Could Text Messaging Make Us Better Parents?

If you received a text message reminding you to read to your baby or suggesting a game to play with your toddler, might it help to better prepare your child for school? That is the premise of Parent University, a six-week program being studied by researchers at Northwestern University. The goal of the program is to help parents to create a literacy-rich environment at home, in hopes of reducing the “30 million word gap” I wrote about last week. Text messages include ideas for one-to-one interactions (such as naming items and colors while folding laundry) as well as games and activities (like rhyming). Some of the text messages even remind parents to take time for themselves. So far, the program seems to be working; after six weeks, parents reported being significantly more likely to read or play with their children.

This is an interesting program for many reasons. First of all, recent research from Stanford University shows that by 18 months of age, children in lower income families lag behind their wealthier peers in language development – sometimes, by several months. That gap widens over the next several years – and these are critical years in terms of brain development - before those children start kindergarten (or even pre-kindergarten, in more enlightened areas). School is primarily a language-based program; students need to have rich vocabularies and pre-reading skills (such as an awareness of sounds and the knowledge that we read a book from left to right) in order to succeed. This means that early education programs must start at birth if our society plans to shrink the achievement gap.

Another reason the program is promising is because it meets parents where they are: for many parents of young children, text messaging is a primary way of receiving information. Even if they don’t own a laptop, it’s a rare parent who doesn’t have (and use) a cell phone. A Boston Medical Center study conducted in March 2014 found that 73% of parents checked their cell phones at least once during a meal out with their children! Clearly, we have a captive audience for parental text message-based assistance. Text messages tend to be short, to the point, and a parent can look at them when they have the time and interest. In addition, text messages can be saved and referred to again at a later date. Email has become ubiquitous; we all have overflowing inboxes filled with messages that we mean to check later, which sometimes just get lost in the shuffle. There is less of a chance of that happening with a text message.

Finally, from a cost perspective, this program has low overhead. While I doubt that it has the same impact as a home visiting parent education program (I’m looking forward to the longer-term research), it clearly costs much less to send out text messages to parents’ cell phones than it does to pay the salaries of numerous parent educators. Those text messages could be sent out by one parenting education expert to thousands of families, allowing it to be implemented in more communities across the country. It might be a good way to start to change parents’ habits on a grand scale. It will be fascinating to see whether the short-term changes in behavior that these parents are reporting will translate into long-term gains for their children.

To me, though, it also raises larger questions. Should educators and/or doctors be using text messaging to communicate more effectively with parents of children of all ages? If your pediatrician or your child’s school offered you the ability to sign up for regular text messages, would you opt in? What about social media – are we capitalizing on its popularity by using Twitter or Vine to promote early literacy and learning? There was a time when snail mail became almost obsolete, and we all started receiving emails instead. For many of us, texting is the new email.

More and more, teachers are incorporating technology into their lessons, some even texting their students to remind them of homework assignments. Perhaps programs such as Parent University are the wave of the future.

This article was originally published at GoLocalProv.

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