Daniel Shephard is the President of the Implementation Science and Communication Strategies Group and a former member of the Office of Evaluation Sciences and the Obama administration’s White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. He writes here about his perspective on the behaviorally-informed email communications project developed by the Office of Evaluation Sciences. Daniel notes: “Although I was involved in the design and implementation of the study, the views expressed herein are my own personal views based on the publicly available information regarding the study. Additional details regarding the study can be found here.”
Why might behavioral insights matter for the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program?
The past decades have seen an increase in the number of children affected by poverty and an increase in the number of children in schools who are experiencing homelessness. Nationwide, there are over one million children in school each year who are provided with support through the McKinney-Vento Act and the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program.
Despite this, there are children who qualify for support but have not been identified as “homeless” due to social and behavioral barriers, such as stigma and complex identification criteria. In addition, the homeless liaisons who are charged with identifying students experiencing homelessness in each Local Education Agency (LEA) often have competing work responsibilities. As a result, homeless liaisons may experience challenges regarding keeping up-to-date on program criteria and translating their intentions into actions when faced with other time pressures. Behavioral insights have the potential to help.
“Behavioral insights” cover an array of research findings about the barriers to and drivers of human decision-making and action. These findings come from various research fields including psychology, behavioral economics, sociology, and other social and behavioral sciences. Behavorial insights can shed light on many practices that involve how and why people take action—including the barriers that prevent children and youth experiencing homelessness from being identified for the important educational protections of the McKinney-Vento Act.
To address some of these barriers, State Education Agencies (SEAs) can learn from a recent study conducted jointly by the Office of Evaluation Sciences (OES) of the General Services Administration (GSA), the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students, and three State Education Agencies (SEAs) along with their state partners (including NYS-TEACHS). The study designed and evaluated a behaviorally-informed email communication pilot in order to support homeless liaisons in identifying and supporting homeless students. The study was designed and implemented in collaboration with the SEAs of New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York.
What did the project do?
The study sent out emails every other week on Tuesday mornings during the spring of 2017 with embedded behavioral insights designed to address a number of the potential barriers outlined above.
- Complexity: To overcome barriers due to the perceived complexity of identifying homeless students, the emails contained simplified explanations of the rules around identification and provided a model questionnaire for identification.
- Stigma: To reduce stigma, the model questionnaires currently available were edited to reduce potentially stigmatizing language or confusion around terms related to “homelessness.”
- Attention: The regular and concise emails throughout the spring semester sought to keep attention on the importance of the EHCY program while also providing useful information in a digestible form.
- Intention-Action Gaps: To overcome gaps to behavioral follow-through, each email contained simple action items with defined time periods for follow-through.
- Motivation: To encourage homeless liaisons—who often feel isolated—emails reminded them that they are not alone and encouraged them to reach out to other allies in the LEA. In addition, messages used motivation techniques such as framing actions in terms of the lost opportunity of inaction (“loss frames”) and increasing the urgency of action (“time scarcity”).
In addition, emails were sent to LEA superintendents to provide simplified information about EHCY and McKinney-Vento and to encourage them to support homeless liaisons.
The pilot was evaluated using a stratified randomized controlled trial design in which LEAs were randomly assigned to either receive the pilot communication materials or to continue to receive the regular communications that were in place. In total, over 1,700 LEAs were included in the study.
What was the impact of the project?
The study found that making these low-cost adjustments to email communications with homeless liaisons could increase the identification of students experiencing homelessness.
Across the three states, the behaviorally-informed email communications resulted in identifying over 3,000 additional students experiencing homelessness. Those students are now receiving the additional support they are entitled to in order to help them succeed.
The impact of the emails appeared to differ by state and type of LEA, but more research is needed to understand these differences with certainty.
What was learned from the project?
This study shows the importance of tailoring and testing different modes and styles of communication for supporting homeless liaisons in their identification of homeless students. The inclusion of behavioral insights through regular, concise, action-oriented emails sent to homeless liaisons can improve the identification of students experiencing homelessness and connect them with the services to which they are entitled.
We do not know if the reason for this impact was because of increased attention via regular emails, increased simplicity that decreased information overload, simplified calls to action, or heightened motivation. However, the study shows that more research and testing is warranted given the encouraging results of this first study.
This study also shows that it is important for LEAs to work to identify homeless students in the spring semester—not only at the beginning of the school year.
Finally, this study shows the importance of thinking through how behavioral insights can also be used to support the various levels of staff (including “front-line” staff) who are charged with implementing important social programs including and beyond EHCY and the McKinney-Vento Act.
What are some implications moving forward?
States and LEAs should look into adjusting and testing their systems of communication with homeless liaisons. Wherever possible, they should partner with researchers in order to better understand how these results are being achieved.
A first step for moving forward is for SEAs to set up personalized email distribution systems for communicating with homeless liaisons. Such systems could be as simple as the use of the mail-merge functions (to make emails address liaisons personally) or as complex as implementing tailored communication distribution systems (for example, purchasing software that enables custom designed email distribution that connects to the user’s existing data, collects new data, and incorporates A-B testing that helps to determine which of two variations of a given communication performs better for a stated goal). Such systems would enable states to more easily test modifications and to implement good practices (such as personalization). Ideally, such systems should include the ability to track email open-rates and link click-rates to enable a better understanding of how recipients are interacting with distributed content.
These results show how applying behavioral insights to the EHCY program can help identify homeless students. This identification is a key step in connecting these vulnerable students to supports related to school registration, transportation, extra-curricular participation, and remedial support, as well as opening up simplified eligibility for other educational, vocational, and social support programs.