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In Early Ed, Simple Nudges Make a Big Difference

Focusing on everyday, caring interactions can yield a more nurturing environment for young learners and their teachers
Early Ed and Nudging

Nudging — the idea that behavior tweaked at the right time and in the right way can lead to larger-scale change — has been deployed to influence food selection habits, to prompt cleaner public bathrooms, and to get people to dispose of garbage properly. It’s also been assessed by education researchers, with promising findings related to college access and parent engagement.

Developmental psychologist Junlei Li believes that nudging can also be a powerful tool in early childhood settings, when grounded in empowering the simple interactions that already shape most caregiver-child relationships — and that are so important to children's healthy growth and learning. While nudging has been used to prompt behavioral changes in children, it can also be used with instructional coaches, supervisors, teachers, pediatricians, and parents to promote positive adult-child interactions.  

What Makes a Nudge Helpful?

“When we talk about nudging to promote the learning and development of infants and toddlers, what’s a good nudge and what’s a bad nudge?,” Li asks. In this context, he says, the key to an effective nudge is to focus on enriching human relationships. Li looked across a range of nudging interventions to get a sense of which could empower positive interactions with children.

  • Filming Interactions to Nurture Development (FIND): In partnership with the Center for the Developing Child, FIND filmed interactions between parents and their children. Researchers then described what elements of interaction seemed to help with language development. They edited the video and pulled out these positive interactions, then had the parents watch and reflect on what they saw.
  • Empathic Discipline Intervention: A 70-minute intervention helped middle schools serving diverse students cut suspension rates in half by focusing on teacher-student relationships. Through a series of prompts, researchers got teachers to reflect, write, and share about the value of teacher-student relationships, drawing on what teachers already knew and promoting ownership of that knowledge.
  • Mindset Matters: Researchers targeted health outcomes in hotel housekeeping staff. They instructed one group on healthy habits and told another group about the ways in which their daily activity already burned calories. Neither group changed their health habits, but the group who was informed about their daily activities started to lose weight. One explanation: those who knew their daily activity qualified as exercise started to do those things more vigorously.

Start with What You’re Already Doing

What do these successful nudges have in common? According to Li, it’s “helping people realize that what they need to do is already within their capacity, and just reminding them of that fact can encourage them to keep doing these things more intentionally, consistently, even confidently. Instead of overwhelming somebody with everything they are not doing, you help someone to see that they are already capable of building relationships and interacting with children — and all of us are capable and can grow even more.”

"Instead of overwhelming somebody with everything they are not doing, you help someone to see that they are already capable of building relationships and interacting with children — and all of us are capable and can grow even more.”

Li isn’t trying to devise or replicate a recipe for the perfect early childhood nudge. “If we can grasp the principle [that a good nudge encourages existing positive behavior], we can apply and adapt it in different settings to discover what is already positive.”

“It all begins with noticing”

“In everyday scenarios, there are very simple interactions people do, and it’s helpful to call them out and reflect that back,” Li says. “If people know they’re doing it and they have the language for it, they may begin to be more intentional.”

So, early education leaders or case managers working with families can:

  • Carefully observe small, everyday interactions between children and their caregivers, from saying hello to play to changing diapers. 
  • Take note of the positive behaviors and reflect that back to the adult in a casual conversation. 
  • Focus on elements that gives you a feeling of connection, being seen and heard, belonging, and growing, not just curriculum or materials. This will open opportunities to truly understand all things children are learning and how they are developing.
  • Begin with specific and appreciative observations like “I noticed how you sat down with the child and pointed to the picture and asked a question, and how the child just responded to you.”
  • These conversations should not be used merely as a precursor to point out what’s missing or what can be done better. Opportunities for growth will present themselves as caregivers build off of what they are already doing well.
  • Look for opportunities for nudges in most things we do. Li recommends using a simple fill-in-the-blank: “How does this ______ help encourage, enrich, and empower the interactions with children around us?”
  • Adults can also nudge and support each other. Parents and teachers can engage in this work but others outside of the direct childcare network can also offer their support. Pediatricians, home visitors, instructional coaches, and other professionals can also use this approach to help empower their own relationships with children, families, and each other.

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