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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

Research Digest

Harvard Family Research Project’s (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP. For more information about the research summarized in this digest, please contact the authors at the address below. For help citing this article, click here.

INTRODUCTION
Early childhood programs employ various family engagement strategies to support parents in promoting children’s school readiness (Duch, 2005), and practitioners may want to consider sending text messages to parents to supplement their current efforts. After all, text messaging is a ubiquitous, fairly inexpensive, easy-to-use service that could allow early child care practitioners to send educational prompts and reminder messages in real time for parents to read at their convenience―anytime, anywhere (see Fogg & Eckles, 2007). To explore text messaging’s potential in family engagement efforts, we conducted a six-week text-messaging intervention study. Our goal was to determine if parenting information provided via text messaging could complement family engagement services in several Head Start centers by increasing parents’ engagement in learning activities at home with their children.

Figure 1. Text messages encouraged parents to engage with their children around a variety of topics, and, to take time to appreciate themselves.
STUDY METHODS
This intervention tested a subscription text-message service that delivered daily text messages to parents’ cell phones. Texts included parent‒child activity tips covering a variety of topics, including literacy, mathematics, and science (See Figure 1). The service is commercially available, but all parents who participated in the study received free subscriptions for one year.

Three Early Head Start and Head Start centers were selected for this research project. A total of 253 parents participated, and children ranged in age from 6 months to 5 years. The intervention group included 119 parents who received the text message service. The comparison group consisted of 134 families who did not receive the service until after all data had been collected. Seventy-six percent of participants were mothers, 16% were fathers, and the remainder (8%) were nannies, grandparents, and other relatives. The majority of the sample (85%) used smartphones, with some (15%) relying on basic cell phones.

At the end of the six-week intervention, all parents completed surveys noting which of the following common activities they engaged in with their children during the preceding week: reading, arts and crafts, dress-up and pretend play, telling stories, teaching letters/words, describing to children what they were doing, playing counting games, and singing songs.

RESULTS
Parents in the text message group were very enthusiastic about the service. While enjoyment of the service was high, there were differences in the extent to which families engaged in suggested text activities. Nearly 33% of parents reported doing “all” or “almost all” activities, and 8% doing “hardly any” or “no activities.” Remaining parents reported doing “some” or “a few” of the activities. Parents completed activities at varying times, with about a third of parents completing activities immediately after receiving each text, and a third saving activities for later.

The texting service increased parent‒child activities. Parents who received the text message intervention engaged in more activities than parents who did not receive the text messages. Specifically, more of the intervention participants sang to their children, engaged them in dress-up/pretend play, told them stories, and described to them what they were doing. The service was equally effective for parents across the entire child age range.

The texting service was particularly effective for fathers.
Fathers who received the text messages engaged in more activities than comparison fathers. Specifically, more fathers engaged children in dress-up/pretend play and arts and crafts, sang songs to their children, and told them stories. Since previous research suggests fathers may engage in learning activities with their children less frequently than mothers (Halle, 2002), the texts may have inspired fathers to engage in a wider variety of activities than they otherwise may have thought to do.

The texting service was effective for parents of boys. It appears as if the text messages had a greater influence overall on parents of boys, although there is some evidence the service encouraged parents of girls to engage in certain activities as well. Parents of boys in the text message group engaged in more total activities than parents of boys not receiving the service. Additionally, a greater proportion of parents of boys in the intervention group engaged children in dress-up/pretend play, storytelling, and arts and crafts. More parents of girls in the intervention group sang to their daughters and described to them what they were doing compared to parents of girls in the comparison group. It has been suggested that parents of boys benefited the most from previous interventions because boys tend to engage in more problem behaviors, e.g., aggressive acts (Smolkowski et al., 2005), and perhaps the parents of boys in our study were in greater need of support.

RECOMMENDATIONS
These findings have a number of implications for early childhood educators and practitioners:

  • Practitioners should consider incorporating technology that is used by their target audience (e.g., text messaging, which is popular among many parents). Such technology can be a valuable supplement to existing parent engagement programs.
  • Delivery of content via text message can be a convenient way to provide information and support to busy parents, especially if the time of delivery can be selected by the individual.
  • Consider both mothers and fathers, as well as nontraditional caregivers (e.g., grandparents, aunts, older siblings, et al.), when offering information to caregivers, as a variety of people may be interacting and supporting the child’s learning. Some of these caregivers may be particularly responsive to information delivered by text messaging, especially if they are skilled with using technology or if they are difficult to engage in in-person meetings.


Summarized from Hurwitz, L. B., Lauricella, A. R., Hanson, A., Raden, A., & Wartella, E. (2015). Supporting Head Start parents: Impact of a text message intervention on parent–child activity engagement. Early Child Development and Care, 185(9), 1373-1389. doi:10.1080/03004430.2014.996217 

Lisa B. Hurwitz
Doctoral Candidate
Center on Media and Human Development
2240 Campus Drive
Evanston, IL 60208
Email: lisa.hurwitz@u.northwestern.edu

Anthony Raden
Senior Vice President, Research and Policy Initiatives
Ounce of Prevention Fund
33 West Monroe Street, Suite 2400
Chicago, IL 60603
Email: araden@ounceofprevention.org
   
Alexis R. Lauricella
Associate Director
Center on Media and Human Development
2240 Campus Drive
Evanston, IL 60208
Email: a-lauricella@northwestern.edu
Ellen Wartella
Al-Thani Professor and Center Director
Center on Media and Human Development
2240 Campus Drive
Evanston, IL 60208
Email: ellen-wartella@northwestern.edu
   
Ann Hanson
Director, Advancing Quality
Ounce of Prevention Fund
33 West Monroe Street, Suite 2400
Chicago, IL 60603
Email: ahanson@ounceofprevention.org
 
   

REFERENCES

Duch, H. (2005). Redefining parent involvement in Head Start: A two-generation approach. Early Child Development and Care, 175(1), 23‒35. doi: 10.1080/0300443042000206237

Fogg, B. J., & Eckles, D. (Eds.). (2007). Mobile persuasion: 20 perspectives on the future of behavior change. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Captology Media.

Halle, T. (2002). Charting parenthood: A statistical portrait of fathers and mothers in America. Washington, D.C.: Child Trends.

Smolkowski, K., Biglan, A., Barrera, M., Taylor, T., Black, C., & Blair, J. (2005). Schools and Homes in Partnership (SHIP): Long-term effects of a preventive intervention focused on social behavior and reading skill in early elementary school. Prevention Science, 6(2), 113‒125. doi: 10.1007/s11121-005-3410-7

 

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