New lab to study parenting at intersection of policy, behavioral economics, neuroscience

In an effort to identify cost-effective ways to close the “parenting gap” between rich and poor families, two professors at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy have launched a new lab to evaluate parenting approaches that help children thrive.

The Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab will serve as a hub of new experimental research, student training and partnerships with community agencies. It will be led by co-directors Ariel Kalil, professor at Chicago Harris and director of the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy, and Susan Mayer, also a professor at Chicago Harris.

“We know that the gaps in children’s achievement and behavior are due at least in part to the substantial differences in parenting in rich and poor families,” Kalil said. “Work at the lab will enable us to identify and remedy ‘behavioral bottlenecks’ that stifle optimal parental engagement and long-term behavior change among economically disadvantaged parents.”

Mayer said researchers will test insights from behavioral economics and neuroscience in the design and evaluation of promising new interventions, with an emphasis on rapid cycle evaluation and learning through continuous experimentation.

“We need to be willing to try more new approaches and fail more often,” she added. “We can’t afford to test only single, complex programs one at a time and wait for years to understand their effects.”

While the lab will be operational in the fall, several research projects are scheduled to start this summer.

The first of their studies, the Parents and Children Together project, will be a randomized controlled trial with 500 parents of preschoolers in Head Start programs across Chicago. PACT will test whether a set of tools drawn from behavioral economics can induce an increase in the amount of time parents spend in educational activities at home with their young children. Mayer explained that these tools, such as getting text reminders and receiving public recognition for achievement of goals, have been used to get people to follow through with their commitments and change behavior, such as smoking cessation, going to the gym or putting money in a savings account.

“If these nudges get parents to commit to spending more time with their kids around learning activities, it could make all social programs out there much more effective,” Mayer added.

Another project in Chicago, entitled “It All Adds Up,” focuses on family financial capability. Funded by the Ascend program at the Aspen Institute, the program is a dual-generation initiative aimed at simultaneously teaching parents and their preschool-age children financial literacy skills. Kalil said that this two-generation approach seeks to achieve a “multiplier effect” that is greater than would be achievable in a program targeting either parents or children separately. The goal is to make financial capability skill-building a family tradition, thereby creating a cycle of financial skill and security for American families.

Meanwhile, researchers at the lab will partner with Children’s Home + Aid of Chicago on a variety of programs, including developing and piloting projects to support healthy parenting and parent-child engagement, and starting a joint summer fellowship for graduate students at Chicago Harris.

“We want to collaborate with community-level programs at every step,” states Kalil. “Our results need to be relevant and accessible to the agencies that will ultimately be responsible for implementing and scaling up new programs that incorporate our findings.”

With financial support from the Population Research Center at NORC, the lab will also design and pilot a neuroscience-based mindfulness training intervention to address stress or “cognitive scarcity” among low-income parents and its role in impeding purposeful, goal-directed parenting.

“We are living in an era of unprecedented child poverty and family income inequality,” says Kalil. “The need for innovative, scalable and cost-effective programs to support parenting and children’s development has never been greater.”