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Analysis: Write less to say more — how schools can communicate more effectively with families

Carly Robinson and Todd Rogers | October 26, 2020

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COVID-19 has increased the need for schools to communicate with families while reducing opportunities for face-to-face interactions. As a result, families have received an onslaught of emails, text messages and detailed websites. Many of these are dense. Too often, the best families can do is quickly skim — if they read these at all.

While more information needs to be shared in writing than ever before, more communication is not necessarily better. The goal is not to just send information out, but for recipients to understand the information they receive. We all struggle with long emails that arrive in our inboxes while we are racing around doing a million other things. Or with multiple emails from the same sender that accumulate, unread. When we finally do open a message to figure out what we need to know, we get distracted before reaching the main point. So how can schools rise above the seemingly never-ending barrage of information to ensure successful outreach to families?

Schools’ messages reach more families when they are mindful of parents’ limited time and attention.

Our research examines the psychology of effective school-to-parent communication. This topic is more important than ever, as parents are the most critical partners for helping students succeed in our fast changing, COVID-responsive schools.

Use Fewer Words

Multi-screen messages filled with jargon, confusing bullet points and unnecessary information can be difficult for everyone, especially those for whom English is not their first language or who struggle with literacy. For busy people to understand a message and act on it, it must be easy to immediately discern what the point is and what is being asked of them.

If there is more information to share, provide a website link to a Frequently Asked Questions section or paste the FAQs at the bottom. People are less responsive to long messages than to short ones. Schools should, for example, tell parents the few key things they need to know about the reopening and save the nuances of the decision-making process for the supplement (below or on a linked webpage).

Consider this randomized experiment in a large urban school district with Jessica Lasky-Fink from University of California, Berkeley and Hedy Chang from Attendance Works. We rewrote legally mandated letters that were to be sent to 130,000 parents after their children had been late or absent multiple days. Some received the standard letter, while others received the rewritten ones.

The rewritten letters cut the word count by 60 percent while emphasizing that parents were valued partners and that a few absences each month can add up. These simplified letters were an estimated 40 percent more effective at reducing absences over the following month than the more wordy originals.

Writing with fewer words is hard. It takes time. French philosopher Blaise Pascal captured this insight in a letter to a friend: “I am writing you a long letter because I don’t have time to write a short one.”

Cut Nonessential Content

Directing people to focus on doing X means they can focus less on Y. We unexpectedly found exactly this in a randomized experiment involving 2,212 U.K. families, conducted with Raj Chande from the Behavioural Insights Team and Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol. The parents of middle and high school students received around two text messages per week for six consecutive weeks encouraging them to ask their children specific questions about content covered in science class.

We predicted that these text messages would increase at-home conversations about science (which they did) and increase science test performance (which they did not). We did not predict that encouraging parents to talk with their children specifically about science would decrease other parent-child interactions. Our repeated messages about science crowded out other parental behaviors, such as limiting screen time or discussing different school-related topics, that are probably useful for academic success.

Encouraging people to perform a specific action can lead them to prioritize that action over others. This is why, when communicating with busy people — asserting a claim on their limited time and attention — messages must be useful and concise. Crowding in one more item could force other, more useful, items from readers’ attention. And even though communications are more effective when they are short and direct, too many messages can cause people to tune out altogether.

Communicating with families effectively is more important than ever. Useless words hide useful words; encouraging one behavior can decrease time spent on others. Be kind to your readers by respecting their time.

Carly Robinson is a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Todd Rogers is a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-founder of EveryDay Labs, an organization that uses the science of effective communication to reduce student absenteeism.

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