Using the Science About Self-Regulation to Improve Economic Outcomes for TANF Families

OPRE Report #2018-88
Publisher: Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Nov 30, 2018
Authors
Michelle Derr, Jonathan McCay, Ann Person, and Mary Anne Anderson

Key findings from this brief include:

Reduce External Sources of Stress

  • Provide services in places that are convenient to participants. Getting to appointments can be difficult for low-income families, particularly those who do not have reliable car. Making it easier for participants to access services can free up energy and time for work and parenting activities.
  • Streamline business processes, forms, and reporting activities. Complicated business processes and forms can increase the effort required for both direct-service staff and participants. Federal law requires reporting various activities, but state and local governments often layer on even more reporting requirements, increasing the burden on staff and participants to document their activities. Simplifying these requirements using behavioral science techniques would free up time and energy for staff and participants to engage with one another more meaningfully and more frequently to build participants’ self-regulation skills.

Strengthen Core Life Skills

  • Adopt a habit-forming process to work towards goals, informed by behavioral science, to build self-regulation skills. A goal-achievement process is a deliberate effort to realize an outcome that would not otherwise occur. Infusing goal-achievement strategies throughout the TANF service-delivery process can help create habit-forming routines.
  • Incorporate skills-building activities during any frequent, regular interactions between program staff and participants as well as during peer-to-peer exchanges. Some TANF activities take place in groups, particularly among TANF programs that serve large populations. Skills-building activities can be incorporated into program orientation, job-search assistance workshops, and peer-to-peer support groups.

Support Responsive Relationships

  • Create more meaningful exchanges between program staff and participants by emphasizing meaningful goals and addressing the barriers that are specific to each goal. A goal-directed approach allows staff to connect with participants about their future, rather than their past. An emphasis on goal achievement reduces the upfront emphasis on assessing all the participant’s barriers to employment. Instead, the focus is on identifying a potential barrier in relation to a well-defined goal and what might get in the way of achieving that goal.
  • Have more frequent and targeted interactions with participants. Often, due to high caseloads, participants meet infrequently with program staff; there might be one to three months between meetings. But to help a participant build skills and pursue goals, program staff must have more frequent interactions to provide constructive accountability and meaningful planning sessions.

This brief, developed as part of the GOAL-Oriented Adult Learning in Self-Sufficiency (GOALS) project, articulates a vision for TANF programs that is informed by the science about self-regulation and goal achievement.

Senior Staff

Jonathan McCay
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Mary Anne Anderson
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Michelle Derr
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Ann Person
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