Investing in Children’s Early Years: An Interview with Research Professor Lisa Gennetian

Lisa Gennetian is a research professor at Steinhardt’s Institute for Human Development and Social Change (IHDSC). Gennetian studies poverty and policy research, income instability, and children’s development.  In 2015, she launched the beELL initiative; a program that applies insights from behavioral economics to enhance the impacts of early childhood interventions. She is co-principal investigator on a large randomized control study of a monthly unconditional cash transfer to low income mothers of infants, and is an associate editor of Child Development.  We spoke to her about her current research.

You have talked about the debate among parents, scholars, and policymakers on how to best invest in children’s early years of development.  Can you tell us your current thinking on this issue?

With the evidence building across child development and neuroscience, we seem to know a lot about what children need.  We are, however, in an exploration phase of the best ways to design programs and services to convey this to parents in ways that will ensure this information is used to the benefit of their child’s development. As researchers, we know little or less about what parents already do, their beliefs and assumptions, and the types of non-material things (like their mindset or identity) that can interfere with their good intentions. We know even less about the best ways to support positive parenting practices on a day-to-day basis (though a lot is known on what those positive parenting practices should look like).

Lisa Gennetian

A high priority among parents, scholars, and researchers has been to ameliorate the effects of poverty by creating high quality care settings.  Whether low or higher income, however, parents prioritize safety, affordability, and accessibility of children’s care environments, especially when parents are not available to provide care.  Researchers care about these things, too, but also focus on the importance of the quality of the care environment because of the role it can play in reducing the income gap in children’s development.  (A high-quality setting for three to five year-olds, for example, can prepare young children for the skills they need for kindergarten.)  The challenge for policymakers, though, is that it is difficult to make sure that all preschools or similar types of settings deliver the same high-quality care irrespective of the income of the neighborhood or the families or the quality of the caregivers.

Researchers and policymakers also prioritize sharing of early childhood and child development information with parents.  Efforts to do so are mostly done by disseminating information using methods like social and public marketing campaigns and relaying information through texting programs.  The idea, here, is that parents will read and use this information to change the way they interact with their children and this will also better prepare their children for school.

In 2015 you launched the IHDSC’s beELL initiative where researchers come together and apply insights from behavioral economics to design strategies to enhance early childhood interventions.  What are some of the projects that you are working on?

We currently have four projects, all of which have some roots in New York city programs, services and populations.

One project applies the tools and insights from behavioral economics to integrate existing home visiting program services to low income mothers of newborns in New York City.  The behavioral tools include automatic enrollment into the Talk to Your Baby texting curriculum sponsored by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene during the first home visit, a positive affirmation coupled with a short video demonstrating parent-child interactions with infants (highlighting eye contact, tactile experiences with books among other things), and a gift package with a prepopulated library card application to encourage use of the New York Public library system.

A second project incorporates a bundle of behavioral economic enhancements into a play-based activity curriculum for preschoolers.  Personalized invitations, child friendly activity charts, and visual feedback forms appear to have favorable influences on coordination and communication between parents and teachers, and the time that parents spend with children on these activities outside of the classroom.

A third project is in pilot and experimentation stage, and it involves working with a Pre-K setting based parent support program.  Here we are bundling a variety of strategies hypothesized to overcome stigma and negative judgment that might be present about parenting programs.  We are also incorporating insights about active choice, social influences, and strategic use of small incentives to encourage participation in the parenting sessions.

The fourth project just launched this year will help us to understand beliefs and expectations among expectant families about early learning and development.  We hope this project can help inform ways to enhance openness and effectiveness and help us to create a curriculum that encourages responsive communication between parents and their very young children.  We try to keep information about the projects up to date on beELL’s website and through our twitter @beELLorg.

What outcome from your work inspires you the most?

One of the most interesting and inspiring aspects of this work is the uncovering of problems that had been left undiscovered because of assumptions about parent behavior and parent experiences.  Equally inspiring when a focus on small change is given a context by someone’s personal circumstances.  This has led to remarkable new perspectives on solutions.

What if the context of poverty itself –by draining mental resources—is interrupting or diluting the current investments to solve poverty? Sendhil Mullainathan’s and Eldar Shafir’s book Scarcity:  The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives (Picador, 2013) offers powerful examples of this. Eldar and I expand upon many of these ideas in a paper called The Persistence of Poverty in the Context of Financial Instability:  A Behavioral Perspective.  

Through the work of beELL, we ask a similar question, what if the context of parent’s lives is (unintentionally) interrupting current investments in early childhood because we are assuming parents read the information available to them, seamlessly enroll in programs they want to use, and practice new parenting skills on a daily basis?  Researchers and program developers have been thoughtful in addressing some of the common barriers related to things like transportation and child care.  Behavioral economics offers a complementary framework that stretches us to further understand other types of barriers that might be influenced by, but also might be beyond the time and financial constraints we conventionally consider.