Families & the Community

More Isn’t Always Better in Texting Preschool Parents, Study Finds

By Marva Hinton — July 23, 2018 3 min read
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As more schools consider sending text messages to parents to encourage behaviors that support their child’s education, a new research paper finds that it’s possible to overdo it when it comes to effectively communicating through texts.

Earlier this month, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a working paper that examined the impact of the frequency of text messages preschool parents received in a program designed to help them get their children ready for kindergarten.

The researchers found that parents who received five messages a week were more likely to opt out of the program than those who received three messages or one message.

“It’s totally possible that there’s such a thing as information overload from getting five text messages a week,” said David Song, a PhD candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a CEPA research assistant who collaborated on the study.

The findings, which are undergoing peer review, would seem to be timely.

“Right now the rage in education policy is to send text messages,” said Kalena Cortes, one of the study’s co-authors and an associate professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a visiting professor at Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, or CEPA, Labs.

The study builds upon a program created at Stanford through which parents received three text messages a week. Parents in the program receive one message that contains a fact such as “children need to know letters to learn how to read and write” and another that contains a tip. For example, parents may be asked to point out the letters in their child’s name that they see in a magazine or on a sign. The third message is characterized as a growth message, which encourages parents to go a little further by doing things such as continuing to point out letters while having their child make letter sounds and think about other words that have those sounds.

In the study, more than 2,290 parents whose 4-year-old children were enrolled in a Dallas pre-K program agreed to receive text messages during the 2015-16 school year. The researchers analyzed data for 648 parents, the number of parents who completely filled out a survey related to their experiences with the program once it ended. Most of the students were from low-income Hispanic families. The parents could choose whether to receive the messages in Spanish or English and were able to opt out of receiving the messages at any time.

One group of parents received a single text message a week, another received three messages each week in the model of the original Stanford program, and a third group received five messages per week.

The messages also differed in content. The first group received one fact message. The second group received one fact, one tip, and one growth message, and the third group received one fact, three tips, and one growth message.

Parental Responses

The parents in the study were surveyed at the end of the program, and the majority indicated that three text messages a week were ideal. The survey also found that parents who only received one message did fewer literacy activities with their child, while the same was true to a lesser extent for parents who received five messages. The parents who only received one message also reported lower confidence in their ability to help their child with literacy.

The children also took a literacy assessment at the beginning of the school year, in the middle, and at the end. The researchers found that the number of text messages/volume of text messages had no effect on these assessments overall. But children with the lowest baseline skills made more learning gains if their parents received three text messages a week rather than one. No group benefited from parents receiving five messages relative to those receiving fewer texts.

Hans Fricke, the director of quantitative research at Policy Analysis for California Education, which is based at Stanford, and a collaborator on this study, says the findings show that it’s possible to overdo it when it comes to giving parents advice.

“You have to be careful how much you actually try to get across at any point and time,” said Fricke. “Otherwise, you might risk that parents opt out of it or don’t pay attention anymore.”

(An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of parents in the study who agreed to receive text messages. The article also has been revised to clarify the effect the volume of text messages has on assessment results.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.