A robust body of research chronicling the challenges faced by low-income parents, their perception and usage of existing parenting resources, their perception(s) of their ability to influence their child's future, their technology usage (e.g. use of internet, mobile phones, tablets), and opportunities to reach this user group (e.g. via mobile apps, pediatrician well-baby visits, community outreach, home visitors).


The achievement gap between children from low-income households and their higher income peers continues to widen. That means over 40% of U.S. children are failing to live up to their academic potential. As a result, these children can experience a lower quality of life as adults (e.g. lower income, higher risk of physical and mental health issues), and are often less able to contribute to society.


Early education researchers have discovered the importance of parents in this equation. By engaging in some simple, yet impactful, activities and behaviors (e.g. reading to their baby), low-income caregivers can significantly improve their child's academic outcomes. This is particularly true during the critical development years of 0-3.


Yet, the academic research also indicated that caregivers in this population were largely struggling, or failing, to do this.


Why? And how could we--makers of children's educational media--support these children and their families? These were the questions my team and I sought to answer. 

I devised and led a complex, one-year research study of low-income caregivers and the people who support them (i.e. pediatricians, community-based educators, home visitors). I utilized multiple research methods (i.e. interviews, focus groups, surveys, contextual inquiry, and ethnography) to gain deep understanding of the problem space. I conducted a landscape review of existing early parenting resources, and consulted with a team of child development experts from Boston Medical Center, Yale Child Study Center, and Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Through this study, my team and I discovered that existing parenting resources were not reaching or resonating with the most at-risk families. The reasons for this varied, but several key themes emerged (see KEY RESEARCH INSIGHTS below). I presented this data to the development team, along with a list of design recommendations.

Additionally, I helped plan and moderate a community-based hackathon with low-income parents, pediatricians, educators, designers, and developers, which yielded 5 mobile app prototypes designed to address different child development/pediatric health issues (e.g. language development, nutrition).

My research is currently informing the development of a mobile video app, designed to encourage positive parenting behaviors, build parental confidence, and empower these men and womenmany of whom feel helpless and disenfranchised—with the knowledge that they can set their child on the path to academic success. 


  • Vanessa Wiegel: Coordinating Producer for WGBH Children's Media, UX Lead

  • Jillian Orr: Executive Producer for WGBH Digital

  • Barry Zuckerman: Professor and former Chair of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center whose work, including Reach Out and Read, Medical Legal Partnership, Health Leads, and Healthy Steps has transformed pediatric health care for low-income families

  • Meredith Rowe, Ed.D and Dana McCoy, Ph.D: Professors at Harvard Graduate School of Education

  • Megan Smith, DrPH, MPH: Professor at Yale Child Study Center

  • Linda Mayes, M.D: Professor and Chair of the Yale Child Study Center

  • Kevin Lesniewicz: Senior Developer for WGBH Digital

  • Frank LeClair: Designer for WGBH Digital

  • Mollie Elkin: Production Coordinator for WGBH Digital


  • Co-led project with Jillian Orr

  • Developed and led all user research efforts

  • Directed creative content

  • Educated team on user-centered design

  • Co-wrote grant proposals


  • Project management

  • Formulating a multi-method research plan

  • Conducting competitive analyses

  • Understanding user needs and problem space

  • Generating user research protocols (i.e. non-biased, non-leading interview protocol)

  • Recruiting hard-to-reach users

  • Conducting user research (i.e. interviews, focus groups, ethnography, contextual inquiry, surveys)

  • Planning and facilitating a community-based hackathon

  • Analyzing user research data

  • Communicating findings to stakeholders (i.e. written report, oral presentation)

  • Making data-driven design recommendations

  • Engaging in a participatory design process

Closing the Achievement Gap

Developing a mobile application to support children from low-income families and their caregivers

Want more detail? Read on...


  • Existing parenting resources, particularly videos, did not reflect the lives/realities of being a low-income caregiver; Comments from caregivers included: “It’s not realistic at all,” “My home doesn’t look like that, ” and “That's not my life." More specifically these resources: 

    • featured two-parent, middle-class households​

    • featured caregivers, particularly mothers, who were poised, well-coiffed, and seemingly unphased by the challenges of parenting 

  • Low-income caregivers preferred resources that utilized common vernacular vs. formal language

  • Text-based resources and videos with on-screen text were not effective for ESL parents or parents with low-literacy (a large percentage of low-income parents in the U.S.) 

  • Existing parenting resources frequently employed “talking head” experts (quite often white males) whom many low-income parents, particularly mothers of color, described as "out-of-touch"and "condescending"

  • The activities promoted in existing parenting resources (e.g. a STEM-related activity requiring craft materials) often felt unrealistic and out of reach for these parents, who were under tight time and budget constraints

  • Existing parenting resources failed to acknowledge or address the stress experienced by many low-income parents

  • Many low-income parents felt uncomfortable serving in the role of “teacher"

  • Low-income parents generally lacked a home internet connection, instead relying on mobile phones for internet access




User recruitment: Recruitment of low-income caregivers proved challenging at times. We found initial success recruiting via community parenting centers at which we had established connections. Other strategies, such as approaching parents in the pediatric unit of Boston Medical Center, were less fruitful. We quickly realized that these parents were wary about disclosing information due to past, negative experiences with child services and/or concerns around being judged or losing custody of their children. Additionally, even when parents agreed to participate, they were often hard to get back in contact with and/or would miss subsequent meetings. As a result, I decided to adjust our approach. This involved leveraging connections at preschools in low-income communities, holding parenting nights with free food and resources (e.g. printable activity sheets, books, DVDs) which built credibility and trust, and often engaging interested parents in a participatory design process. The latter proved particularly effective as caregivers felt invested in the project and valued for their perspectives and ideas. 

Gaining buy-in: When I first embarked on this project, a key stakeholder was unfamiliar with the concept of user-centered design. This individual was eager to begin designing a solution based on his/her own experiences and assumptions, without validating those beliefs. Additionally, he/she would sometimes interrupt focus group discussions, offering his/her personal views and/or asking leading questions. I held a private meeting to address these issues early on in the process, explaining the importance of conducting user research and obtaining valid, unbiased data. This direct approach was appreciated by the stakeholder, and  helped establish my credibility as a user researcher and methodological expert. Additionally, it resulted in a more effective research study.