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.”