Light Touch Strategies to Strengthen School-Family Connections

Parents receive school notifications on their phones

It’s morning rush hour in New York City – no, not the one clogging the subway. It’s the one inside your apartment as you try to get the kids off to school on time. Jordan wants to read a book, but you haven’t braided Lana’s hair yet, and Kiki the cat just threw up in the corner. As you grab backpacks and launch out the door, you think:

Wasn’t something scheduled for Jordan’s class tonight? Was it a parent-teacher conference, or maybe a workshop? No time to think about it now – we have to make the bus!

Turns out, you are not alone in your morning mayhem.

Research shows that this is exactly what happens in most families with young kids. Time and attention are scarce resources, mostly spent on taking care of the day-to-day business of being a family. The parenting workshop you missed would have been nice to attend; you really do want to figure out how to teach your four-year-old his shapes and colors, and to learn why your first grader has so much trouble regulating her emotions. But mornings and evenings are stressful and chaotic at times, and attending extra events at their school can be really difficult to remember and arrange.

Despite this difficulty, many parents are motivated to show up and do the work for their kids. They understand the value of a solid home-school relationship, and they want to support their child’s academic success. The problem? Life keeps getting in the way.

Dr. Lisa Gennetian, Director of the Behavioral Economics Early Learning and Literacy (beELL) lab at NYU, sees this often: “Many school readiness programs really struggle with parent participation.”

Parents might not know the program exists or how to sign up, and those with low literacy skills or limited English proficiency might be intimidated by complex application forms. One of the biggest obstacles is that some parents simply forget.

Some school-based programs have attempted to make it easier on parents. Initiatives have been launched that provide food or transportation for participants in an attempt to break down some of the more obvious barriers. But these initiatives are often unsuccessful because many barriers are cognitive or logistic, not necessarily economic. Not only that, but these program add-ons can be expensive and cumbersome, which limits how likely they are to be taken up by cash-strapped municipalities.

What if the key to successfully engaging parents in school-based programs was as simple as a reminder from the teacher or a personalized invitation?

Researchers at NYU are betting that it might be. Action-scientists at the beELL lab recently tested a program that uses a bevy of “light-touch” strategies to help parents engage with existing programs. Along with program developers, the beELL research team created a bundle of low-burden intervention add-ons that are backed by behavioral science. For example, some parents received personalized text reminders about upcoming events and easy activities they can do with their kids. They were given redesigned materials that highlighted parents’ crucial role as a first teacher and streamlined the number of suggested home activities. And they were automatically enrolled in, and asked to make a plan for attending, workshops at their child’s school.

Researchers chose fourteen classrooms in four NYC Head Start pre-K centers to test these add-ons. Classrooms and children were randomly chosen to receive the standard Head Start curriculum, Head Start with the Getting Ready for School parenting program, or Head Start with the behaviorally-enhanced version of Getting Ready for School.

Reimagine that hectic morning scene; except this time, suppose that you had received a text from the program implementers the evening before, after the kids were in bed:

“Just a reminder – matching games can help Jordan with math later on. Don’t forget to hand in your completed activity sheet to Mrs. Marks tomorrow at the GRS workshop!”

Research has shown that personalized and well-timed reminders like this can reduce distractions and make parents more likely to follow through on their best intentions. In the case of Getting Ready for School, parents who received these types of reminders spent on average 160 minutes a week on educational activities with their kids, compared to 83 minutes for those in the program who did not receive them. They attended more workshops, too: 53% of those receiving the behaviorally-enhanced version made it to at least one workshop, compared to 21% of those without reminders and plans in place.

Following through on parenting intentions – showing up at school functions, finding those extra 77 minutes in the week to play games and read books – can translate to real math and literacy gains in the classroom.

Parent participation is the key, writes Dr. Gennetian: “The success of early childhood interventions hinge on parent participation, so they can prepare their kids – socially and academically – for school entry.” There is evidence that this is especially true for families living in poverty; by breaking down barriers to engagement, we might narrow the achievement gap between kids from high-income homes compared to low-income ones.

But what is the best strategy to reduce those barriers? Dr. Gennetian contends that we don’t necessarily need to design brand new programs: “As we showed in this study, insights from behavioral economics can guide us in ways to implement small changes to existing programs that can make a big difference, and it’s probably a more sustainable solution.”

Programs like Getting Ready for School, in Head Start centers and in homes, don’t work well when parents can’t attend, or when the free materials remain smashed in the bottoms of backpacks or dormant on a kitchen table. Families must be engaged – book spines need to be cracked, games need to be played, conversations need to happen. Unless children and their caregivers are working with the materials together, academic gains for at-risk kids will be difficult to achieve. Strategies to enhance parent engagement, like those tested at beELL, may be one way to get there.

Mackenzie Whipps is a 5th year doctoral student in the Psychology and Social Intervention program in the department of Applied Psychology.