Education Opinion

Thinking About Texting Parents? Best Practices for School-to-Parent Texting

By Justin Reich — December 07, 2015 6 min read
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Today’s guest post comes from two colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School, Todd Rogers and Kim Bohling, who have been using text messages as a tool to rally social support structures for students. In this post, they share some of their practical tips for educators.

Recently, we’ve noticed a growing interest in using text messaging as a means for improving and expanding parent outreach in schools. It’s a reasonable strategy given that the vast majority of American adults own a cell phone, including more than 90% of households with children and 80.9% of Americans living below the poverty threshold. In general, texting can be a great way to quickly, cheaply, and easily communicate with busy parents. In fact, our lab, the Student Social Support R&D Lab, has utilized text messaging to engage more than 15,000 parents and other educational supporters.

Through our interventions, we’ve learned quite a bit about how to efficiently text messages that are personal, useful, and actionable. In an effort to support even more high-quality parent outreach, we’d like to share some of what we’ve learned.

Be mindful of legal limitations--especially the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and regulations concerning spam text messaging. FERPA limits what you can communicate about students and to whom. Spam regulations are concerned with obtaining permission to text and ensuring that recipients can opt-out at any time. If you’re uncertain about compliance with these legal limitations, consult legal counsel.

Find a texting platform that meets your needs. There are many platforms to choose from--some of which are actually geared towards educational purposes. If you have the opportunity to choose yours, take time to think about the features you want (we’ll suggest some in this post). If you don’t have the luxury of choice, get to know the strengths and limitations of the platform you have.

Include an actionable and immediate action for parents to take (when possible).

Actionable: Updates are nice, but become easy to ignore if it isn’t apparent that there is something to do with the information. You can suggest to parents to talk with the child about the information you’re conveying or provide a reading tip to try that day.

Immediate: Texting is an instantaneous form of communication that is easily forgotten seconds after receiving. This is a platform for short-term, immediate steps and information. That is, it’s great when discussing tonight’s homework, but it’s probably not the best way to engage parents about the importance of doing one’s homework, in general.

Introduce yourself. An introduction letting recipients know who you are and why you’re texting them may reduce the number of parents who unsubscribe from your text messaging. It’s also simply more courteous.

Personalize your messages. In our texts, we often greet parents by name, include the students’ names, and use appropriate gender pronouns. Here’s an example of the difference personalization can make:

How? Some texting platforms allow for variable text fields, which work like the mail merge feature in Word. If this is a feature you want, check to ensure that your platform will allow for variable text fields.

Send messages using a local area code. This may help reduce the number of parents who unsubscribe.

Reduce the effort required of parents to sign up. Requiring parents to go out of their way to fill out a separate form, text a code, or download an app may reduce your sign-up rate. If you want to broaden your reach, reduce the amount of steps required to sign up.

How? Back-to-school, program enrollment, or other routine forms provide an excellent opportunity to reach more parents. Simply include a checkbox for parents to indicate that they would like to receive text message updates from you.

Platform Tip: Ensure that your platform will allow you to upload spreadsheets of recipients into the system. Some platforms will only allow you to add users by having the user text a specific code or require you to manually enter each user individually.

Don’t overload parents with too many messages. We intend to study the optimal frequency, but for now, we generally send no more than a few messages per week so as not to overwhelm busy families.

Try to keep messages under 160 characters. If you go over this limit, your long message will be split in two--possibly in the middle of a word. Many phone carriers will reassemble the two parts correctly at the receiving end (a process known as “concatenation”). However, not all phone carriers provide this service and you may end up with disordered multi-part messages. If you’re personalizing messages, make sure to allow space for the longest names on your list.

Texting in a language other than English and Spanish can be challenging. While it would be ideal to do parent outreach in a parent’s preferred language, once you utilize a character that isn’t on a standard cell phone (such as é or 학), the text language switches from standard English to unicode. The character limit drops to just 70 characters per message when texting in Unicode. Also, there is no guarantee that the recipient’s phone will correctly receive the non-standard character.

Have a plan for your outgoing messages. Text messaging is sometimes seen as a strategy in and of itself, but it’s just a tool for communication. The real strategy is centered around what you want to communicate, to whom, and when (date and time of day).

Platform Tip: Look for one that allows you to pre-schedule the date and time your messages are sent, so you can program several weeks’ worth of messages in one sitting.

Add your own phone number to the messaging list. This is an easy way to monitor your outgoing messages. Also, be sure to use your number to send several test messages in advance to make sure you’re using your software correctly.

Have a plan for responding to parent responses. You will get responses from recipients--mostly within an hour or two of when the message was sent. Many will initially be along the lines of “Who is this?” or “Why am I getting these messages?” It’s useful to have prepared answers for some of these general questions. For other, more individualized questions, it’s helpful to have several staff members trained and with time allocated to respond in a timely and personal manner.

Platform Tip: Ensure your platform has some sort of “inbox” feature, so that you can easily see and individually respond to messages.

At the S3 Lab, we believe it’s possible to give parents more meaningful and actionable information about their students without further burdening budgets and teachers. The following are a handful of studies that are consistent with this belief: Sending parents of high school students texts about missing assignments and upcoming tests resulted in large student achievement gains. When parents of preschoolers received tips about literacy development via text message, parents engaged in more in-home literacy activities and students improved in some early literacy skills. In another study, parents of preschoolers received text message reminders to read with their children, which were shown to increase parental use of literacy activities on an iPad. Similar text-based strategies have also been effective with students, such as a series of personalized reminders that increased college enrollment rates among college-intending students.

We hope these tips will be helpful as you think about how to expand your parent engagement efforts in an efficient, inexpensive, and productive way. If you have other tips to share, please do add them in the comments section below.

You can contact the Student Social Support R&D Lab at s3lab@hks.harvard.edu or visit our website: http://www.s3rd.org.

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