A growing concern for the early childhood field is how to best support parents and families in nurturing their young children’s healthy development. Educators and leaders are eager to help families gain the knowledge and tools they need to effectively engage in their children’s learning.
Technology-based interventions hold great promise for reaching and communicating with families. These interventions are relatively low-cost, scalable, and accessible for parents who use their mobile phones for communication and information seeking. Technology-based interventions can also reinforce the learning and community building of on-the-ground family support programs. But this promise can only hold true if the technology products are designed to reach parents and communicate what they want to know.
In the last few years, a number of tech-based family engagement platforms and tools designed to guide parents have emerged, including apps like Vroom, Let’s Play, and Kinedu, video tools like Ready Rosie, texting programs such as Text4Baby and Ready4K, podcasts, and word-tracking wearables like LENA and Starling. As awareness about early childhood development increases, more technology players (non-profit and for-profit) are likely to enter this space.
At The Early Learning Lab, we have spent the past year surveying early childhood technology tools, learning how various products and programs are being implemented and evaluated, and identifying best technology practices for early childhood family engagement.
Whether you are an entrepreneur developing a new early learning tech product, a school administrator trying to find an effective family-engagement tool, or a parent-support program operator looking to add a digital component to your program, The Lab sees the following 10 design elements as critical to the impact of any early learning parent engagement tool.1
The early learning research community has built a solid body of evidence on the neuroscience of developing minds and the practices that support early learning, health, and development. For example, the Center on the Developing Child out of Harvard has a wealth of research on developing executive functioning skills in children; the torch that Hart and Risely lit on the word gap is carried by researchers such as Dana Suskind; the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has developed a body of work around developing emotional intelligence in children.
Any technology tool worth developing or investing in should be research-based. Moreover, an affiliation with researchers is a good sign that the developers are serious about improving outcomes for children. A good example is the app Vroom, which was developed in collaboration with a bevy of early childhood researchers.2
Has an Evaluation Strategy
Often, when developing commercial technology tools, the only success metric that counts for developers (and their investors) is the number of users. In the social sector, revenue isn’t good enough – we have to demonstrate impact.
Developers that are serious about improving child outcomes will have an evaluation strategy. They will articulate a theory of change and the tool’s intended impact; they will have clear measures to evaluate it. They will be transparent about the data they collect and have a strategy to iterate on their model if they are not having the desired impact.3
Parenting is a highly personal pursuit and emotionally-charged issue that often reflects differences in culture, class, and values. The early childhood field has stumbled when trying to prescribe practices to parents in a top-down manner that does not take into account the realities parents face.
Products and programs must be co-designed with parents, and this means going beyond focus groups and informational interviews. Parents should not only be part of defining the problem, they should be part of developing the solution. This means partnering with parents to identify the impact the tool should have as well as the success measures used. Parents should also participate in the design and testing of the product.4
Accessibility is key to any technology product, but the importance is magnified when developing technology for social change. The key is to know your audience, and make sure that what you are developing can actually be used by the people you want to reach.
With technology created for parent engagement consider the following:
- Language: Is your tool accessible to people who speak languages other than English?
- Literacy level: Are there content pathways in your tool for people with low levels of literacy?
- Cost: Is your tool affordable? If it is mobile-based, does it require the use of data plans that may be too costly for your target audience?
- Platform: Where are your users? Go to them, don’t make them come to you. Chances are, asking people to download an app or purchase new hardware or software will create a barrier that you will have to overcome for product adoption.
- Ease-of-use: Obviously, user experience and user interface design are huge considerations when developing a technology product, but also consider how your tool fits into the lives of your audience. Does it require a daily or weekly time commitment? Can content be consumed in pieces, or does the user have to set a considerable amount of time aside to interact with your tool? Many texting programs, such as Stanford’s Ready4K! are based in part on the theory from behavioral science that small “nudges” of information are more effective in supporting new behaviors than large amounts of information delivered at once.
Puts Data in the Hands of the User
One of the most exciting aspects of technology is that it allows for the gathering, processing, and delivery of information quickly. But who gets to see the data is an important consideration.
At The Lab, we are firm believers that users should have access to their own data (or in the case of parent engagement, parents should have access to data on their children). For example, tools such as LENA and the Starling allow parents to track the number of words their child hears over the course of the day. User feedback on these tools suggest that their effectiveness is at least partially due to the empowerment that results from access to this data. (Parents can see the effect of their actions in increasing the number of words their children hear, a recognized metric for fostering early learning.)6
Technology is often denigrated for its role in decreasing personal connections, but it can also be a powerful connector. After all, communication and connection are at the heart of many technologies, from email to Facebook, which create bridges based on shared interest across geographies.
When developing or evaluating a technology for family engagement, think about how that tool can create connections among users and build their social capital. The LENA Research Foundation developed a program called LENA Start to help community-based organizations and schools conduct group trainings for parents on using LENA at home with their children. Not only did parents learn about the tool, they benefitted from connecting with each other by sharing tips and experiences about the trials and tribulations of raising a young child.
Similarly, the website Understood has a robust online community that connects parents of children with learning and attention issues, a group that sometimes feels stigmatized in their offline communities and schools.7
Accommodates Two-Way and Peer-to-Peer Communication
Users are no longer just consumers of content, they’re creators of it. A smart developer will solicit user-generated feedback to understand how the tool is being used, what’s working and what’s not.
Smart tools will also let users connect with other users to share their own content. Ready Rosie is a program that delivers videos to parents, modeling fun learning activities they can do with their children. The Ready Rosie team found that some of their users were eager to share their own learning activities with the Ready Rosie community, so the team has incorporated those activities into the official Ready Rosie curriculum.8
Incorporates Rapid Feedback Cycles
Waterfall is out, agile is in, and modern technology development is all about rapid cycle feedback. Any product worth investing in should be on a continuous improvement path. Strong developers will monitor usage data frequently to quickly incorporate user feedback in iterations of their product. Success metrics should be tracked to determine if the product is meeting its stated goals, and the developers should have a plan in place to adjust the product roadmap if it is not.9
Builds User Self-Efficacy
Parents are the experts on their children. Most instinctively know what they need to do to support their children’s healthy development. Our role should be to 1) fill in knowledge gaps where they exist by giving parents information on the high-value practices they should be doing with their children; 2) ensure parents have enough knowledge of child development and their role in supporting their child’s growth over time.
The goal is to help parents build their own parenting muscles and see the beneficial effects they have on their children. Rather than keeping parents dependent on experts every step of the way, technology should help parents become strong advocates for their children’s learning and academic success.
Embedded in Existing Systems
Technology products, embedded in the systems in which parents are already interacting (their local school district, their local library, an existing home visitation program), have the best chance of gaining parents’ attention.
Rather than going straight to consumers, Ready4K partners with school districts to register the families of incoming students for their texting program. BringingUp, from the creators of Ready Rosie, allows teachers to send videos to their families to help build the school-home connection while also fostering early learning at home. A dashboard allows teachers to track which of their families are viewing the videos. Texting programs like Talk, Read, Sing partner with media outlets such as Univision to reach parents who might not otherwise hear about the program. Embedding products into existing delivery channels make user acquisition easier, and make it easier on families who may already be feeling pulled in too many directions.
All in all, no one product is going to have all 10 of these elements. But this list can serve as a useful guide for developers and a wish list for people who are evaluating and purchasing technology products for parent engagement. Technology holds great promise for reaching large numbers of families and helping us achieve the goal of kindergarten readiness for all, but only if the products we develop and use are designed for impact.
 See this resource from Agile in a Nutshell for a definition of these software development terms.