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Thinking differently about parent outreach

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

A family including two young children walks down a street holding hands.
A young family walks down a sidewalk holding hands.

A wealth of evidence shows that family-centered early childhood programs such as ParentCorps can have a massive impact in strengthening parents’ capacity to support their young children’s health and development in the long run – so, how then do we work to increase parent participation in such programs at scale? What factors lead families to walk through the door and participate? What turns families off?

In 2017, an interdisciplinary team of researchers, program developers and program staff came together to explore this question: the results of their study – which drew heavily on the input of pre-K parents and teachers and family support staff – was published in a recent issue of Prevention Science.

As lead author Zoelene Hill, PhD, research scientist at the New York Academy of Medicine, said, the aim of this study was to zoom out beyond a focus on one, isolated decision (“did a family attend the program?”) to a broader understanding of the sequence of interrelated decisions and circumstances (social, psychological, economic, and historical) behind families’ participation, guided by behavioral economics. To do so, talking to parents themselves was critical.

“We conducted focus groups with parents to better understand why families may not want to participate,” Hill said. “Social influences became an overarching theme: the stigma that may come from participating in a ‘parenting program.’ Other programs may have deficit thinking, but that’s not at all how ParentCorps approaches parents – so how do we message around that? How do you capture that you will be valued, welcomed, treated as an expert in your own experience?”

“Other programs may have deficit thinking, but that’s not at all how ParentCorps approaches parents — so how do we message around that? How do you capture that you will be valued, welcomed, treated as an expert in your own experience?”

Informed by these conversations and parallel conversations with teachers and family support staff, the interdisciplinary team moved to action. Taking a close look at ParentCorps’ outreach approach – involving flyers, posters and brochures, welcome events for families, school staff striving to personally invite each pre-K parent to ParentCorps’ parenting program, meals and raffle tickets at the program, and more – the team worked to devise new low-cost, scalable outreach strategies that may further boost participation. Importantly, for program developers, this process presented an opportunity to codify the program’s core approach to build respectful relationships with parents – not assuming that all parents should participate, but that all parents should be offered the opportunity, presented with full information, and invited in ways that affirm their worth and support their autonomy.

Above: new outreach materials developed as part of this study.

Bridging insights from family and school staff with well-documented evidence on small “nudges” that can shape everyday decisions, the team landed on a new set of innovations: these included a “real talk” brochure insert (that aimed to reduce the stigma that parents may associate with a “parenting program” and amplify the program’s ethos that all parents can benefit and bring expertise to the table that can support their peers); a letter from teachers and wearable button (that read “Proud Pre-K Parent,” alongside the ParentCorps logo); a series of text messages (including conventional reminders about session dates and times, tidbits of program content, and novel messages aimed at addressing psychological contexts likely to influence parents’ decision-making to attend); and more.

Researchers were not able to measure an increase in parent attendance from the bundle of outreach innovations, largely due to study design factors (i.e. participation ranged widely across the pre-K programs involved in the study, from a low of 12% to a high of 73% of families attending). However, the experiment illuminated one specific strategy that significantly increased participation (varying the delivery time of text messages, an insight around novelty of information as influencing behavior). Ultimately, this study showed the feasibility of incorporating behavioral economics-informed strategies into outreach at low cost and provided an actionable model for other programs to engage in this reflective process – involving parents’ input and behavioral economics insights – to ensure their outreach and program practices are designed for families’ continued engagement.

In reflecting on the paper, Hill remarked on the inherent power dynamic in publishing these findings.

“For better and for worse, we [as study authors] apply this very scientific approach and stance to some things. But ultimately a lot of the solutions that we come up with come from parents… The parents told us the barriers. We built off of that,” Hill said. “It’s exciting to be part of the research enterprise and work on teams increasingly being thoughtful about engaging parents as the experts in their experiences. We’ve absolutely made some advancements, but there’s absolutely more work to be done.”

Read the full article: “Behavioral Economics and Parent Participation in an Evidence-Based Parenting Program At Scale”, published by Prevention Science, by Zoelene Hill, Michelle Spiegel, Lisa Gennetian, Kai-ama Hamer, Laurie Brotman & Spring Dawson-McClure.

Shanika Gunaratna is a Senior Program Coordinator for Policy at ParentCorps.

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