Q-and-A with Alexis Lauricella on Parenting Texts and Early Literacy

Can text messages to low-income parents help close the word gap? It’s not an idle question. Last month, the advocacy group Too Small to Fail announced plans to experiment with text messages to parents in a new partnership with Kaiser Permanente, Sesame Workshop,* and Text4Baby. In a recent blog post for Seeding Reading we reported on an initiative called Parent University that sends text messages to Head Start parents with suggestions for building literacy skills in their children. (We also reported on parents' reactions to the project.)  

A study of Parent University, which is administered in partnership with Chicago’s Ounce of Prevention Fund, was led last year by Northwestern University’s Ellen Wartella and Alexis Lauricella. In this post, Barbara Ray interviews Lauricella to glean insights into what worked and why.

Barbara Ray: You find that the program was effective with boys and dads. Was that surprising?

Alexis Lauricella: In hindsight, it makes sense that the service may have been particularly effective for parents of boys and dads. Past research suggests that young boys engage in more challenging behaviors (e.g., aggression) and, accordingly, their parents may be in need of greater support. Also, fathers and parents of boys are less likely to endorse or engage children in complex social-based activities like pretend play, and the texts may have prompted these parents to engage in behavior that might not otherwise have been top-of-mind for them.

[caption id="attachment_5106" align="alignright" width="573"]This post is part of Seeding Reading, series of articles and analysis by New America’s Ed Policy Program and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. See also the Learning Tech section of EdCentral.org and the JGCC blog. This post is part of Seeding Reading, series of articles and analysis by New America’s Ed Policy Program and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. See also the Learning Tech section of EdCentral.org and the JGCC blog.[/caption]

Why are these findings encouraging for the program? Is it rare to find these kinds of effects in six weeks, for example? 

These findings are encouraging for three reasons: First, six weeks is a relatively short time period for an intervention, so seeing results from a basic text intervention so quickly is definitely encouraging. Second, this population is somewhat unique in that they were all associated with Head Start centers, which already are highly involved with and supportive of parents. Therefore, to find an additional benefit to a group of parents who were already high on parent engagement and involvement was also very exciting. Finally, text messaging is ubiquitous and relatively inexpensive, and our results suggest that providing parents with content and information via a text message program may be a promising way to communicate with them.

Any things we should be cautious about when interpreting these effects? 

Like any intervention, you want to be cautious of generalizing findings from one population to other audiences. As I mentioned, these were parents from Head Start centers, which offer a range of supports that vary from other types of child care centers. Further, we are excited about the findings regarding fathers, but we did have a smaller sample of fathers than mothers, and this finding should be replicated with more participants to ensure its reliability. Additionally, future research should assess if the kinds of behavior changes we noticed in our study are sustained or become more pronounced in the long term.

What was the most surprising finding for you?

What was most surprising is that something as simple as a 140-word text message, sent five days a week, was able to influence parenting behaviors and that the parents were so grateful and excited about the service!

What about going to scale with the program? Many programs have trouble when they’re implemented in more sites because people don’t follow the same script or they modify the program, for example. Is this kind of program, because of the texts and the way it is designed, more likely to skirt issues of fidelity when going to scale? 

I think this type of program could easily be implemented and applied to a larger audience. Because it is focused on a particular age group, it is specific enough to be useful to parents while still being broad enough to potentially appeal to a wide population of parents. In our study, all messages were written in advance of the study and “pushed” to parents via an automated service. Thus, having larger numbers of parents receive similar automated messages wouldn’t pose fidelity issues. I think the initial sign-up for the service may be the biggest struggle as people aren’t sure they will like it and may not be excited to participate without the involvement or support of their school or parenting network.

Anything else that is unique or interesting about the program?

The service was unique in that it did not just promote one type of activity (i.e., literacy-based activities) but rather provided a wide variety of suggestions across multiple topic areas, along with messages intended to provide socio-emotional support to parents. Most other texting interventions we’re aware of have focused on a narrower range of target behaviors or goals. It would be interesting to see if a service with a more narrow focus would produce stronger effects in that domain, or if parents respond better to a service like the one we tested that touched upon many topics.

And, more and more parents these days use smartphones. Indeed, about four-fifths of the Head Start parents in our sample own smartphones. It would be interesting to see a study replicate our findings with an app that could deliver push messages at times requested by parents or that could allow parents (and researchers and service providers) to track their parenting behaviors or their children’s learning.

*Full disclosure: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop is a partner with New America on the Seeding Reading project of which this post is a part."


Barbara E. Ray is a writer and editor living in Chicago, and owner of Hiredpen, Inc.