Winding down the day with a digital bedtime story

Building Reading Habits at Home with Behavioral Insights

Shot of a father and his daughter using a digital tablet together at bedtime

Early reading habits are predictive of a number of later life outcomes, including higher education attainment and income, yet more than two-thirds of fourth graders in U.S. public schools are not reading proficiently.

We often think of education as taking place entirely at school, but fourth graders only spend about 13% of their waking hours in the classroom, meaning the simple act of regular at-home reading can have lasting effects on children’s lives. In addition, parents reading together with their children not only fosters positive attitudes toward reading, but also improves the development of comprehension and vocabulary.

But families reading together for even 20 minutes a day isn’t as simple an ask as it sounds. At its heart, at-home reading is not only about literacy—it’s also about habit formation, and anyone who has ever tried to develop a positive habit knows it’s not easy.

That’s why we worked over the past year to identify behavioral barriers to reading at home and to design solutions that set parents up for success and enable their children to improve their reading skills. Working with Stand for Children, a non-profit education advocacy organization, we developed and piloted Every Child Reads, a behaviorally informed program designed to support family reading.

Behavioral barriers to building a reading habit

Trying to read more often at home is difficult, and full of often-overlooked behavioral barriers—we identified 16 separate barriers in our work. Here are just a few of the insights we uncovered:

It’s hard to find time to sit down and read. With busy schedules, it can be difficult for parents to find the minutes in a day to read with their child. With many pressing demands, families experience time scarcity, where they focus on what is most urgent even when there may be other important but less time-sensitive tasks.

There are no immediate consequences for not reading. Failing to take the time to pay bills has obvious (and immediate) negative consequences for parents. But there are few immediate repercussions for not reading on a given day, and it can be hard to see the connection between 20 minutes of reading right now and the long-term impact on a child’s life.

Reading isn’t the default activity for many families. Small details—like which book to read, where to do it, and how much time to dedicate—take up mental energy and can deter families from getting started. When reading becomes a default activity—part of a family’s regular routine—the answers to these questions become so automatic that people might not even need to ask the questions. But when reading isn’t the default, people tend to stick to their routines.

How can a reading program help families overcome these barriers?

We developed eight design principles that program designers can use to help families overcome the common barriers to reading at home. Here are just a few:

Encourage parents to make plans, and then send them just-in-time reminders to follow through. Asking parents, “What’s one day you can make sure your child reads this week?” and sending them a reminder on the day they choose is a manageable way to start a reading habit. It may be helpful to suggest pairing reading with another activity, such as when their child gets home from school or is waiting to pick up a sibling.

Help parents set goals. Encourage parents to choose challenging, but not impossible, goals, and guide them toward goals that are effort-based (such as reading three times a week) rather than performance-based (such as finish one book each week). Giving parents opportunities to reset periodically can reduce any negative feelings about missing goals, leveraging the fresh start effect.

Normalize at-home reading. Reading at home is a private act, and as such it’s difficult to gauge who is reading and who isn’t. Emphasize that other families are making progress on their reading goals in order to set a social norm. Highlighting the successes of a diverse group of families and encouraging families with the strongest reading habits to talk publicly about their achievements and the challenges they’ve faced can also help to strengthen norms about reading.

The challenge of measuring a home program’s impact

With Every Child Reads, our goal was to create an effective, scalable program that would help families face some of the biggest barriers to at-home reading. However, we soon encountered tradeoffs in our work: the most helpful program isn’t always the most scalable, and some of the steps we would need to take to measure whether the program works could derail its effectiveness.

For example, recording reading activity is needed to show if the program had an impact, but automatic data logging would require families to read exclusively on an app—essentially instructing them not to read paper books, which could deter many people. Book logs filled out manually would let us record non-app reading, but that adds an extra hassle to the process, and we know even minor hassles can cause people to disengage.

We prioritized making the program as behaviorally informed as possible, which means we don’t have a clear indication—other than positive feedback from parents—of how successful our pilots were at increasing the amount of time families spend reading outside of school. But the insights gleaned from applying a behavioral lens to the problem of low literacy levels, and specifically a lack of home reading, may support and strengthen other programs with similar aims.

Potential for future impact

Every Child Reads represents a start to applying behavioral science principles to literacy programs, which has the potential to help more families read together, setting children up for greater success at school. These early efforts produced many insights that leaders of home reading programs, schools, and communities could leverage to help more families read together at home, helping to pave the way to better literacy rates and educational outcomes for more students.

The insights above are just a few of the many we uncovered in the process of developing Every Child Reads. Read the project brief and our full paper, Building Home Reading Habits for more, including tips for ensuring book access, a key part of any reading program.

More Opportunities to Support Student Financial Health

The start of a new academic year should be an exciting time for the 19.9 million students who recently began or are continuing in college. But for many students, college also brings stressful financial decisions. These decisions weigh on many students, but the burden is often heaviest for those who are balancing school with full time jobs, care-taking responsibilities, and other individual circumstances in their lives. We know the college experience is rife with hidden behavioral barriers that get in the way of students’ financial stability—and crucially, their path to graduation. Between rising tuition and fees, extremely expensive textbooks, and the costs of transportation, housing, and food, managing the costs as a college student in the United States is undeniably challenging. In fact, it’s a major reason many students don’t complete their degree, which puts students in the double bind of having to bear the price of postsecondary education without reaping the benefits. While support is available in the form of financial aid, scholarships, and loans, navigating the systems for accessing these options presents its own set of challenges, and managing the funds they make available is seldom straightforward.

Fortunately, there are opportunities to ease this burden for students. With the generous support of MetLife Foundation, we’ve identified five high-potential opportunities, rooted in insights from behavioral science, to support students’ financial health on the journey to, through, and after college. Some of these areas already have a robust evidence base and are ripe for expansion and scaling of impactful solutions. Others represent opportunities to investigate new solutions to the challenges of student financial health.

One such opportunity is to expand and scale interventions to increase FAFSA filing among students. Perhaps unsurprisingly, submission of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which can unlock thousands of dollars in financial support, can be linked to persistence through college, especially among low-income students. What may be surprising is that every year students forgo billions of dollars in grant funds (which don’t have to be paid back) because they either submit their applications late, or don’t apply for aid at all. Although filling out a form may seem straightforward on its face, with more than 100 fields to fill out – some of which are complex, intimidating, and require a time commitment to find the information – the FAFSA can be a daunting challenge.

Light-touch solutions grounded in behavioral science have been shown to consistently and significantly boost FAFSA filing rates at minimal cost, but even these successful solutions are not always scaled widely. Moreover, FAFSA programs often target incoming students only, leaving returning students without needed support throughout the re-submission process. As we’ve learned in our own work with students at City University of New York (CUNY), this is a huge opportunity for impact, as many students don’t renew their FAFSA in large part because they incorrectly associate the submission process with starting college, and don’t realize they need to file it each year they’re in school.

Knowing this, our recent work with the CUNY aimed to expand proven FAFSA support programs to continuing students. The intervention consisted of a series of emails and text messages encouraging students to make a plan to complete the FAFSA at a certain time and location, correcting misperceptions about eligibility and the consequences of not filing, making support services more salient, and providing regular and well-timed reminders of critical steps. When tested with three CUNY campuses, FAFSA renewal rates increased by 31%. In addition to being effective, the intervention package is highly cost-effective: each dollar spent on the communications to students generated almost $250 in additional student aid.

It is critical for college administrators and other practitioners to scale these proven interventions to ensure that all students have access to the support they need to complete the FAFSA and receive all of the aid for which they are eligible. It could be the difference between persistence and dropping out for many students. 

Another high-potential opportunity we’ve identified is testing new approaches to optimizing the selection of loan repayment plans for students leaving college. Student loan delinquency and default is a growing challenge for those who have left college (whether they earned a degree or not). In fact, 11.5% of people who began student loan repayment in 2013-14 were already in default three years later. In many cases, default may be avoidable through enrollment in income-driven repayment plans, which scale payments to borrowers’ ability to pay. However, up to 80% of people eligible for these plans don’t sign up.

Some promising interventions have been tested in this space, but more experimentation is needed to enhance the process through which students choose a loan repayment plan. For example, exit counseling could, in theory, be an effective channel for reaching students with actionable, just-in-time advice about the loan repayment plan that’s right for them. Unfortunately, as of now, the channel is not optimized, lacks personalization, and overloads students with information.

Both researchers and practitioners can contribute to the existing knowledge base by exploring new approaches to guide students through loan repayment, and by measuring effects of those approaches on student financial health.

These and other opportunities are detailed in our new brief: Insights and Opportunities: College Student Financial Health and Behavioral Science. We hope that it serves as a starting point for practitioners, funders, and other stakeholders to take fuller advantage of the power of behavioral science to improve student financial health and, ultimately, college completion and a better path toward success in their post-college lives.

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