Small steps to big change

The big idea of applying behavioral insights to children’s development
mliu92, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
mliu92, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

We can thank recent frontiers in neuroscience research for sparking so much momentum around the importance of investing in children’s earliest years of development, when the brain appears to be especially responsive and vulnerable to the quality of one’s environments.

Debates persist though, among parents, scholars, and policymakers, on how best to invest. High-quality early education has its supporters, and certainly many young children will need safe and nurturing places to be when parents are at work, but a recent review of evidence suggests that the early benefits of attending such programs might not be as clear-cut as we might think. Some benefits fade out by the time children enter formal schooling. If so, then where should policy and parents turn for guidance on the types of investments that might have the most enduring effects?

“What if we start from a premise of children’s existing circumstances, systems and services currently in place, and how parents actually behave – versus a predetermined notion of what children need and how parents should behave?”

Many scholars place their bets on the benefits of investing in the home environment and parenting. This area has some big ideas—varying from providing cash supplements to address poverty directly to advancing the use of more structured curricula to promote early language development or practicing contingent responsive parenting. Theories predict that these big ideas will generate big change in children’s developmental outcomes. Perhaps so. But going big can be expensive. And what if going big does not always produce the returns parents and society are looking for?

A new lens on parenting and intervention design

What if small steps, and small changes, are the gateway to the success of big change? What if instead of building something new we start from a premise of children’s existing circumstances, systems and services currently in place, and how parents actually behave – versus a predetermined notion of what children need and how parents should behave?

Alongside the new empirical frontiers in neuroscience is another, new interdisciplinary frontier blending the theoretical insights from the behavioral sciences and social psychology with those from economics and child development. This is turning a new lens on poverty, parenting, and intervention design from early childhood to adolescence; and it is also turning our attention to the merits of small steps and small changes.

Most of us agree that most parents want to do what is best for their children. No single social science or human development theory can accommodate the inevitable ways that busy lives, distractions, and crises contribute to decisions that deviate from parents’ good intentions. Constraints on parents’ attention and self-control, how parents see themselves in certain situations, and elements of our social environment (what our peers do and perceived norms) interfere with such good intentions.

“No single social science or human development theory can accommodate the inevitable ways that busy lives, distractions, and crises contribute to decisions that deviate from parents’ good intentions.”

Sometimes these aspects of thinking and mental capacity overwhelm reasonable evaluations of trade-offs, and future benefits, even with full information. Poverty makes matters worse. Poverty is a drain not only on financial and material resources but also on the mental resources that are often needed to make the climb out of poverty.

Parents make choices every day, and during many moments over the course of each day – choices as seemingly minor as reading to their child, dropping the child off on time at pre-kindergarten, or taking a deep breath before disciplining the child for poor behavior. Insights from the behavioral sciences have helped generate new ideas about the spectrum of constraints parents might face, and new solutions about how to create and redesign the home environment, programs, and services in ways that will make parents more likely to follow through on a desired choice or action.

The promise of light-touch, low-cost interventions to support children’s development

Researchers are now actively applying these interdisciplinary insights to create new interventions—from efforts like PACT to support reading among children in Head Start to mindset training to support academic performance among adolescents. Researchers are also applying these insights to supercharge promising existing early childhood initiatives, like the work of beELL that combines features like reminders, commitment devices, affirmations, and social norming with existing implementation and practices.

Whether designing new interventions or integrating behavioral strategies into existing interventions, these efforts have in common the objective of supporting that one parenting decision that might jolt a new path or dramatically shift a child’s home environment; or, better yet, that might trigger a repeated set of decisions that develop into positive habits. The ideas generated from the behavioral sciences’ interdisciplinary perspective are light-touch and low-cost, and we can learn relatively quickly whether things work.

“The ideas generated from the behavioral sciences’ interdisciplinary perspective are light-touch and low-cost, and we can learn relatively quickly whether things work.”

One of the most pathbreaking studies coming out of behavioral science—or more specifically behavioral economics—is related to the role of the default in savings behavior: When an option to save money is set up as opt-in, people don’t sign up (leading to low future savings even if that is not what they intend); when the option is set up as opt-out, people don’t withdraw even though they are free to do so (leading to higher future savings).

Imagine revisiting the default assumptions in most of the garden-variety early childhood services offered to families and what the possible outcomes might be. The open question is whether the applications of these insights in the domains of intervention and children’s development will generate the types of positive changes in people’s behaviors found in the areas of health, finance, and energy conservation. And might this generate favorable enduring effects throughout children’s development?

The field is burgeoning not only with all-star scientists, but with institutes and governmental bodies, all with a commitment to design, experiment with, and evaluate contributions to science and to policy and practice. Stay tuned.

Worth knowing

For more applications of behavioral insights through government sponsored teams and private (nonacademic) institutions, see:

 
The Society for Research in Child Development, a membership association whose mission is to advance developmental science and promote its use to improve human lives, will hold their 2017 Biennial Meeting in Austin, Texas, April 6 – 8, 2017. The overall theme of the invited program is Developmental Science and Society, although many other areas of research in the field of child development are presented in the general program. For a full list of invited program speakers, visit Invited Program Information or view the entire program using this link: Online Program.

The author of this blog post, Lisa A. Gennetian, and her colleagues will talk about their work on behavioral science and public policy during the Biennial Meeting – see item 4 on the invited program.