Changing Parental Behavior One Nudge at a Time


Ariel Kalil, University of Chicago

University of Chicago professor Ariel Kalil directs the Center for Human Potential for Public Policy and co-directs the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab at the Harris School of Public Policy. Kalil is a developmental psychologist and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of Stavanger in Norway.

What are some of the most pressing questions that drive your research in supporting parents and childhood development?

One of the most important social problems is the gap between low-income children and their higher-income peers in human capital development. For all the cognitive and non-cognitive skills that produce good outcomes in adulthood, it’s very clear that these gaps open up quite early in a child’s life, well before they get to school.

People have always agreed that family background matters, but the big challenge is trying to understand what it is about family background that matters. Clearly, the reason that kids of college-educated parents fare better in life is not because their parents have diplomas hanging on a wall. It’s not a causal relationship there, but college-educated parents do lots of different things with their kids. They spend their time differently, they make different choices, and they obviously have more money.

But there is a lot of work suggesting that income differences are not the driving factor in things that you might think of as family background. So the real challenge is figuring out what it is that parents do that matters. The even bigger challenge is figuring out how to make certain kinds of parents do things that they’re not already doing.

Along those lines, can you tell me about some of the ongoing projects at the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab, especially the PACT study?

We just finished a big randomized control trial where we were aiming to increase the amount of time that low-income parents spend reading with their kids. We chose reading because there is a big gap in literacy skills and in the amount of time different kinds of parents spend reading.

We did an experiment where all parents in both treatment and control were given a digital tablet to take home for six weeks. The tablet was loaded with an app that was a digital portal to a library with five hundred books in both Spanish and English of varying levels of difficulty – some picture books, some print books. We wanted to see if the treatment for those in the experimental arm would increase the amount of time they spent reading versus the control group, and what we gave them was a whole suite of behavioral nudges. These are the tools that we drew from behavioral science that have been shown to really move the needle on behavior in other realms of life, like exercise, saving, or other activities. We had parents set a goal every week for how much time they wanted to read. They made a pledge with one of our research assistants, so it was a public pledge. At the end of every week, we gave them feedback on how close they came to meeting their goal because the app collected data on how often it had been used for the [intended] purpose.

We can see that people calibrated their goals as time went on. At first, they made wildly unrealistic goals, but they learned. We sent people text message reminders every day reminding them of their goals: “remember to read” and “remember you wanted to read this number of minutes this week.” Then, parents essentially got a kind of social reward. They got recognition – social recognition – for meeting their goals. If they meet their goals, the tablet kind of lights up. They also got another recognition if, compared to the other parents in the Head Start center, they were the top readers. At the end of six weeks, we found that the treatment group had 2.5 times more reading than the control group. In the world of interventions that aim to change parenting, this is actually a huge impact.

Now, we’re doing a follow-up study to see if we actually changed habits. You would think if you nudged people to do something every day they’ll do it. But what happens when you stop nudging them? Everybody still has the tablet. Everybody knows that they should be reading, but now the treatment group is not going to get texted every day. We want them to think, “I’m a reader now, and I’m going to continue with this habit I’ve adopted.”

With the 50th anniversary of Head Start this year, in what areas do you think advancements in early childhood education are most needed, and how do you think the emergence of these behavioral economics techniques could have an impact?

Obviously, there’s been a huge expansion in pre-K participation, though, at the moment, less than half of kids go to preschool. A less recognized problem is that there are very high rates of absenteeism among preschoolers.

As it turns out in these low-income, subsidized childcare settings, there’s a benchmark that the literature calls chronic absenteeism, which is essentially missing ten percent or more of the school year. You miss the equivalent of a whole month of the academic year. The rates of chronic absenteeism in low-income areas are on the order of 25 to 35 percent, so huge numbers of kids are chronically absent. We are very interested in figuring out whether these kinds of behavioral tools can help parents. Bringing your kid to preschool is parenting. We just think of that as another parenting behavior that may be amenable to that kind of intervention.

What is it about families’ lives, beliefs about the importance of preschool, or complications in getting a kid to school for which they have made no back-up plan? All of these things are potentially amenable to behavioral interventions. We’re hoping to do a study that does just that.

It’s important because, in correlational studies, the biggest predictor of your absenteeism in kindergarten, in any year, is how absent you were in the prior year. Shoring up this problem early is super important.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in translating research into policy, specifically in the field of early childhood development?

One big challenge I see is that we don’t have very many examples of models that work at scale. So we have some very promising results from some model programs, especially in early childhood – many people talk about the Perry Preschool or the Abecedarian and so forth – but we always have to remember that when you bring something to scale, there’s a lot that gets lost in translation.

There’s a whole set of things that we think need improvement in parenting interventions for low-income families. The upshot is that we don’t have much evidence of what even works. We’re a long way from public policy when we don’t even know what works in the best of circumstances.

Feature Photo: cc/(wikimedia)'
Emily Feldhake
Emily Feldhake is a Staff Writer for the Chicago Policy Review. She is interested in child and family policy and inequality.

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