OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Using Behavioral Insights to Optimize Parent Engagement in Early Childhood Programs

Our behavioral design enhancements help to focus parents' attention on valuable early childhood resources available to them.

Photo of Michelle Spiegel
1 0

Written by

Name or Organization

Lisa A. Gennetian Research Professor beELL Initiative Institute of Human Development and Social Change NYU Steinhardt


Brains are not computers, and circumstances that sometimes lead to imperfect, impulsive, short-sighted, and messy decision making are universal. Thus, while our existing behavioral design enhancements are currently embedded (or, piloted) within early childhood programs and systems in New York City and Philadelphia, our work and the approach we use to diagnose and design solutions can easily be applied across the United States and internationally.

What is your stage of development?

  • Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD


  • University

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Describe your submission in one clear sentence

Our design innovations help to focus parents' attention on valuable resources available to them by seamlessly incorporating low-cost behavioral economic enhancements embedded within existing early childhood programs.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

Although most interventions address structural barriers to parents’ engagement, few take seriously the decision making roles of parents. Interventions are largely designed presuming certain behaviors by parents: that they are clearly evaluating whether a program is worth signing up for; understanding and acting on all of the steps to enroll; and having the attention to listen and execute good parenting practices every day. Our solution engineers around parents’ true behavior by taking into account the ways in which context and cognitive processing affect people’s real-world decision-making.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Channel: A new way to deliver existing products or services to customers or end users.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

We are seeking to experiment, understand, codify, and eventually incorporate at scale the most effective behavioral economic enhancements within existing early childhood programs and platforms to optimize their impacts on childhood development. We bring the perspective of behavioral science and the power of random assignment and placebo controlled studies to real-world partners and settings to systematically identify and test whether cognitive barriers play a role in diluting or interrupting full engagement of parents. Our innovation is multifold: by bringing a new framework we discover new solutions to old problems. By experimentally testing we deepen the evidence base on mechanisms to improve the return on early childhood investment. By building new evidence with authentic settings we have the opportunity to offer design options at scale across a variety of early childhood settings.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

We aim to contribute to strategies to reduce the socio-economic gaps observed in children’s development as early as birth; and, to do so by examining problems around low utilization, inconsistent participation, and low retention of services, and thus, diminished influence of positive parenting practices with children. We bring the framework of behavioral economics to complement existing best practices to broaden the potential set of solutions, and potentially untap yet to be uncovered barriers.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

The fact that surrounding circumstances have influence on parents’ decisions (and on parenting) implies that certain features of programs can be designed or redesigned to foster certain behaviors. We currently collaborate with four partners implementing early childhood programs on the ground and conduct bottom-up fact-gathering of key points of behavior that underlie an intervention’s broader logic model (like, attendance- on time and prepared, application of recommendations during visits and at home) to design behavioral economic prototypes and through rapid-fire experimentation, evaluate the outcomes and re-design prototypes to create solutions. Our approach can be explained using the example of one of our current partners, which is a 14-week parenting program add-on to head start currently operating at over twenty head start centers in the urban Northeast. Through the process of mapping parent behavior as a key component of the program’s logic model, we learned that parents were unaware of a raffle offered at sessions as an incentive to attend. By analyzing existing print materials, we found that information about the raffle was buried. Furthermore, we analyzed the nuance of the raffle procedure: parents received tickets only upon attending each session. We found the raffle prize process to be ripe for a behavioral economic solution to motivate attendance. As behavioral scientists, we identified two insights from the economic and psychological literature relevant to incentives: loss aversion and the endowment effect, which, respectively, show that people are more motivated to avoid losses than they are to procure similar gains, and that people place higher value on things they already own as compared to things they do not own. Harnessing these insights, we redesigned the raffle procedure to accomplish three sub-goals: ensure all parents were aware of the incentive, invoke a sense of ownership over the prize and make salient its value. Through iterating with graphic designers, we designed eye-popping raffle tickets that had printed a clear indication of the value of the prize and distributed them all parents two weeks before the program launched. To build knowledge around the impact of this seamless, low-cost design innovation, we have a control group that won’t experience this intervention. The random assignment control trials allow us a systematic way to assess the effectiveness of the behavioral economic enhancement so that we can confidently embed similarly designed innovations to other early childhood programs nationwide, as well as better understand barriers and facilitators of parent engagement. Another game-changing solution around which our team aims to build knowledge and test in the context of early childhood interventions is the concept of choice architecture, which is the design of different ways in which choices can be presented. From our ground-level diagnostic mapping of the program in action, as parents’ experience it, we saw that staff circulate a blank sign-up sheet filled with rows for parents to write their information. From our teams’ combined decades in the field of children’s’ interventions, we know that this method of recruitment is similar to other programs. However, from behavioral science we know that humans are prone to inertia and procrastination and avoid making a choice if they are not explicitly presented it, and, we know that humans are heavily influenced by the behavior of others. With these insights, we redesigned the parent sign-up process, removing the typical sign-up sheet and replacing it with a postcard that required parents to make an explicit choice, yes or no, about attending the parenting sessions. The yes option included a sentence highlighting the positive implications of that choice. Similar to the raffle prize process redesign, there is a control group who will experience recruitment as-usual for the program. Small, contextual changes in the design of a program, like the two examples illustrated above, can facilitate aspirational behaviors. By examining with a new lens the broader contexts and specific situations that parents face when making choices, our team generates new ideas about how to redesign programs such that parents will be more likely to make a desired choice or action, and follow through, without constraining their ability to choose.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Low income children and their families are the immediate beneficiaries of our work. The childhood intervention program staff and developers are also beneficiaries. Furthermore, we intend to share the learnings around parent behavior and engagement through academic papers, presentations, and op-eds, as well as debrief with our government partners so that additional early childhood programs can deploy our learnings to address low and inconsistent engagement in their own programs.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

Engaging parents as active agents is a vital ingredient to the success of parent-focused early childhood interventions. Our work contributes to the currently limited knowledge base around understanding promising and low-cost design strategies to improve the participation and engagement of otherwise able and capable parents. Depending on the needs of the program with whom we are partnering, we assess the impact of the behavioral economic enhancements through a set of embedded mini-experiments randomizing at the individual, classroom, or site level, potentially at one or more of the identified critical decision making points to enroll, participate, and follow through. Experimentation also allows us to assess whether a particular sequence of behavioral economic interventions is more effective (e.g., affirming particular identities may be more influential during early interactions with a program whereas small financial incentives may be more influential for ongoing participation in a program). The results of these embedded experiments are immediately apparent in part because they are targeted to change readily observable decision making, such as signing up, or attending.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

Our research is conducted in partnerships with programs that serve predominantly low-income, minority families with the objective of leveling the playing field with their higher income and/or non-minority peers. Our innovative approach to parent engagement is uniquely positioned to impact low-income children because the seamless design enhancements we develop and test are sensitive to the new framework of understanding that the context of poverty is not simply a matter of scarce financial resources but can drain and strain cognitive resources as well. Put simply, our work aims to streamline, eliminate hassle and simplify processes surrounding enrollment, involvement, and engagement in early childhood intervention programs. In one of our projects, the bundled behavioral economic enhancements increased the time parents spent with their pre-school aged children on the program’s play-based activities. In yet another example we are learning about how altering the default choice can affect take-up of early literacy information: Parents who were defaulted into receiving text message content early learning tips were not likely to opt-out whereas few parents opted in when presented with conventional marketing. another way, while enormous public investment went into a citywide campaign for the availability of this early learning program, very few individuals were actually signed up to receive the messages.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (1500 characters)

Applying insights from the behavioral sciences to support parent engagement in children’s development and to build positive parenting practices is novel across many fronts. We are one of the only research laboratory of its kind devoted to growing the knowledge base around parents’ biases in decision-making particularly during children’s most sensitive early years of development. We also come at this with the objective of supporting parents and children in the lowest income families, who are the recipients of much public investment. The behavioral design innovations aim to enhance engagement among parents and children who might benefit the most from programs, yet do not engage, because of small situational features, which ultimately helps families, programs, and society writ-large to regain the return on early childhood investment. Our approach also differs in our holistic view of the entire chain of decisions and actors involved in the interface between parents and programs, i.e. we look to embed behavioral economic enhancements at each (and, possibly every) critical decision making juncture.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Currently, our research projects are embedded (or, piloted) within programs and services targeted to low income families already at scale in urban environments. This includes a home visiting program, Head Start centers, and publicly funded preschool. The inherent nature of our design enhancements are low-cost and scalable. Through expanding existing partnerships and creating new partnerships, our team can expand the knowledge base around parent decision-making behavior and the effectiveness of behavioral economic enhancements in the unique context of early childhood intervention. As our inter-disciplinary team expands this field of inquiry, armed with a better understanding of the barriers and facilitators of parent engagement in early childhood programming, we can confidently make available the most effective behavioral enhancements for all practitioners to use in their own programs. The behavioral insights can also be used in several other complementary ways. First, the insights have supported creation of new lighter-touch parent-focused early childhood interventions, with one that has shown promising favorable impacts on parent reading time with their children. Second, behavioral economic strategies can enhance the impact of existing curricula or large-scale system-wide interventions (e.g., through pediatric care platforms, home visiting or larger scale public health or early childhood development campaigns).

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

Our team has successfully embedded behavioral enhancements within existing practices across three varying early childhood programs. We’re lucky to be working with NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, a school-based parenting and socio-emotional program that is scaling throughout NYC preschool through the Department of Education,, and Head Start programs. We are currently implementing a randomized control trial that seeks to integrate the availability of city wide early learning resources -- the Talk to Your Baby texting program and the NYC library system—with a newborn home visiting program. This study includes: automatic enrollment; supplementary text messages that reinforce early language habits and provide positive affirmation of maternal identity; a viewing of video of positive maternal-infant language interactions coupled with an in-person positive affirmation of parenting; and a gift packet with information about local public resources, a pre-populated library card application, and tailored maps to story hours. We have begun to compare outcomes for two groups of parents: those randomized to receive the BE interventions and those who do not. In another study we assess whether behavioral economics (BE) strategies increased parent and family engagement in a play-based early childhood curriculum for preschoolers in Head Start centers. With a 2015-2016 cohort of preschoolers, we successfully tested: personalized invitations to a kickoff event with newly branded visual cues of the program curriculum coupled with teacher endorsement and positive parent affirmation; strategic text and social media reminders to focus caregivers’ limited attention; reframed expectations to engage multiple caregivers in the program’s activities out of school and creating tangible goals to spend more time on activities; and, a visual representation of parent feedback regarding their actual (vs. their perceived) time spent with children on activities. In a third study, we have designed a bundle of behavioral economic enhancements to boost outreach strategies and strategies to reinforce ongoing attendance to a weekly parenting support program held at children’s preschools in NYC. This bundle includes a participation intent invitation vs. a conventional sign-up sheet; reinforced messages regarding content and reminders of meeting times through texts; prize tickets rewarded for attendance that cumulates to a grand drawing; and various parent positive affirmation exercises. While the specific challenges of our partnerships vary, each has a common theme: what low cost light touch strategies can be incorporated into existing program delivery and services to support parent engagement and boost child development? As a result of our work, we have accumulated lessons and promising results related to applying behavioral economic insights to early childhood.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (1500 characters)

With behavioral economic theory and application of insights to real world settings under our belts, we collaborate closely with policy and program developers (often as community and government based partnerships) to help regain the return on early childhood investment by considering parents’ roles, offering tools that reduce the intention to action gap among parents, and doing so as seamlessly and efficiently as possible. Our behavioral economic enhancements are inherently low-cost and scalable which makes our approach to improving parent engagement in early childhood programs viable.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (1500 characters)

The behavioral economic framework is inherently human centered as it recognizes and addresses that parents’ cognitive processing, as it relates to attention, self-control, social norms, and identity, affect their real-world, in-the-moment decision making around engagement in early childhood interventions. In addition to drawing on field experiments on decision-making in the social psychological and behavioral economic literature, our lab has engaged parents directly in focus groups and surveys in pursuit of two goals: first, to learn about parents’ existing beliefs about their children’s’ development as a means of tapping into yet to be uncovered barriers to engagement; and second, to inform and make culturally relevant our innovative behavioral economic design enhancements.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

Our team is led by Dr. Lisa Gennetian, an economist by training whose research portfolio straddles a variety of areas concerning poverty from income security and stability, early care and education, and children’s development, with a lens towards causal mechanisms. Inspired by her work with renowned behavioral scientist Dr. Eldar Shafir, “The Persistence of Poverty in the Context of Economic Instability: A Behavioral Perspective,” she launched our current team, beELL initiative, applying insights from behavioral economics to design strategies to support parent engagement in, and enhance the impacts of, early childhood interventions. Additionally, our team is comprised of post-doctoral and pre-doctoral researchers from the fields of developmental psychology, sociology and public policy. We are housed at NYU Steinhardt’s Institute of Human Development and Social Change. Our team has been discovering the nuances of parent behavior and applying behavioral insights to early childhood programs through the beELL initiative since 2015. Since then, our work has grown from one project in partnership with a government agency and home visiting program to a head start program, a parenting program, and a language development program. We are actively collecting data in three of these projects, are in the process of publishing findings from two, and are additionally drafting a theoretical piece of leveraging behavioral insights to support the early education workforce. The United States spends billions of dollars on early childhood programs, which is backed by an estimate that for every dollar spent on quality early education and care there is a more than $13 return. As behavioral scientists, we claim that this cost-benefit analysis makes strong assumptions about the behavior of parents as informed, attentive, disciplined, and objective acting agents on behalf of young children. Our team is inspired to use what we know from behavioral science to get closer to realizing the full potential of the benefits of intervening in the early stages of development on individuals and society at-large.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (500 characters)

We currently have a team of five working on four projects with various student volunteers and interns drawing from the rich NYU community. Our core team of five includes: director Dr. Lisa Gennetian, three post-doctoral scholars Drs. Zoelene Hill, Yana Kuchirko and Lerzan Coskun, and pre-doctoral student Michelle Spiegel. We are eager to grow our partnerships and enhance resources for additional design, experimentation and evidence building.

Would you like mentoring support? [Relevant only for Early Submission Deadline]

  • No

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

[Optional] Attachments: Please upload relevant attachments or graphics or show us how you prototyped.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Janelle Schroy

Michelle, this is an interesting idea and one I think has a lot of merit. It might be interesting to have conversations about possible collaboration with what we are doing through Adventure Clubs ( where parents are interacting with their children in a group dynamic in a setting that is not a home, nor a school. Please contact me if there may be a way to collaborate together.