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Angelica Pabon with her 3-year-old daughter, Liliana, who attends Erie Neighborhood House, a preschool program that provides academic and mental health services for young children. Her older child, Julian, received help there after witnessing the murder of his father. (Photo: Julienne Schaer)

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Parents and teachers alike know that learning slows more dramatically in the summer months for low-income children than for those from high-income households. This year, the “summer setback” arrived three months early, and many young children may not return to school buildings until spring at the earliest. As a result, the education gap is likely to worsen in 2020, as the fallout from Covid-19 takes a disproportionate toll on learning opportunities for young children from low-income families.

Even with preschools closed or at diminished capacity this fall, middle- and upper-class families may be able to maintain habits like daily reading, conversation and the like that will help sustain their children’s skills. This will be much harder for low-income parents.

A survey we conducted this spring of 575 low-income families with preschool age children found that 30 percent of parents were “very worried,” and another 47 percent were “somewhat worried,” about how school closures will affect their children’s learning and social skills development.

The survey also showed that preschools serving these children went to great lengths to support parents in providing learning activities to make up for missed opportunities at school. However, it also shows that the share of parents who report reading to their child only “infrequently” (i.e. reading two times or less per week using a book or a tablet) has increased significantly from last fall, from 18 to 28 percent.  

This suggests that even when preschools provide learning support, they do not necessarily lead to an increase in the time disadvantaged parents spend helping their children learn.

Cognitive scientists, like those of us at the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, have been working to identify ways to lessen inequality and provide more opportunities for learning between parents and children. We’ve learned that the intentions and aspirations of high- and low-income parents for interacting with their children do not differ by much.

What does differ is how much parents are able to follow through on those intentions.

Behaviorally informed communication holds promise for supporting children’s learning, even in times as disruptive as these. Two specific kinds of communication seem to work well for increasing the time that families spend on educational activities with their children.

Regular reminders encouraging families to follow a routine that includes educational activities for their children can substantially increase parents’ engagement with their children. So too does asking families to commit to specific learning-related activities, such as daily book-reading.

Related: Can simple text messages for parents boost reading scores for kids?

In a randomized field experiment, we gave parents an electronic tablet with a preloaded digital library. Some also received almost daily text messages and tips, encouraging them to set reading goals and use the library to read to their children, while providing positive feedback as they met their goals. Other parents did not receive such messages.

Parents who received the messages read twice as much to their children as parents who did not receive the messages. In a different experiment, similar messages decreased chronic absenteeism among children in subsidized preschools by 20 percent.

Regular reminders encouraging families to follow a routine that includes educational activities for their children can substantially increase parents’ engagement with their children. So too does asking families to commit to specific learning-related activities, such as daily book-reading.

Although there is much to learn about how behavioral messaging in other arenas influences children’s development, the results of these experiments illustrate both the importance of and the critical need to improve communication with parents.

The most effective way to do that is through technology. With social distancing measures in place, technology’s role is crucial. But technology-based support for learning cannot succeed in areas where parents do not have access to the internet, digital devices or even cell phones. An urgent task for the year ahead is to close this digital divide.

Right now, while most preschools remain shuttered or operating at diminished capacity, they must urgently find a way to do the best they can to support families – by adopting behaviorally informed, technology-based communication and family engagement strategies and ensuring that all families have access to them.

Preschool teachers can text regular reminders to parents to engage with their children and they can ask parents for commitments to do so.

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the need for rapid and effective school-to-home communication that supports children’s learning. Only technology – and its promise of affecting our individual behavior through behaviorally informed communication – can provide that on a large scale.

Preschools should now prioritize this kind of education technology in government-mandated family engagement programs. Minimizing the consequences of this year’s extended summer setback on our youngest learners may depend on whether they do so.  

This story about learning loss for preschool children was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Susan E. Mayer and Ariel Kalil are co-directors of the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and Philip Oreopoulos is a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Toronto.

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