Despite their best intentions, low-income parents can sometimes fall behind on important educational goals, such as reading regularly to their children, because of more immediate concerns. New research from the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab at the University of Chicago deploys insights from behavioral science to close the gap between parents’ intentions and their actions.

Parental engagement is a crucial component of a child’s skill development prior to and throughout the child’s formal education. Children spend the vast majority of their time from birth to adulthood outside of school, in family settings or in other settings often determined by their parents. As a result of differences in parental engagement, considerable disparities between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children appear very early in their education.


According to research in behavioral economics and psychology, these differences in parental engagement may result from problems related to “discounting the future,” as recent studiessuggest that low-income individuals discount the future more heavily than high-income individuals. In general, discounting the future refers to prioritizing current conditions over investments in the future. In the context of parenting and education, future discounting can manifest itself in behaviors such as procrastination or impatience for time-consuming tasks, such as teaching a child to read. It is especially difficult for low-income parents to give up their time—which is often spent working long hours in multiple jobs or devoted to dealing with other stressors—for a seemingly distant and often unclear return on their child’s life success.

To address this issue, many family interventions have attempted to increase the amount of time that low-income parents spend participating in educational activities with their children, such as reading to them or assisting them with their homework. However, these programs have had only moderate success. For instance, home visiting programs see little improvement in parental engagement and are expensive on a large scale. Similarly, attempts to substitute parental engagement with school-based programs, even full-day ones like Head Start, can only partially compensate for parents’ lack of involvement, as children still spend most of their time outside of school settings.

The Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab at the University of Chicago recently advanced a different approach to this issue, piloting its own experimental intervention. Using a mobile application (app) on electronic tablets, the goal of the intervention is to increase the amount of time that low-income parents spend reading to their children. In their NBER working paper, “Using Behavioral Insights to Increase Parental Engagement: The Parents and Children Together (PACT) Intervention,” Susan Mayer, Ariel Kalil, Philip Oreopoulos, and Sebastian Gallegos detail this behaviorally-informed intervention. The authors highlight the six-week intervention’s promising results, particularly for parents with high future discount rates, while also noting the intervention’s cost effectiveness and potential for scalability.

A total of 169 parents, with children age three to five years in subsidized preschool programs across eight Chicago childcare and community centers, participated in the PACT intervention. The group was split in half, with 84 parents randomly assigned to the intervention’s treatment and 85 parents to the control group. In addition to the electronic tablet with the reading app, parents in the control group received generic information about nutrition, health, and dental hygiene. Parents in the treatment group, conversely, had additional access to three behavioral tools to help them overcome impatience and procrastination (see graph below). The behavioral tools included: a commitment device (through a website updated with participants’ weekly goal setting and goal keeping, in terms of reading time); reminders in the form of daily text messages about their goals and the importance of reading to their children; and social incentives such as congratulatory messages and notifications.

Along with several demographic and personal information surveys, the PACT intervention also distributed a “time preference” task to measure future discount rates among parents. The task asked parents to choose between an amount of money that they could receive immediately or a larger amount that they could receive later. Parents who chose to receive the money immediately (i.e., were more present-oriented) were classified as having high discount rates for the future.

Over the six-week period, there was a treatment effect of the additional behavioral tools on parental engagement. Specifically, parents in the treatment group read to their children for an average of 152 minutes, almost an hour and a half longer than the 63 minutes spent by parents in the control group.

Similarly, parents in the treatment group read an average of almost one book per weekday, compared to two or three books per week for the control group. On average, the number of books read was approximately 15 for the control group and approximately 32 for the treatment group. Lastly, as predicted by the authors, the increases in reading time and books read were much greater for parents who had high discount rates for the future on the time preference questionnaire administered through the study.

As the role of cost-effective technology continues to increase in all aspects of society, interventions like the PACT study show a lot of promise in addressing issues that disproportionately affect low-income families. However, technology alone can only do so much to counteract behaviors and attitudes that are deeply entrenched in family and community dynamics. What makes the PACT intervention particularly worth exploring, emulating, and scaling is the intentional use of behavioral research in its design. In the study, parents set their own reading targets rather than having goals imposed on them, and behavioral insights helped them achieve those goals. After all, what makes more sense than to invite people to use non-intrusive, well-researched technology to improve their children’s lives?

Article Source: Susan E. Mayer, Ariel Kalil, Philip Oreopoulos, and Sebastian Gallegos, “Using Behavioral Insights to Increase Parental Engagement: The Parents and Children Together (PACT) Intervention,” Working Paper Number 21602, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2015.

This post originally appeared in the Chicago Policy Review

Author: F Coello