Home learning experiences of young children vary dramatically. Such disparities are troubling given strong links between early home environments and children’s development of motor, social, emotional, literacy, and numeracy skills, which are critical for later success. The Annenberg Institute Parent Engagement via Text Messaging Research Project seeks to identify barriers that hinder beneficial parenting practices and approaches to overcoming those barriers by testing a set of interventions for parents of young children across the United States.

To date, most parenting programs have not successfully changed parenting practices or child outcomes. Moreover, the few parenting programs that have shown promise are not widely accessible, either due to costs or the demands that they place on parents’ time and effort. However, new knowledge about adult behavior change, as well as the dramatic expansion of cell phone use, particularly among families who have traditionally not had access to or utilized parenting supports, have provided new opportunities to support parents and help them reach the goals that they have for their children.

Our TIPS by TEXT text messaging program is an innovative parenting intervention that uses text messaging to provide parents with a curriculum aimed at improving young children’s school-readiness skills, in the areas of literacy, math and social emotional development.

Each week during the school year, parents receive three texts about important kindergarten readiness skills. For example:
FACT: Bath time is great for teaching your child important skills for K. Start by asking: What are the things we need for bath time? Why?
TIP: When you’re bathing your child, point out the letters on shampoo bottles. Ask your child to name them & the sounds they make.
GROWTH: Keep using bath time to prepare your child 4K! Ask: What rhymes with tub (cub, rub), soap (rope, hope), & bubble (double, trouble)?

Generally, on Mondays, “FACT” texts are sent, designed to generate buy-in from parents and provide information by highlighting the importance of a skill or the ease of an activity. On Wednesdays, “TIP” texts are sent, which aim to reduce the cognitive demand of supporting child development by showing parents how to make the most of existing family routines in fun and easy ways. On Fridays, “GROWTH” texts are sent, which provide parents with encouragement and reinforcement as well as a follow-up tip. The text messages are linked to state standards; draw on research on child development, parenting practices, and behavior change strategies; and cover a wide range of literacy, math, and social emotional skills. Our research to date has demonstrated that the text messaging program increases prekindergarten parents’ involvement at home and school, ultimately leading to learning gains in some areas of literacy, math and social emotional development.

Unlike other programs that place significant demands on parents, this text messaging program breaks down the complexity of parenting into small steps that are easy to achieve. It also provides parents with encouragement and information over prolonged periods of time. The text messages include fun facts and easy tips that can be readily integrated into existing family routines. Each week, the program sends parents three texts about a particular skill or activity.

To assess the effects of our text messaging parenting curricula and approach, as well as the mechanisms underlying these effects, we use a series of random control trials. We randomly assign parents who agree to participate to one of several conditions. Participants in most intervention conditions receive three texts each week addressing a specific school readiness skill. Interventions vary in multiple dimensions (e.g., their content focus, degree of specificity, or timing). Parents in the control condition receive no texts or one text every two weeks related to calendar events at the school or requirements for school (i.e., not related to parent–child interactions).