Behavioural insights

For most people, moments of major upheaval are few and far between. We might occasionally move to a new suburb or change job but in general our surroundings stay the same. Our daily habits are triggered by our environments, making it tough to change how we get to work or kick that daily coffee. This makes times of transition particularly powerful periods to change habit.

As our lives shift, our old habits are often not useful or possible anymore, so we are more open to shifting those too. For example, researchers found that people receiving a “help the environment” pack after they had recently moved house, were more likely to increase their environmentally friendly behaviours than people who had not recently moved.

As parents send kids back to school for Term 3, they will be setting up new morning routines and figuring out how to support their kids now they are back in school. At this time, schools can play an important role in helping parents develop and maintain positive habits to increase attendance and engagement.

Here are some ideas from behavioural insights to help you do this:

On the first day of the year, everything feels possible. In psychological research, this sensation and its impact is referred to as the fresh start effect. As landmarks in time pass, people are more likely to look at the big picture of their lives and be motivated to reach their goals. Schools can support parents’ positive aspirations to stay engaged with their kids’ education by clearly communicating expectations and using language focused on new beginnings.

During COVID-19, many parents have engaged in an unprecedented way with what their children are learning. They may have developed new habits that should be supported, like reading together or doing science experiments on the kitchen table. Schools could encourage parents to maintain these habits by talking with parents and helping them identify which habits they want to keep.

As humans, we are powerfully motivated by the desire to belong. For example, sending university students personalised messages telling them they belonged reduced the number who dropped out. Research shows that parents who feel a sense of welcome and belonging in a school community are more engaged, which is linked to academic outcomes and child wellbeing. This fresh start is a chance to welcome parents back and show them the school community is a place they belong.

One way to demonstrate to parents they belong is by reminding them of their value. For example, schools could ask parents to write on a post-it something they did over COVID-19 that makes them a good parent. These post-its could then be displayed around the school. Schools could also use posters and communications to tell parents they belong in the school community.

As a result of COVID-19, many of us have found new ways to connect with those around us, including neighbours and relatives. Some parents may have drawn on extended social networks to help them support their kids learning. These kinds of informal relationships with friends and mentors can have a big impact on a child’s learning. For example, in research from the UK having a ‘study supporter’ regularly check in with a child increased their attendance and grades.

Now children are returning to school, these informal networks may return to how they were. Schools could help parents solidify supportive learning relationships by encouraging them to choose a study supporter with their child and plan a regular way to check in.

This time has forced all of us to step back and consider how we live now and what is possible. As kids return to schools, we need to hold on to what we learned while at home while putting in place good habits to sustain us into the future.

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