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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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Research Digest

Harvard Family Research Project’s (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP. For more information about the research summarized in this digest, please contact the author at the address below. For help citing this article, click here.

Parent support of their children’s education has been shown to provide consistent and positive results (Jeynes, 2011). In particular, parents can play a constructive role in fostering literacy in their children, but how they do so may vary substantially (Bracken & Fischel, 2008). If the home environment is a powerful predictor of children’s literacy achievement (Siraj-Blatchford, 2010), then teachers will benefit from further guidance on how to motivate parental involvement. Because teachers’ communication has been found to have a positive impact on parents’ behavior (Kraft & Rogers, 2015), successful interventions that have tested teachers’ efforts to influence parents’ involvement in reading are a desirable way of fostering new parent engagement.

Past research has suggested that invitations from a child or their teacher are key factors for parents’ involvement at home (Anderson & Minke, 2007; Walker, Ice, Hoover-Dempsey, & Sandler, 2011). Although these studies propose that the social context, in particular the actions and beliefs of the teacher and the child, have the greatest influence on what the parents do at home, they examine parents as individuals and give little consideration to how parents might also influence each other. The knowledge that people are influenced by observing or learning about the behavior of others has long been established (Bandura & Menlove, 1968). Indeed, studies have found that descriptive social norms can influence the behavior of others (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008; Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2008; Schultz, 1999). A descriptive social norm contains written information about how most people behave in a given situation.

Based on the idea that peer influence is widespread—but a little researched area regarding parents and their children’s schools—our study examined the potential influence of information about the reading behavior of the majority of families on the conduct of individual parents.

This study took place in two elementary schools in Sydney, Australia. Teachers provided a descriptive social norm message to Grade 1 parents to test whether information regarding the reading behavior of a majority of families would nurture home reading for other families. The communication was provided at the beginning of the school year and analyzed for its effect on family participation in an external reading challenge through a voluntary activity known as the Premier’s Reading Challenge (PRC).

Specifically, all Grade 1 families (124 in total) in the two schools were invited to participate in the PRC by means of a generic school letter. However, the 62 families in the intervention classes also received additional information explaining that 70% of families in Grade 1, in the previous school year, had completed the PRC. Our hypothesis was that the number of families who would participate in the reading challenge would be higher as a result of receiving the social norm information. Completion rates between the control and intervention groups were compared after seven months.

Across the two schools, 76% of families completed the PRC after receiving the social norm information compared to 47% of the control group. This finding suggests that the information had a socializing influence on parents. Our study draws attention to the need to consider parents not only as individuals but as a collective group who are more likely to engage in certain behavior as a result of learning about the positive behavior of the majority.

Participation and attendance rates can be used to motivate parent engagement. Teachers can use family participation in reading challenges and attendance at literacy events to motivate family engagement by simply tracking these numbers and sharing this information with all families within a class or school. Knowledge of the behavior of the majority is often considered to be evidence of what is socially appropriate and can be a potentially powerful message.

Popular opinion, rather than popular behavior, can also motivate engagement. If it is not the norm for families to engage in home reading, an alternative approach that teachers can use is to share popular opinion rather than popular behavior for a specific school (Martin, 2012). Organizations such as Scholastic (Scholastic, 2015) provide research figures regarding families’ reading practices as well as current reading behavior. Teachers can cite these figures, thereby communicating broader opinions and norms. This type of information can motivate parents and eliminate the need for teachers to provide evidence for a specific classroom, or even a certain school.

Summarized from
Colgate, O., & Ginns, P. (2015). The effects of social norms on parents’ reading behaviour at home with their child. Educational Psychology. doi: 10.1080/01443410.2015.1044945

Orla Colgate, PhD
Independent Researcher
British Columbia, Canada.

Paul Ginns, PhD
Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology
Faculty of Education and Social Work, The University of Sydney, Australia

Anderson, K. J., & Minke, K. M. (2007). Parent involvement in education: Toward an understanding of parents’ decision making. Journal of Educational Research, 100, 311–323. doi: 10.3200/JOER.100.5.311-323
Bandura, A., & Menlove, F. L. (1968). Factors determining vicarious extinction of avoidance behavior through symbolic modeling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(2), 99–108. doi:10.1037/h0025260
Bracken, S. S., & Fischel, J. E. (2008). Family reading behavior and early literacy skills in preschool children from low-income backgrounds. Early Education and Development, 19(1), 45–67.
Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (5th ed.). New York: HarperCollins.
Colgate, O., & Ginns, P. (in press). The effects of social norms on parents’ reading behaviour at home with their child. Educational Psychology. doi: 10.1080/01443410.2015.1044945
Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 472–482. doi: 10.1086/586910
Jeynes, W. H. (2011). Parental involvement and academic success. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Kraft, M. A., & Rogers, T. (2015). The underutilized potential of teacher-to-parent communication: Evidence from a field experiment. Economics of Education Review, 47, 49–63. doi: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2015.04.001
Martin, S. (2012). 98% of HBR readers love this article. Harvard Business Review, 90, 23-25.
Nolan, J. M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). Normative social influence is underdetected. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 913–923. doi: 10.1177/0146167208316691
Scholastic (2015). Kids & family reading report (5th ed.) Retrieved from
Schultz, P. W. (1999). Changing behaviour with normative feedback interventions: A field experiment on curbside recycling. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21, 25-36.
Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2010). Learning in the home and in school: How working class children succeed against the odds. British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 463–482. doi: 10.1080/01411920902989201
Walker, J. M. T., Ice, C. L., Hoover-Dempsey, K. V., & Sandler, H. M. (2011). Latino parents’ motivations for involvement in their children’s schooling: An exploratory study. The Elementary School Journal, 111(3), 409–429. doi: 10.1086/657653


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