The US is paying for more than a million low-income kids to attend pre-school. The trouble is, lots of them aren’t showing up.
In Chicago, meanwhile, 36% are chronically absent. This has a significant knock-on effect: one-third will continue the pattern in kindergarten and, of those, more than 30% will still be chronically absent two years later. They are therefore likely to be behind their peers at reading by the third grade, which means they are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
In response, the Behavioral Insights and Parenting (BIP) Lab at the University of Chicago have tried using simple text reminders to help low-income parents improve their children’s attendance record. The intervention reduced chronic absenteeism by 15% amongst those kids who were chronically absent at the start of the study.
“Pre-school helps Alex develop early math skills to succeed in Kindergarten. Don’t let him miss this opportunity!”
“We just said: ‘oh my god, this is so ripe for devising a behavioural intervention and seeing what happens’,” said Ariel Kalil, a professor at the University of Chicago and co-director of the BIP.
Behavioural “nudges” like this have been becoming increasingly popular in policymaking, including in education. For example, in one West Virginia school district, texting parents about their middle- and high-school children’s absences and grades could cut their course failures by nearly 40%. BIP’s Chicago study, though, funded by the Joyce Foundation, is the first to have tried it with pre-school kids.
Nudging parents to act
“In principle, the parent wants the kid to be here,” she said, “but in practice – as with all other things that people want – there are these cognitive barriers that get in the way.” The texts were designed to tackle different cognitive barriers, ‘nudging’ parents to make sure their children get to their Head Start centre.
They used four types of text messages, informed by behavioural science: reminders to get the child to school every day; feedback regarding how many days they’ve missed each month; a loss aversion message reminding parents of pre-school’s importance for the child; and planning prompts to identify and plan for potential logistical obstacles to attendance.
Enrolling 780 families at nine Head Start pre-school centres in Chicago, BIP’s randomised control trial took place over three rounds of 18 weeks in 2016 and early 2017. Aged between three and five, the children were – by definition of being signed up to Head Start – from low-income families. They were also 80% hispanic: a group which tend to suffer most from the academic achievement gap.
The results showed a significant but relatively modest impact which, interestingly, increased as time went on: in the third round, there was a 1.1% increase in the overall attendance rate in February, which had risen to 4.8% by May.
The texts were sent four to six times per week to participating parents, and personalised with the child’s name. For example, a loss aversion text might say: “Pre-school helps Alex develop early math skills to succeed in Kindergarten. Don’t let him miss this opportunity!”
The idea of regular text alerts to parents is to “formalise the attack on the cognitive barrier and routinise it,” said Kalil, in a way which wouldn’t be possible for staff members who, on top of their other duties, have to track down parents with phone calls.
“A huge part of their mental energy is managing this attendance problem,” said Kalil. “It’s also very disruptive to the teacher when kids are constantly absent: that makes for a very disruptive classroom.
“Pre-school is real school; it’s not just babysitting”
“One phone call from a harried specialist, who’s just trying to track down one family at a time, is not going to be able to cover all these different cognitive biases that may be standing in the way of getting your kid to school.”
As well as being a little less aggressive than a phone call, the text reminders have proved popular. “The tips were really helpful,” said Kalil. “Parents really liked getting these planning prompts.” For example, a prompt might read: “Think of someone who is able to help drop off or pick up Alex if you are not able to.”
The intervention can also take pressure off Head Start staff and centres: if they struggle to maintain a minimum level of attendance, their funding could be jeopardised. “If we can just take this part of her job – and I’m saying her because this job is almost always occupied by a woman – that frees up time,” said Kalil. “When the attendance rates rise, that’s less stress on the centre.”
How much impact will it have?
While the BIP study demonstrated the potential of text messages to modestly improve attendance rates, the study showed that many children have structural barriers to attending pre-school.
“It’s still the case that there’s a large share of kids who remain chronically absent, despite our intervention,” said Kalil. “And we know from our rich survey data that, in the case of attending pre-school, many of the barriers are, in fact, not cognitive.”
For example, if a child has a chronic illness they are 22% more likely to be chronically absent, and if their commute is greater than 25 minutes it means they’re 16% more likely. “We don’t think there’s any texting intervention that’s going to solve those problems,” Kalil said.
That being said, the intervention can still have substantial impact. “This is not predominantly a cognitive barrier problem,“ Kalil explained, “but this particular approach can definitely help manage the share that is.”
Their study demonstrated that “a simple text-based intervention can make some fairly important headway,” said Kalil. What’s more, the intervention is “basically free” and BIP are seeking funding to develop an app for pre-school programs to implement it with ease.
“Making the translation from research to practice relies on a lot of relationship-building and social capital,” said Kalil, who is planning to first scale the intervention in Chicago, which has the highest grant for Head Start in the US. “We’ve spent a lot of time developing relationships with the relevant stakeholders.”
A major aspect of that will be convincing people just how important early years education is for childhood development. “Preschool is real school; it’s not just babysitting,” said Kalil. “We want people to take it very seriously.”
(Picture credit: Pexels)