Can a nudge make us all better caregivers?

Even as an early childhood journalist, behavioural science was not on my radar

  • 29th November 2022
  • 3 minute read
Photo: Courtesy of Ilan Spira.

If you are reading this year’s Early Childhood Matters with little to no prior knowledge on how behavioural science and early childhood development can be combined to generate better outcomes for children, caregivers and professionals, you are not alone.

When I was approached to guest-edit this issue, I had been a journalist for nearly two decades – with the past five years specialising in early childhood. I’m also the mother of a toddler and a newborn baby. The relevance of behavioural science to child development should have been on my radar. Yet I found myself asking: what is behavioural science? And why have I never heard about it?

So I started investigating. I quickly learned that behavioural science is a growing area of research and implementation which covers a wide array of topics that touch the daily lives of caregivers. I had written about many of these topics, from cash handouts to programmes to get more parents to read to their children. But in covering the world of early childhood development, I had not come across many people who understood how behavioural science
could usefully inform and shape their work.

My own knowledge-building journey, through guest-editing this year’s Early Childhood Matters, has made me acutely aware of how important it is to bring these two worlds closer together – not only for early childhood experts to learn from behavioural scientists about generating and testing ideas, but also for experts in behavioural science to look at and learn more about early childhood.

Embedding a behavioural lens in early childhood policies and services means looking deeply at what people do, and why they do it. Too many well-intentioned early childhood programmes and policies still focus too much on educating parents or telling them what to do – rather than understanding and addressing the real-world reasons why they may not be able to stick to better child-rearing practices.

“Embedding a behavioural lens in early childhood policies and services means looking deeply at what people do, and why they do it.”

A real understanding of the culture in which behaviours take place is especially important, as shown by the article on Eritrean pregnancy groups in the Netherlands. Behavioural science has not yet fully got to grips with cultural particularities in the Global South, as Neela Saldanha says.

Behavioural science can have a real impact on families and child development, with huge repercussions for society. In Madagascar, for example, evidence shows that combining cash transfers with behaviourally informed parenting programmes had a stronger impact on children’s outcomes than giving parents more cash.

It is not only parents who can benefit from nudges to shift their behaviour, but the early childhood workforce, too. I appreciated learning about efforts in Jordan and the Netherlands to help healthcare professionals in counselling parents effectively.

Governments from Argentina to the UK to India are beginning to apply behavioural approaches to their early childhood programmes at scale. I hope this marks the beginning of a larger trend.

Like many of the authors in this issue – and many readers of this journal – I feel the daily pressures of parenting. I struggle to find the time to do the behaviours I believe deeply that I should be doing. Perhaps that is why I especially enjoyed reading about the ideas behind the Magic Moments campaign in Israel. There is powerful potential in transforming what seem like chores into moments to connect and bond.

“Sometimes we need just a little nudge to switch our perspective and remind us to do the things we know we want to do.”

My biggest takeaway from editing this issue is how deeply rooted behavioural science can and should be in all areas of caregiving. Behaviour change can be applied everywhere, at any moment – from reading in the comfort of your own home, to quality interactions in doctors’ waiting rooms, to multi-tasking in supermarkets. Sometimes we need just a little nudge to switch our perspective and remind us to do the things we know we want to do and sometimes fail to do because of huge pressures.

In behaviour change, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. But I hope that Early Childhood Matters prompts a conversation about the methods we use to improve outcomes for young children. Can nudges inspire – rather than dictate – how we can all be better caregivers?

Irene Caselli Early childhood journalist and guest editor

Irene Caselli is a multimedia reporter and writer, with over 15 years’ experience in radio, television and print, now focusing on early childhood, reproductive rights and carers. She is also a senior advisor for the Early Childhood Global Reporting Initiative at the Dart Center. For a decade, Caselli was a foreign correspondent in Latin America, reporting for the BBC, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Times and others. In January 2021 she launched her own newsletter, The First 1,000 Days, where she writes about the foundational period of our lives that is too often overlooked.

Topics Behavioural Science Children Intuitive parenting Parenting Parents Research Workforce

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