A simple enrollment change yields big dividends in children's early learning program

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Researchers know that text messaging programs can dramatically improve literacy among young children. Now, new research shows that parental participation in such programs can be increased exponentially with one simple change: automatic enrollment combined with the ability to opt out.

New research from the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy appears in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

In recent years, increasing research has shown that SMS is an effective, inexpensive, and scalable approach to engaging parents in their children’s learning. Some studies suggest that text messaging interventions, through tips for parents on how to support their child’s development, can propel toddlers to learning for 2-3 months.

However, it can be difficult to get parents to sign up for these useful programs. With this in mind, the researchers developed a study to test strategies for increasing program participation.

In the study, researchers from Duke, New York University, and Brooklyn College compared different enrollment options for the Talk to Your Baby text-based early bird program. The text-based 26-week course is designed to encourage early language development in children from birth to 3 years of age.

The researchers looked at 405 mothers who received newborn home-calling services as part of a free, city-wide program in New York City. Using a randomized controlled trial, researchers tested whether changing the enrollment option from opt-in to opt-out affected mothers’ admission and completion of the early literacy program. Most of the participants were low-income and racially and ethnically diverse.

The results show that 88.7 percent of study participants stayed in the program for the entire 26 weeks when they were automatically enrolled with a voluntary opt-out option. In contrast, only 1 percent of the mothers in the control group who learned about the program through traditional recruitment flyers volunteered for the program. The results suggest that while parents’ desire to participate in the program is high, their ability to assert oneself is challenging, the researchers said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, these programs and other digital strategies can be especially useful for reaching out to parents, the researchers say.

“A lot of time is spent creating excellent and developmental content for these programs, and relatively little time is spent understanding how parents can facilitate engagement,” said Lisa A. Gennetian, lead study author and Pritzker Associate Professor of Early Learning Policy Studies at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “Parents’ decision to enroll in programs, especially programs that are generally accessible and free, is important. We learned from this study that automatic enrollment minimizes the burden on parents and can have tremendous benefits in a way that which does not affect their freedom. “

The study is one of the first to show that auto-enrollment is a promising strategy for increasing participation in early language and learning programs.

The study also showed that the decision to stay in the program or to opt out remained consistent for different subgroups. For example, it made no difference whether this was a firstborn or whether the other received public benefits. Such features are sometimes cited as disruptive to program participation.

“Opt-out strategies are used liberally in many areas of our lives, from organ donation to retirement benefit decisions. They are effective when carried out carefully,” said Gennetian. “Why shouldn’t we make life easier for parents and use the same strategy of auto-enrolling with the ease of logging out?”

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More information:
Lisa A. Gennetian et al., The Influence of Standard Options for Parental Participation in Early Language Intervention, Journal of Child and Family Studies (2020). DOI: 10.1007 / s10826-020-01838-7 Provided by Duke University School of Nursing

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