Behavioural insights for education 

Practical ways for parents to help their children learn


In 2017 Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field of behavioural economics. Pearson is always looking for innovative ways to help people (of all ages) make progress in their lives through access to better learning. That’s why our Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) has been working with Thaler to uncover techniques parents can use to help support their child’s learning. Read a full copy of the PDF here.

A child’s education starts at home, with the behaviours and attitudes of their parents. A stimulating and supportive learning environment at home can contribute to achievement in school, success in the labour market and overall wellbeing.

The Behavioural Insights Team has produced a body of research that highlights simple ways parents can help their children succeed in school and in life. Parents can help children develop:

  • Positive thinking patterns (not to be confused with positive thoughts) by helping them think about thinking and understand the value of effort

  • Strategies for success by helping them stay focused and persevere towards long-term goals.

Thinking about thinking

“Metacognition” is another way of saying, “thinking about thinking”. People with strong metacognitive skills can think independently, reflect on previous actions, and change their behaviour if something is not working for them.

Parents can help their children develop metacognitive skills by prompting them to think about what they know and don’t know before helping them plan how to fill in the gaps.

Here’s an example: Tom knows that Earth is a planet and has one moon. His parent could ask, “What other planets are there? How many moons do they have?” Tom might then come up with questions of his own, such as “How long does Jupiter take to orbit the sun?” Tom’s parent can encourage him to seek out more questions and help him plan how he’s going to try to answer them.


Understanding the value of effort

We all struggle when we’re learning. Students often give up when they struggle because they believe they don’t have the right talents to succeed. But “Mindset Theory” teaches us that talent isn’t everything – struggling is a part of learning. By taking on challenges, we can grow our skills. Whether a child succeeds or is disappointed, parents should praise the effort they have put in, as opposed to the result, as this acknowledges the challenge a child took on, and their hard work.

People have different mindsets when it comes to struggles. Someone with a “fixed mindset” would think, “I’m struggling with algebra because I don’t have mathematical talent.” A person with a “growth mindset” would think, “If I put in effort, I can overcome these struggles and learn algebra.”


Staying focused

“Self-control” is the ability to control actions, behaviour, and thoughts in a way that helps us achieve our goals. For example, if we set the goal of reading more, self-control helps us stick to our plan in the moments when other activities seem more appealing. Self-control is linked to success at school, a healthy lifestyle, and higher income later on in life.

Introducing “friction” is an effective technique that parents can use at home to promote self-control. The idea is to make it less easy to succumb to temptation. Here’s an example of friction: if a child cannot avoid checking their phone when they should be doing homework, the phone can be switched off and placed in a different room. Taking the phone out of the room removes the temptation and allows the child to stay focused on studying.

Persevering towards long-term goals

“Grit” is all about passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. It’s about sustaining interest in something for long periods of time and involves having the tenacity, diligence, and resilience to carry on through times of frustration, disappointment, and ambiguity.

By setting specific goals, implementing the right strategies, and staying focused, students can build up their grit. A technique called WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) can help parents help their children set and achieve long-term goals. WOOP encourages thinking about what we want in the future, visualising obstacles, and making specific plans to overcome those obstacles and fulfil our goals.

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