Editor's note: This story is one in a series,#PolicyForward, that spotlights how faculty, students and alumni at the Harris School of Public Policy are driving impact for the next generation. Leading up to the May 3 grand opening of Harris’ new home at the Keller Center, these stories will examine three of the most critical issues facing our world: strengthening democracy, fighting poverty and inequality, and confronting the global energy challenge.

Ariel Kalil

Parental engagement is one of the most important factors in a child’s development, yet it varies dramatically by socioeconomic advantage.  

A leading developmental psychologist, Prof. Ariel Kalil examines the historical evolution of income-based gaps in parenting behavior and children’s skills. Kalil recently sat down with the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy to discuss the science behind parental decision-making and talk about her innovative work as co-director of the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab

You’ve written about economic disparities and children’s development. What do these disparities look like and how have they changed over time? 

While it’s important to look at external factors when assessing disparities—such as stable housing, fair wages, health care, etc., I’m especially interested in the gaps in children’s home learning environments and the differences across families in what parents do to promote children’s development. 

For at least the past 25 years, we have observed big gaps in the home learning environments between richer and poorer families. The growth in these gaps has slowed somewhat in the most recent period, but some important ones remain. As it turns out, all parents are investing more in their children’s development—lower- and higher-income families alike. But higher income families continue to outpace their lower income peers in terms of the quantity and quality of investments they make in their children’s development. The corollary is that we continue to see gaps in children’s early skill development. In short, lower-income families haven’t caught up to their more advantaged peers. 

Are there ways in which this gap can be closed?

One thing we can do is to capitalize on the fact that low-income parents have very high aspirations for their children. They want the same things for their children as do middle class parents. And in many cases they have the ability and the means to promote their children’s development. But we often find a gap between wanting and doing, and so we need to figure out how to support low income parents in ways that will allow them to turn their good intentions into action.  

Are there policy solutions we should consider as part of this effort?

While there are macro-level policies that ought to be in place so no parent has to choose between working and taking care of their kids—like high-quality child care or paid leave—we also need support at a more micro level. Research shows that the things that help promote kids’ development over the long run are often matters of habit. For example, reading to children for 15 to 20 minutes every night. This activity alone has been shown to be an important component of children’s cognitive and social development. What we need to do is complement any big macro policies with support for families to succeed in making steady, modest investments in their children’s early learning. 

The BIP Lab is focused on understanding the science of parent decision-making.

Do you have any examples you think could work?

One approach I created with my colleagues in the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab has shown a lot of promise. This program, called PACT—or the Parents and Children Together program, had a simple goal: promote book reading among low-income parents using digital tools designed to help manage better decision-making and mitigate against procrastination. That is, we know that some parents don’t engage in regular habits of promoting their children’s development because they have a hard time making a connection between something they do at the present time (say, reading a book) and their children’s development in the future. And so they postpone making investments in their children’s development until another day. Our intervention, which draws insights from behavioral science to “bring the future to the present”, succeeded because it helps to manage this tendency 

How does it work?

In PACT, parents set reading goals for the week ahead and, via text message, they receive feedback on their progress (using objective measurements of reading time collected through a digital app). Several times throughout the week parents are reminded (again via text message) of their goals and they are rewarded with a digital badge when they meet their goals. We experimentally tested PACT with several hundred families in Chicago and found that the parents in the treatment group dramatically increased their reading time over a six-week intervention period. Building on PACT, we’re now conducting a much larger intervention to see if we can improve children’s literacy skills using this approach. 

Can this approach help families on a broader scale?

We have now done multiple field experiments along these lines that have shown positive outcomes. In fact, we just did a very similar one where we were trying to tackle the problem of chronic absenteeism among pre-school children of low-income families. We used a very similar approach and theoretical framework as PACT and were able to reduce chronic absenteeism by 20 percent over a 4-month period. It’s important to note that our “light-touch” approach is not going to solve all of the important challenges faced by low income families. But what’s important about our approach is that it is low cost, appealing to families, and in principle highly scaleable. 

Why is early childhood so important?

Income-based gaps in children’s skills are observable at age two or three, long before children reach formal schooling. These gaps close little if at all over the course of the schooling years. So low-income kids who at age three show lower scores on early skills development are going to be same kids who graduate from high school at lower rates. Drawing the causal link between these phenomena is challenging, but we have reason to believe that many kids who start behind will have a hard time catching up. The hope is that by supporting parents to better invest in their children’s development early in life we will see more positive trajectories across these children’s lifespan.

Where should we be focusing our efforts?

For a long time we have looked to schools to help close gaps in children’s skills. Schools are important, of course, but children don’t spend all of their waking hours in school. In fact, over the course of their lifetime they will spend more time in the company of their caregivers or in environments selected by their caregivers. The quality of these environments – i.e., the opportunities they afford to promote children’s development – is critically important. 

In order to break the intergenerational transmission of economic status we need to do more to support parents to invest in their children so that children achieve their full potential. All parents want their children to succeed. But many parents struggle to turn their high aspirations into regular habits of behavior that could meaningfully support their children’s development. Many existing parenting interventions are expensive and complicated and have produced inconsistent or weak change in parents’ behavior. Recent breakthroughs in behavioral science can be fruitfully applied to our understanding of how parents make decisions and these new approaches hold substantial promise for improving the life chances of low income children. 

Read more #PolicyForward stories that spotlight how faculty, students and alumni at the Harris School of Public Policy are driving impact for the next generation.