May 28, 2020

Using Behavioral Science to Help Families Help Kids

Dr. Todd Rogers, Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and Chief Scientist of EveryDay Labs, presented as a panelist alongside Hedy Chang of Attendance Works for a webinar for the Campaign for Early Grade Reading. Titled “Using Behavioral Science to Help Families Help Kids”, Dr. Rogers and Chang focused on how district administrators can leverage behavioral science insights to support families, particularly during COVID-19.

Behavioral science is the study of how people think and behave; applying behavioral science concepts to family engagement in a school setting allows schools to better connect with families. One of the key behavioral science principles is social norms. Simply put, this is the idea that people like to know what other people are doing, and they often conform to the behavior of others. EveryDay Lab’s family attendance communications utilize positive social norming. Families of students who are chronically absent receive letters explaining that their student has been absent a certain number of days and comparing the absences of that child with the average child in the class or grade level. The majority of parents whose children miss a lot of school believe their children miss less than their classmates; correcting this misconception is motivating and results in a 10–15% reduction in chronic absenteeism.

This same concept can be used by district leaders now during the COVID-19 crisis. Rogers recently conducted a survey through his Harvard lab and found that 85% of parents of students in K–12 education right now want to know if the amount of remote work their child is doing is more or less than what other schoolchildren are doing. Using social norms to help parents understand what is normal can motivate those who are underperforming to improve.

Another behavioral science principle school leaders can harness is reducing friction. School districts that have excellent parent and family engagement programs in place often struggle to get parents to participate. For example, setting up online parent portals frequently requires student ID numbers, account creation codes, photo identification, and other difficult or time-consuming tasks. Merely setting up accounts for families and opting them into the programs (allowing them to opt-out if they so choose) massively increases participation in the program and in turn benefits students. Reducing friction boils down to making things easier so that more people will do them.

Simplification is another fundamental behavioral science principle that is essential for parent and family communications. Parents are more important than ever in their child’s education, and they have limited attention and limited time. Developing a schedule of communications so that parents know when to expect their school to reach out to them is part of an effective communication strategy. In creating scheduled communications for parents that are brief and at an accessible reading level, districts can better reach and serve families.

Finally, considering the modality of family communications is crucial. Studies show that digital communications like texting are most effective for immediate behavior change (like “help your child complete an assignment now”) and paper communication is best for long term behavior change (like “help improve your child’s school attendance”). It’s important to remember that schools lack digital contact information for many of their most vulnerable families, so traditional mail should be used for certain communications. Districts can also consider using physical mailings to collect digital contact information from these vulnerable families.

Chang notes that it is useful to look at chronic absenteeism prior to COVID-19 as a measure to help determine which students might need additional support during periods of remote learning. Data around absenteeism as well as who is responding to school outreach and who isn’t can inform the supports set up for families and students in the remote learning world and beyond.

Students and families need to know that we care for them, especially now as COVID-19 reshapes school systems and processes. School districts can use the start of the upcoming school year as an opportunity to reboot family engagement and communications, using behavioral science insights, to start building a stronger family-school communication system.


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