Evidence-Based Message Strategies to Increase Public Support for State Investment in Early Childhood Education: Results from a Longitudinal Panel Experiment

Early View Original Scholarship Child health Social determinants of health

Policy Points:

  • Investments in early childhood education can have long-lasting influence on health and well-being at later stages of the life course.
  • Widespread public support and strategies to counter opposition will be critical to the future political feasibility of enhancing early childhood policies and programs.
  • Simple advocacy messages emphasizing the need for affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare for all can increase public support for state investments in these policies.
  • Policy narratives (short stories with a setting, characters, and a plot that unfolds over time and offers a policy solution to a social problem) that describe structural barriers to childcare and policy solutions to address these barriers may be particularly effective to persuade individuals inclined to oppose such policies to become supportive.
  • Inoculation messages (messages designed to prepare audiences for encountering and building resistance to opposing messages) may protect favorable childcare policy attitudes in the face of oppositional messaging.

Context: Early childhood education (ECE) programs enhance the health and social well-being of children and families. This preregistered, randomized, controlled study tested the effectiveness of communication strategies to increase public support for state investments in affordable, accessible, and high-quality childcare for all.

Methods: At time 1 (August-September 2019), we randomly assigned members of an online research panel (n = 4,363) to read one of four messages promoting state investment in childcare policies and programs, or to a no-exposure control group. Messages included an argument-based message (“simple pro-policy”), a message preparing audiences for encountering and building resistance to opposing messages (“inoculation”), a story illustrating the structural nature of the problem and solution (“narrative”), and both inoculation and narrative messages (“combined”). At time 2 (two weeks later) a subset of respondents (n = 1,436) read an oppositional anti-policy message and, in two conditions, another narrative or inoculation message. Ordinary least squares regression compared groups’ levels of support for state investment in childcare policies and programs.

Findings: As hypothesized, respondents who read the narrative message had higher support for state investment in childcare policies than those who read the inoculation message or those in the no-exposure control group at time 1. Among respondents who were initially opposed to such investments, those who read the narrative had greater support than respondents who read the simple pro-policy message. Those who received the inoculation message at time 2 were more resistant to the anti-policy message than respondents who did not receive such a message, but effects from exposures to strategic messages at time 1 did not persist at follow-up.

Conclusions: Results offer guidance for policy advocates seeking to increase public support for early childhood policies and programs and could inform broader efforts to promote high-value policies with potential to improve population health.

Keywords: persuasive communication, education, early childhood, public policy, health policy, public opinion.

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Citation:
Niederdeppe J, Winett LB, Xu Y, Fowler EF, Gollust SE. Evidence-Based Message Strategies to Increase Public Support for State Investment in Early Childhood Education: Results from a Longitudinal Panel Experiment. Milbank Q. August 17, 2021.