents spent reading to their children: weekly goal-setting with a PACT team member, a daily text message encouraging reading and social rewards including a weekly group text message to recognize parents who had spent the most time reading.

The data collection and analysis process was complex. A team of UChicago undergraduates, Harris master’s and PhD students, and BIP Lab staff regularly collected the tablets; downloaded and analyzed the data; and met with families. The team’s efforts were inarguably worth it. The PACT study found that parents in the experimental group read twice as much as their control peers, or the equivalent of about a storybook a day compared to two to three books per week. This represents a full standard-deviation difference: a significant and large effect size.

An extension of the study suggests that these new reading habits took root. For three weeks following the six-week intervention, and then again after a three- month hiatus, treatment and control families received the tablets with the digital library, but this time without the behavioral tools. Though the results from this follow-up are somewhat inconclusive due to the smaller sample size, they demonstrate a persisting difference in the amount of time parents spent reading to their children.

The overall results are extremely promising, and they open the door for similar interventions on a broader scale. If improving the amount of time low-income parents read to their children can be as simple and inexpensive as texting reminders, targeting a goal and providing social recognition along the way, the potential to reach many more families is strong. “What we really want to do is design a tool that can be widely adopted,” Kalil says.

– Rebecca Planchard