Preschool education attendance and quality: Empowering parents through information)
Needless to say, the main early childhood development protagonists are children between 0 and 5 years old. But what if we also invite the co-protagonists –mothers and fathers– to get on stage? This program consists of two interventions that seek to empower parents so they can have a bigger impact on the quality of their children development. Llévale (Take them) seeks to encourage them, through repeated text messages, to take their children to preschool, while FamiliasIN aims to turn them into key actors to help improve the centers quality. These initiatives use a mobile app and text messaging as cost-effective ways to keep parents informed, involve them in efforts to assess centers quality, and promote their children attendance to kindergarten. On the one hand, this innovative project has the potential to cause disruption in center quality assessments, which tend to be expensive processes. On the other hand, it seeks to promote the use of behavioral sciences to cause a positive impact on boys’ and girls’ preschool attendance rates, which can help close early ability gaps. Both interventions have the potential to be scalable and easily replicable.
Llévale: Although preschool education is mandatory in Uruguay since 2015 for 4-year-olds, and although the country has made major headway in terms of increasing initial education enrolment, there still are many boys and girls who do not attend kindergarten on a regular basis. In 2018, absenteeism of children between 3-5 years of age from public institutions was approximately of 30%, whereas in grades 1 to 6 it was only 10%. Data from surveys and focus groups suggest that those absences are usually related to preventable factors (which typically include planned trips on school days or doctor appointments during school hours) and that fathers and mothers may be underestimating the importance of continued attendance to initial education. Boys and girls who fail to regularly attend preschool miss learning opportunities and interrupt their ability-acquisition process, which could prevent them from reaching their full potential.
FamiliasIN: Providing low-quality childhood development services can have a lasting negative impact on boys and girls, particularly on those from low-income households. Therefore, the quality of initial education institutions can play a key role in the fight against inequality. However, gauging initial education services quality is expensive, making constant monitoring difficult. As a consequence, governments do not have at their disposal a reliable, uninterrupted flow of information that they can use to design first-rate public policies for early childhood centers. There is a strong need for creative tools to provide reliable information and guide the design of policies that ensure that all boys and girls receive good quality initial education.
LLévale: This initiative sends families short and easy-to-read messages or “nudges” to raise parents’ awareness of the importance of having their children attend initial education on a constant basis. Over a two-and-a-half-month period, fathers and mothers received 3 to 4 messages a week urging them to take their children to preschool on a timely and uninterrupted fashion. The messages include information about their children absences from kindergarten, the benefits of preschool for child development, and motivational messages to help boost self-confidence on their parenting abilities and to help them organize all the activities related with taking the children to school.
FamiliasIN: This is a mobile app that helps monitor initial education institutions using information provided by fathers and mothers. This early warning system to monitor quality will provide valuable information for the formulation of initial education public policies in real time and on an uninterrupted fashion. The initiative provides a questionnaire that mothers and fathers can use to input information on variables such as infrastructure and quality of the centers’ processes. FamiliasIN is also a communication tool connecting families and institutions, where education experts and family members share information on children’s day-to-day activities. Collection of this strategic information will allow governments to obtain real-time, low-cost data on the quality of the country’s preschool centers.
Evaluation and Impact
LLévale: An experimental evaluation was conducted involving 194 centers, of which 97 kindergartens were randomly allocated to the group receiving messages and 97 to the group not receiving them. The evaluation focused on the effects of attendance and on the children’s motor, cognitive and socio-emotional development. The good news so far is that the messages to parents’ campaign proved to be an effective and low-cost intervention that helps boost attendance levels in Uruguay’s hinterlands, with a 1.5-day attendance increase over an intervention period of only 13 weeks. The messages also improve attendance rates in lower and mid-level attendance quintiles, with increases of between 0.31 and 0.67 days.
FamiliasIN: This app and the questionnaire on quality will be validated for possible replication in other contexts. In addition, the information provided by parents about quality will help conduct analyses and produce early warnings at different municipalities throughout the country. This intervention so far does not contemplate conducting an impact assessment.