Panel Paper: Increasing Attendance at Head Start: A Behavioral Approach

Thursday, November 2, 2017
Stetson G (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Ariel Kalil1, Susan E. Mayer1 and Sebastian Gallegos2, (1)University of Chicago, (2)Princeton University

At age four, children from families at the bottom of the income distribution score much lower than their economically advantaged peers in tests of literacy and math and these gaps hardly narrow as children progress through school. The major policy response to these gaps has been an effort to expand the availability of preschool opportunities for disadvantaged children. But providing a preschool slot to every child who needs one is only the first step. Equally important is ensuring that children attend the programs in which they are enrolled. Yet recent evidence shows that chronic absence is pervasive in Head Start programs.

The Show Up 2 Grow Up study is a randomized controlled trial designed to reduce absenteeism in Head Start centers. The approach is informed by findings in behavioral science showing that individuals often encounter cognitive “roadblocks” that prevent them from engaging in behavior that they themselves want to do. The fact that parents are able to get their children to kindergarten more often than they get them to preschool combined with the fact that Head Start programs already provide information about the importance of attendance suggests that one or more cognitive “roadblocks” may reduce attendance in the preschool years. Research in behavioral science has also shown that information, while necessary for changing behavior, is seldom sufficient to change behavior. Behavioral science has also provided tools that have been shown to change behaviors that individuals want to but cannot seem to change.

Show Up 2 Grow Up implements a series of text messages -- approximately 3 per week for an 18-week period as the main tool to effect behavior change among parents of children attending Head Start. The text messages are grounded in principles of behavioral science that 1) emphasize the importance of preschool learning concepts to kindergarten readiness; 2) prompt parents to identify obstacles to attendance and create plans to address these obstacles; 3) provide information to parents about their children’s monthly attendance rates; and 4) remind parents to maintain a goal of daily attendance. At the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab we are collecting monthly attendance data from preschool centers, demographic data from parent participants, information on attitudes and beliefs pertaining to preschool attendance from parent participants, and time preference data from parent participants to measure levels of present-bias. By June 2017 we will have delivered the intervention to approximately 500 families across five Head Start programs in Chicago and we will have complete experimental and survey data on these participants. The paper for this APPAM panel will present the treatment impacts and survey results from this intervention.