Public policies have actively responded to an emergent social and neuroscientific evidence base documenting the benefits of targeting services to children during the earliest period of their development. But problems of low utilization, inconsistent participation, and low retention continue to present themselves as challenges. Although most interventions recognize and address structural and psycho-social barriers to parent’s engagement, few take seriously the decision making roles of parents. Using insights from the behavioral sciences, we revisit assumptions about the presumed behavior of parents in a developmental context. We then describe ways in which this framework informs features of interventions that can be designed to augment the intended impacts of early development, education and care initiatives by improving parent engagement.

Key Take Away Points

  • The circumstances of poverty, and the financial juggling that results, is draining on parents’ attention and self-control and this can impact responsive parenting and sensitivity to children’s cues, particularly during the earliest years of childhood development and even among parents with good intentions.
  • The interdisciplinary framework emerging from behavioral economics broadens our understanding of parent behaviors that can subsequently inform design strategies to facilitate parent engagement in early childhood interventions.
  • Tools emerging from behavioral insights can be used to create new and complementary interventions and to enhance the impact of existing curricula or large-scale system wide interventions including home visiting programs

Author Biography

Lisa Gennetian is a Research Professor at New York University whose current research focuses on the influence of unstable income on family and child well-being, the economic circumstances of Hispanic children, and the ways in which insights from behavioral economics can improve the design of social policies and early childhood interventions. Matthew Darling is a Vice President at ideas42 and Teaching Fellow in Economic Design at Harvard University whose project work includes topics in poverty, health care, early childhood education, financial literacy, mortgage default reduction, climate change, and labor economics. Lawrence Aber is Willner Family Professor of Psychology and Public Policy at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and University Professor, New York University, and an internationally recognized expert in child development and social policy.