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Behavioral science in action: optimizing public policies for early childhood

By Anadaniela Del Carpio.

The World Bank and Heurística worked together to contribute to the new strategy of the Cuna Más early childhood development program. (part of the Ministery of Development and Social Inclusion of Perú).

Early childhood (ages 0 to 3) is the most important stage of human development. Studies have shown that during these years, language, cognitive, social and emotional skills are developed that predict later functioning in adulthood. For these skills to develop optimally, the behavior of primary caregivers is critical. Because of its great importance, around the world there are several social programs dedicated to contribute to the integral development of early childhood.

In Perú, the objective of Cuna Más National Program is to improve the development of children under 36 months of age in areas of poverty and extreme poverty. It currently serves more than 170,000 families and, until the beginning of 2020, it offered home visits and child care services in children's centers. However, due to the pandemic, the program had to migrate its services to a remote modality, through calls and text messages to user families.

public policy, childhood, behavioral science
Photograph by Cuna Más

Within this context, the challenge was to design effective communications that promote positive parenting practices for children's development. To overcome this behavioral challenge, Heurística carried out a consultancy work for the World Bank and Cuna Más. This consultancy had two phases:

  • Diagnosis: two studies were carried out, one qualitative and the other quantitative, representative at the national level.

  • Recommendations: where the findings of the first phase were used to propose evidence-based communication guidelines.

The behavioral diagnosis carried out (first phase of the consultancy) allowed us to know and understand what personal and contextual elements facilitated and/or hindered the occurrence of key parental practices for the development of boys and girls.

For example, the qualitative study found that caregivers enjoyed playing with their children; however, they did not always have the time to do so. This was later corroborated in the nationally representative quantitative study, which found that 98% of caregivers enjoyed playing with their children; however, slightly more than a third (36%) reported that on most days they did not have enough time to do this activity.

public policy, childhood, behavioral science

Based on these findings, one of the proposed communication guidelines was to send messages that invite people to imagine the future happiness that caregivers would feel when playing with their children. Messages such as the following,

"Remember that when you play with your children they laugh and so do you. Why don't you take a few minutes now to play with him/her?"

capitalize on the fact that caregivers enjoy playing with their children, while also fostering a emotional regulation technique (i.e., anticipating how they will feel after playing with their children), which is known to reinforce the performance of a behavior (i.e., playing with their child). Thus, taking as a main reference the findings of our diagnosis, we were able to design communication guidelines based on scientific evidence, which directly addressed the barriers and facilitators identified for each behavior.

These lessons learned at the local level demonstrate how behavioral sciences can contribute to society by assisting in the implementation of programs aimed at improving the most important stage of human development: early childhood.

We invite you to read more about the project on the World Bank's blog.


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