Using Behavioral Economics to Support a Play-Based Early Childhood Curriculum

Early education boosts subsequent school success for low-income children. Parents are critical to the success of such interventions. For low-income parents, full engagement is often challenging: poverty redirects attention and resources away from investments in children’s education. The beELL-GRS (Getting Ready for School) project is testing whether behavioral economics (BE) strategies can increase parent and family engagement in a play-based early childhood curriculum for preschoolers.

GRS currently implemented in eight New York City preschool classrooms (Head Start and UPK); six other business-as-usual classrooms serve as a comparison group. GRS parents and teachers are trained to use a shared set of fun, developmental activities that are mutually reinforcing and support development of early literacy, math, and self-regulation skills both at home and in the classroom.

Most early education interventions presume that parents and teachers see the value of such programs, and have the psychological and financial resources to follow through on program recommendations. We revisit these assumptions using insights from behavioral economics, and consider the impact of the context of children’s development and the day-to-day demands of poverty, both of which can easily waylay even the best intentions. BE insights about the context of choices and decision-making behaviors can offer new ideas for redesigning interventions to make it easier for people to develop positive habits and to follow through on more beneficial options.

During its first years, parent enrollment and participation in GRS was low and inconsistent. On average, one out of five parents attended at least one GRS activity (i.e., kickoff, workshop, GRS party), and only 11% of children returned feedback forms to their teacher. Our data collection showed that parents reported that they were aware of GRS, were eager to improve their children’s learning, and that they trusted and respected their children’s teachers; however, they remained confused about GRS materials and goals, and were distracted at home.