CHICAGO – As a single mom who works full-time, Elizabeth Diaz doesn’t always have time to read bedtime stories to her four children each night.
But a few years ago, the time Diaz spent reading to her children increased sharply. As part of a local study, Diaz was receiving text alerts on her phone that urged her to read stories loaded on an iPad researchers had given her.
“When they reminded me, I wanted to do more of the reading goals,” said Diaz, 35.
Amid today's advanced technologies, the humble text message is offering new promise for closing gaps in student achievement – by targeting the behavior of their parents. Informed by science, several new texting programs have helped parents and caregivers develop habits at home that help kids succeed.
Well-timed, well-crafted text messages to parents have led to an increase in reading to toddlers and a rise in Head Start enrollment and attendance, studies show. At the high school level, they've led to teens skipping fewer classes, completing more homework and earning higher grades.
More tech for learning: 4 novel ways to get kids reading
The interventions are particularly focused on lower-income parents, whose children often start to slip behind their wealthier peers' cognitive and academic development before kindergarten begins.
But some of the texting programs are available to everybody. Last year, the Bezos Family Foundation created a way for parents to sign up for weekly texts that suggest free, on-the-spot activities to engage the minds of their kids. The tips, based on the science of early learning, are available on a website and a free smartphone app. But usage increased much faster among low-income parents when the tips were sent via text, in part because they reached caregivers who didn't have internet-enabled phones.
The past six years have seen an explosion of evidence around how to engage parents at scale through low-cost technological interventions, said Peter Bergman, a professor of economics and education at the Teachers College at Columbia University.
"Texting is just a means to an end," he said. "It's really about reaching parents at the right time with the right information.
How's your kid doing in school?
Bergman was one of the first researchers to study the results of texting parents.
For one of his early studies at a Los Angeles high school in 2010, he tapped out messages from his own phone to hundreds of parents of students who were missing homework.
The results were striking: Homework completion of the students whose parents were texted shot up by 25% compared with students who missed an equal number of assignments but whose parents were not texted.
Turns out, most parents thought their children were performing better than they actually were, according to surveys at the beginning of the study.
“When we asked ‘How many assignments do you think your kid has missed?’ parents understated the number of missed assignments by 10, on average,” Bergman said.
The results shot down the supposition that parents didn't care about their children's academics; they simply didn't know. Thanks to the ubiquity of cellphones, the text alerts allowed parents to receive accurate information about their children's performance, and it created an opportunity for them to intervene in a timely manner.
What about teacher texts to students? The trend is growing, but so is concern about it
Now Bergman has helped to start a nonprofit that would allow more districts to adopt the text-alert technology.
“In terms of bang for the buck, it’s a clear win,” Bergman said.
The best nudge for parents: Personalized texts
Much of the work happening now around changing parents' behavior stems from the research of Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist and Nobel Prize laureate who revolutionized theories about money, management and more with behavioral economics. He is the author of the best-selling book "Thinking, Fast and Slow."
In the years since his theories hit the mainstream, researchers have been exploring how to apply behavioral science to parenting. The goal is to understand why caregivers don't do certain things that are likely to lead to better academic outcomes for their kids. Researchers want to help parents form new habits – in ways that are culturally sensitive and not overly paternalistic.
For example, studies show children who attend high-quality Head Start programs are better prepared academically and socially for kindergarten than their peers who skip it. Yet rates of children signed up for Head Start can be uneven, and attendance is notoriously low.
How to intervene?
One recent study in New Orleans sent parents personalized texts with directions about enrolling their children in Head Start. Those people were more likely to sign up than similar low-income parents who did not receive text reminders.
And something unexpected happened: Parents who received personalized texts – rather than robo-alerts – tapped back to complain that the website materials for Head Start were confusing.
"Those interactions were revealing about what the barriers were for parents," said Lindsay Weixler, the lead researcher from Tulane University. She ran the study again after administrators revised the enrollment materials online.
"Lots of parents were getting thwarted by a complex process."
'I’m always running around'
Public schools – particularly those that serve low-income children – shoulder most of the blame for the achievement gap in America. That’s the difference in academic performance between white children of means and other large subgroups, such as kids who are low-income or racial minorities.
In reality, that achievement gap is often yawning before kids tumble into kindergarten. It starts in the ways children are nurtured and talked to from birth.
But the private world kids inhabit from birth to age 5 has long been hard for researchers to study, let alone influence, said Ariel Kalil, a developmental psychologist at the University of Chicago. Five years ago, she co-launched a laboratory to study how to help parents adopt behaviors that would put more of their babies and toddlers on paths to success.
Two of the lab's recent studies took place at El Hogar del Niño, a bustling Chicago Head Start center. Kalil and her team distributed iPads loaded with children’s books to parents, then split them into two groups: One group received help setting goals around reading to their kids, and they also received text alerts that encouraged them to follow through. The other group didn't receive any extra encouragement.
By the end of six weeks, parents who received texts had read more than twice as as much of the iPad stories to their kids as the other parents.
In another study focused on attendance, Kalil and her team texted parents about what their children would miss if they didn't attend Head Start that day.
"We reduced chronic absenteeism by 20% over an 18-week period," Kalil said.
Today, the staff at El Hogar Del Nino have overhauled their IT system so they can send text messages to hundreds of parents each day, reminding them of everything from upcoming home visits to missing medical forms for their children.
Sandra Cardosa, a mother who took part in one of the studies a couple of years ago when her son was 3, said she prefers that style of communication.
“I’m always running around, and I can read a text faster than answering a call,” she said.
'Brain-building' in early childhood
A considerable amount of effort to engage parents has come from the Bezos Family Foundation, run by Jackie and Mike Bezos, parents of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.
The flagship effort: Vroom, a series of more than 1,000 quick tips for on-the-spot activities that are rooted in the science of brain development. The goal is to help parents turn everyday activities such as feeding and dressing their children into moments that develop focus, self-control and the ability to understand other people’s perspectives – skills research has linked to thriving in school and beyond.
We vetted Vroom app. But be careful: Study says some other preschool apps manipulate kids to watch ads and make purchases
A free app and website house all those tips in one place. Parents can sign up for automatic Vroom tips via text or app alerts that are personalized for the age of the parent's child.
Tonia Tucker, a mother in Milwaukee, learned of Vroom from a friend who visited her in the hospital the day after she gave birth. Now, 15 months later, she consults the app to get ideas for how to more fully engage her son, Anderson.
Recently, a text from Vroom suggested she and Anderson turn the music off and on while saying "off" and "on" – a game that would help the toddler make connections between the words and the actions. When she got the alert, Tucker was about to go for a walk, so she turned the game into "stop" and "go" with Anderson riding in the stroller.
Of course, Tucker knows she can pick up any book for ideas on activities she can do with her inquisitive son.
“But you don’t always have time to pick up a book," she said. "Your phone is always with you."
What else to do with your baby: 'Baby talk' is a good thing and can actually help infants learn better
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Text messages to moms: Best boost for reading at home, school grades