Mabel is a three year-old living in Providence, RI. She is the daughter of one of my former high school students. He and his wife are smart, resourceful, and hard-working; they also come from families with limited educational backgrounds and even more constrained financial means. My student and his wife work multiple jobs between them, are rarely home at the same time, and feel considerable anxiety about being able to financially support the life they would like Mabel to lead.

I often think about Mabel, and about my student and his wife, and the educational choices they will face in the coming years. What preschool and elementary school will she attend? What kind of courses will she take in middle and high school? Where will she apply to college, if at all?

These are challenging decisions for any family, but for the more affluent and educated among us, we can rely on a variety of resources to help us make informed choices for our children. We have family and social networks who have navigated complex school choices with older children; we often have more leisure time and more consistent schedules, so we can set aside time to look into school options. At an even more basic level, we can devote more of our cognitive bandwidth to think about educational choices and opportunities because we don’t have to focus as much of our energy and attention on simply making ends meet.

Mabel’s parents, as smart and caring as they are, are less well positioned to make active and informed decisions about the course of her education. Lacking the same experienced social networks and grappling with financial anxieties, they are more likely to stick with the status quo, perhaps sending Mabel to a family-run daycare on their street even if there are spots open in one of the high-quality early childcare centers in Providence. Balancing so much in their lives, they may miss deadlines to submit school choice applications, leaving Mabel to attend her zoned school.

The consequences of not making active and informed decisions about her schooling can be profound. A quality preschool experience can generate academic and non-cognitive gains that persist for decades to come. Having a top-rate teacher at a good school can similarly lead to long-term improvements.

From Mabel’s current age all the way through her college education, she and her parents will confront a series of critical junctures where the choices they make have the potential to profoundly affect her educational trajectory and later life outcomes. The complexity of these choices will make it challenging for them to consistently make informed decisions that are well-suited to Mabel’s abilities, interests, and circumstances.

Fortunately, a growing set of behavioral strategies has emerged over the last several years that policy makers can leverage to help children like Mabel pursue the best education available to them. Mayors in every city should consider how they can do the following:

Simplify school information. An increasing number of towns and cities have some degree of school choice available to students and families. But information about available schools is often presented in thick, text-heavy booklets or through poorly-publicized websites. Several studies show that simplifying information about school choice and using visual cues, like star systems, to differentiate school quality can lead to families sending their children to better schools where they are more likely to be successful.

Ease entry into educational programs. In a similar vein, families often have to complete cumbersome applications to take advantage of educational resources or opportunities. Families also often have to pay upfront (and often unanticipated) fees to participate in programs, like taking a college entrance exam or attending college orientation,, and may not be aware that fee waivers are available. Policies that simplify or eliminate applications and fees can substantially increase program access. For example, in Maine, Illinois, and other states, students no longer have to independently register for the SAT or ACT, or pay a fee to take the exam; the tests are now mandatory for all students. These policies have substantially increased test taking and improved college-going rates.

Prompt students and families to make active choices. We all have the tendency to put off onerous tasks, like applying for financial aid, in favor of more immediate (and sometimes more pleasurable) pursuits. And the more we juggle in our daily lives, the less attention we have to devote to important decisions, like finding enriching summer opportunities for our children. As a result, however, we can miss important deadlines or opportunities that would have been available to us if we acted more quickly. A variety of studies have relied on communications strategies that effectively reach students and families, like text messaging, to prompt them to follow-through on important actions. In one study, a Columbia University researcher sent parents personalized information about assignments their child had not yet completed. In another study, researchers sent high school graduates text messages about tasks they had to complete in order to successfully matriculate at their intended college or university. In both cases, students experienced improved educational outcomes as a result of these nudges.

Attend to the social context of decision making. To paraphrase John Donne, no person is an island. Students’ academic performance can be affected by the social context around them. They may be worried about confirming a societal stereotype about a group with which they identify, or may question whether students “like them” belong at educational institutions they perceive to be the domain of students from different backgrounds. Interventions that address these anxieties—for instance, by encouraging students to reflect on their values as an individual, or by sharing narratives of older students who have successfully navigated transitions to new educational environments—can boost students’ resilience and lead to sustained gains in academic achievement.

Mabel is a bright, precocious kid who deserves the best educational opportunities that are available to her. Informational and behavioral barriers, however, often stand between children like Mabel and high-quality programs in their community. Behavioral science offers a variety of strategies that policy makers can leverage to improve outcomes not only for Mabel and her peers, but also for society overall.

Ben Castleman is an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The 160 Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education, available from Johns Hopkins University Press.