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.