October 5, 2023

12 ways to harness the power of behavioral science for better family-school communications

Communicating effectively is not easy. We can all relate to the frustration of thoughtful word choice and endless edits, only to discover that your audience didn’t absorb the information, engage in the way you hoped, or even read the message to begin with! Behavioral science, the study of when and why people engage in certain behaviors, taking into account the influence of factors such as habits and routines, motivation, and influences from others, can help. From simplifying your message to laying the groundwork for positive action, we’ve highlighted several strategies to try (if you haven’t already) in your family communications. 

Keep the Message Simple

We’re all busy and bombarded with messages from work, family, friends, relentless marketers, you name it. Keeping your communications short & sweet increases the likelihood that they will be read and internalized. This includes:

1. Fewer words

It’s not always easy to be concise, but it’s often the most effective way to get your message across. In our modern world where we’re crunched for time and skimming for key information, it’s not just more powerful, but kinder to clearly share the important facts so that they stick. 

2. Accessible reading level  

Your district’s families are not only busy, but have varied reading levels. Writing at a 5th grade reading level is the safest way to ensure that all readers can understand your message. Just like being concise, this can be a challenge for many of us, who often write at a 9th or 10th grade reading level. The Flesch-Kincaid Readability test is a great online tool to check the complexity of your message.  

3. Formatting to highlight key information

You’re probably skimming this blog post, right? No offense taken. It was written to be skimmed, with bolded sections and numbered lists, so that you can get the key messages quickly. And just as you’re busy, so are families. We’ve found in our research that strategic bolding, bulleting, and boxed text can have a huge impact on not just the readability, but positive actions that people take after reading. This is evident in the truancy notices leveraged in Truancy Support as well as our mail nudges in EveryDay Intervention

Reduce the Friction 

While family communications are often meant to keep the school community informed, they may also ask families to take action. But how can you ensure that families not only read, but engage the way you would like them to? By reducing the work, or “friction.”  

4. Pre-Populated Information

When asking families to complete a form or return information in any way, think about how to make the action easier to complete. If forms can be completed digitally or pre-filled with particular information from the school’s student information system, filling out the paperwork will require less time. 

5. Automatic Opt-In

While it may seem considerate to ask families to opt into your communications at the beginning of the year, it can create yet another barrier to staying informed and taking action. Requiring families to opt in to communications can exacerbate inequities, with families with greater resources being far more likely to opt-in than their peers. In a study published May 2020, only 11% of families opted in to receive important communications with a simple opt-in process.
In contrast, opt-out processes usually result in 95% or more families receiving the communications and/or intervention. 

Infuse Your Message with Clear Purpose

How many of us have delayed responding or taking action on an email because we weren’t quite sure what to do with the information or what the sender was asking? The same can happen with family communications. Here are a few way to make sure your messages have a clear purpose that inspire action:

6. Consider the sender

Families and students react differently to messages depending upon the sender. For example, many students will say they ignore school emails that aren’t sent by their teacher. It is important to have the sender’s name be someone meaningful to the family or student—someone they can identify and whose role they are familiar with. Having a message come from a school leader or the child’s personal teacher often carries the needed weight for positive action. 

7. Clear next steps

In interactions with families, especially when addressing an emerging concern, consider ways to prompt them to make a concrete plan. For instance, if a child is behind on required vaccines, help the family identify a community resource to get the vaccine, make the appointment, and set a date to bring the paperwork to the school. By targeting steps to take, students and families can walk away with an actionable plan. 

8. Expectations for follow-up

When awaiting a response or action from a family, it can be helpful to let them know when and how you will follow up with them. This anticipated accountability makes people more likely to follow through on their plans.

9. Establish social norms 

Behavioral science has shown that people tend to conform to the standard behavior of others. Therefore, including information about how others in a school community act or behave (e.g., average days missed in a student’s class vs. the particular student) can be a powerful tool to positively encourage an individual family or student’s behavior. 

Keep it Cohesive

Family communications that happen sporadically may not be as well read as those that are part of a clear and cohesive plan. Similar to how your favorite podcast or newsletter comes out on a specific day of the week, families should have a relatively good idea of when to expect your communications, and maybe even look forward to digging in. So, make sure your communications are: 

10. Planned  

It is critical that districts and schools have a comprehensive communications plan from the start of the school year. This should include a multimodal approach with a framework for when different channels will be used and a calendar to organize information sharing. This plan should also include guidance for how to handle contingencies when issues arise at the district, school, or individual student level. This ensures that communications are part of the routine operations of a district and that messaging does not fall through the cracks. 

11. Timely

The strategic timing of communications makes a big difference in their reach, utility, and impact. Some events require advance notice so families can prepare and register if necessary. This type of communication might be sent via email, mail, or as part of a calendar that provides an overview of the month ahead. Other types of events or information are best shared just beforehand via text or the classroom or school communication system. These just-in-time reminders help busy families stay engaged with district and school events and needs. 

12. Routine

Communications should be sent on a regular cadence as part of a predictable and expected schedule. Early in the year, districts, schools, and teachers should share with families and students how information will be communicated and their preferred mechanisms for feedback or questions. Well-established channels of communication are the foundation for meaningful family and student engagement.

Behavioral science is in our DNA here at EveryDay Labs. You can further harness the power of behavioral science to improve attendance and family engagement with our proven effective attendance intervention, EveryDay Intervention. For more on communicating with busy families, check out the new book from our co-founder Dr. Todd Rogers, Writing for Busy Readers

Getting students on track starts with attendance. We can help.