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Anne Pollock of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Julia Coffman and M. Elena Lopez of Harvard Family Research Project reveal how to design communications that are more effective at changing behavior by keeping in mind the factors that influence behavior.

Designing programs or communication campaigns to affect behaviors requires first being able to understand why people behave the way they do. Interventions are more effective when they are based on research that tells us what factors influence a person’s decision to perform a specific behavior, or the ways in which an existing behavior can be channeled toward more desirable outcomes.

Fortunately, decades of research have taught us much about human behavior. Behavioral change theorists now agree on eight factors known to influence behavior: (1) intention, (2) environmental constraints, (3) skills, (4) attitudes, (5) norms, (6) self-standards, (7) emotion, and (8) self-efficacy.1

These factors can be useful for planning campaigns, interventions, and their evaluations. One way to do this is to examine empirical research findings about the behavior that needs to change against the framework of the eight behavioral factors. Together they can serve as a diagnostic guide or framework for planning an intervention’s goals and components, as well as its evaluation. An example of this approach follows.

Example: Increasing Latino Parent Involvement
Latino2 children perform significantly behind their non-Latino peers on most indicators of educational success. Identifying and increasing the ways in which parents are involved in their children’s education is one promising strategy for increasing the academic achievement of Latino students.3 Latino parents, however, tend to be hesitant about initiating communication with teachers and schools, and educators often misunderstand this to mean a lack of interest in their children’s education. Many teachers and schools do not reach out to Latino parents as a result.

Apply Relevant Research Findings

The table below offers a sample of research findings about Latino parent involvement as they apply to the eight main factors that affect behavior.

Behavioral Factors Applicable Research Findings1
1. Intention – a commitment to perform the behavior • Latino parents rear their children within the cultural frame of educación, which refers to “the total task of bringing up a moral and responsible child.”2
2. Environmental Constraints – restrictions to performing the behavior • Parents may have time constraints, e.g., jobs that do not offer working hour autonomy or flexibility.
• Parents may lack affordable or trusted child care or transportation.
• Many schools serving Latino students lack Latino teachers who can establish rapport with families.3
3. Skills – abilities to perform the behavior • Latino parents may not be able to understand or speak English, limiting their types of involvement.
• Level of education can be a barrier to homework help.
• Teachers lack training to work with parents.
4. Attitudes – beliefs about performing the behavior • Latino parents care about their children’s education, have high goals for them, and are interested in being involved.
• Parents may have a low level of comfort and previous negative experiences with schools.
• Latino parents express a cultural belief in the authority of the school and teachers and tend to have limited knowledge of the U.S. school system.
• Teachers may intimidate Latino parents.
• Teachers and parents may have different conceptions of what parent
involvement means.
5. Social Norms – perceived social pressure to perform a behavior • Parents are more likely to be involved when their friends are involved.
6. Self-standards – whether performing the behavior is consistent with self-image • Latina mothers may view themselves as educated people and identify themselves as teachers who give their children an educación.4
• Latino parents can transcend their fear of schools to become involved for the benefit of their children. Family involvement is an expression of parents’ love and concern for their children.5
7. Emotion – emotional reaction to performing the behavior • Latino parents can gain pride and confidence by participating in family involvement projects that deeply respect their knowledge and strengths.6
8. Self-efficacy – perception in one’s capability to perform the behavior • Latino parents can be resourceful and seek family and friends to help their adolescent children with homework.7
• Latino parents stress the positive effects they can have on the school environment and acknowledge the importance of establishing a strong relationship with the school.8
1 Unless otherwise noted, the research findings are based on Tinkler, B. (2002, April 3). A review of literature on Hispanic/Latino parent involvement in K-12 education. Retrieved July 23, 2002, from
2 Reese, L., Balzano, S., Gallimore, R., & Goldenberg, C. (1991, November). The concept of educación: Latino family values and American schooling. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Chicago, IL.
3 Solorzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2000). Toward a critical race theory of chicana and chicano education. In C. Tejada, C. Martinez & Z. Leonardo (Eds.), Charting new terrains of chicana(o)/latina(o) education (pp. 35-65). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.
4 Villenas, S. (2001). Latina mothers and small-town racisms: Creating narratives of dignity and moral education in North Carolina. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 32(1), 3-28.
5 Scribner, J. D., Young, M. D., & Pedroza, A. (1999). Building collaborative relationships with parents. In P. Reyes, J. D. Scribner & A. P. Scribner (Eds.), Lessons from high-performing Hispanic schools (pp. 36-60). New York: Teachers College Press.
6 Ada, A. F., & Smith, N. J. (1998). Fostering the home-school connection for Latinos. In M. L. Gonzalez, A. Huerta-Macias & J. V. Tinajero (Eds.), Educating Latino students: A guide to successful practice (pp. 47-60). Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing Co.
7 Arzubiaga, A., Ceja, M., & Artiles, A. (2000). Transcending deficit thinking about Latinos’ parenting styles: Toward an ecocultural view of family life. In C. Tejada, C. Martinez & Z. Leonardo (Eds.), Charting new terrains of chicana(o)/latina(o) education (pp. 93-106). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.
8 Scribner, J. D., Young, M. D., & Pedroza, A. (1999). Building collaborative relationships with parents. In P. Reyes, J. D. Scribner & A. P. Scribner (Eds.), Lessons from high-performing Hispanic schools (pp. 36-60). New York: Teachers College Press.


Develop Messages Based on Theory and Research
Messages for a campaign to influence Latino parents’ involvement in their children’s education should be based on the issues and topics that the research findings suggest are most important. Messages can influence both parent and teacher behaviors; the research suggests both are important.

For illustrative purposes, following are sample parent-directed messages, arranged according to the eight factors known to influence behavior. They are adapted from actual campaigns designed to increase Latino involvement in education—the Hispanic Outreach Initiative and the Success in School Equals Success in Life campaign (see Related Resources).4


  • Children benefit from seeing their parents at school. Your presence shows you care about them and about what happens at school.

Environmental Constraints/Skills

  • It’s not necessarily the quantity of time you spend with your child, but the quality.
  • Ask that report cards and other school documents be made available in both English and Spanish.
  • Ask the school to provide a translator for meetings and whether English as a second language (ESL) classes are available.5


  • Children learn in different ways. Know how your child learns and tell your child’s teacher about it. Tell the staff about your child’s personality.
  • Your child’s teacher can give you insight into your child’s learning style and his/her personality away from home.
  • Share stories and photos about school in your home country. It is important for new teachers to see that differences between the schools go beyond language.

Social Norms

  • There are many organizations that help bring parents and other members of the community together to work for better public education.
  • If you already belong to a group of parents, invite other parents to join you.
  • Churches and community centers are good locations to meet and talk with other parents about your child’s school and education.


  • Allow your children to see you read daily newspapers, books, etc. Read stories aloud and tell them about your culture and heritage.


  • You can get information on school-provided and related services anytime.
  • Your child’s teacher should contact you to tell you about positive and negative events that involve your child.
  • The principal should contact all parents about larger issues at school that don’t involve your child directly, but do affect him/her.

Related Resources

The National PTA’s Hispanic Outreach Initiative seeks to remove language and cultural barriers that keep Hispanic families from actively participating in their child’s education. The initiative offers a variety of language- and culture-sensitive materials, a mentoring program, and bilingual resources. National PTA also offers Spanish-language resources in the Parent Involvement section of its website:

The Success in School Equals Success in Life campaign promotes the involvement of minority parents in their children’s education. It is a collaborative effort of the People For the American Way Foundation, NAACP, the Advertising Council, and the Eastman Kodak Company. Spanish-language resources are available at:

Track Relevant Factors Through Evaluation
Theory and research can guide evaluation in the same way they guide message development. The behavioral factors the campaign focuses on, or that research reveals are the critical influencers for a given behavior, are those factors that are critical to track, in addition to the actual behavior.

Most social programs or interventions are ultimately about trying to affect human behavior, whether that behavior is getting involved effectively in your children’s education, reading to your children, recycling products, or quitting smoking. Behavioral change theory can help guide the development and evaluation of these efforts by identifying the social, psychological, cultural, and physical factors that affect behavior among different populations.

Anne Pollock
Research Assistant
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Gutman 424
Cambridge, MA 02138
Tel: 617-384-7234

Julia Coffman, Consultant, HFRP

M. Elena Lopez, Senior Consultant, HFRP

The authors wish to thank Xae Alicia Reyes, Associate Professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies and of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Connecticut-Storrs, and Maria E. Stallions, Assistant Professor of Education at Barry University in Miami, for their review of this article.


1 Fishbein, M., Triandis, H. C., Kanfer, F. H., Becker, M., Middlestadt, S. E., & Eichler, A. (2001). Factors influencing behavior and behavior change. In A. Baum, T. A. Revenson & J. E. Singer (Eds.), Handbook of health psychology (pp. 3-17). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
2 The term Latino refers to populations that have some connection (linguistic, cultural, or otherwise) to the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America—Mexico, Central or South America (excluding Brazil), Puerto Rico, and Cuba.
3 Inger, M. (1992, August). Increasing the school involvement of Hispanic parents. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EDO-UD-92-3)
4 Messages are drawn from materials available on the campaigns’ websites: from the Hispanic Outreach Initiative – Ten ways to participate in your children’s education ( and from Success in School Equals Success in Life – Parents at Home ( and Parents at School (
5 The caution here is that at times idiomatic differences among translators can actually contribute to parental-school disconnect.

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