Influencing the flu: How to prevent H1N1 by changing kids’ hand-washing behavior

New poll shows America's hand-washing habits are in the toilet—literally

PROVO, UT – September 10, 2009 – With the White House estimating that 30 to 50 percent of Americans will contract H1N1 flu this season, you'd think more people would be focused on prevention.

According to research by the New York Times bestselling authors of Influencer: The Power to Change Anything (McGraw-Hill), a book on behavior change, only 14 percent of adults and 2 percent of kids wash their hands after coughing or sneezing—or shaking hands with someone who just did.

An online poll of more than 750 adults, 294 of which are parents, discovered that hand-washing behaviors are dismal. Only one in four adults washes their hands before eating, and an astonishing one out of five fails to wash their hands after using the restroom.

View the full results:

However, the main culprits of the impending flu pandemic are kids. According to the poll, children who are bussed off to school in droves do very little to prevent the spread of germs:

  • Three out of four kids don't wash their hands after using the restroom
  • Fewer than one in ten kids wash their hands before eating
  • 12 percent of kids wash their hands after being with someone who is sick

And while kids may not know better, their parents do. Unfortunately, parents have done little to change their children's behavior. According to the poll, nearly four out of five parents say they send their children to school when they are sick, so long as they don't have a fever. And even more (85 percent) say they've caught their children “cheating” when asked to wash their hands.

Joseph Grenny, author of Influencer, says that while consistent hand hygiene is one of the most well-known and effective guards against infection, a “knowing/doing” gap is putting our health at risk.

“Changing behavior is hard and hand washing habits are ingrained behaviors,” says Grenny. “Our research shows verbal reminders and reprimands do little to change how often adults and kids wash their hands. Rather, to change hand-washing behavior, parents need to combine multiple sources of influence. What this means is that beyond verbal reminders, parents need to motivate their kids, teach them skills, enlist positive peer pressure, and alter the environment—all at the same time.”

Grenny offers parents six easy tips for getting kids to wash their hands. According to the proven behavior change model outlined in Grenny's book Influencer, the key to success is using all six tips in combination:

  1. MOTIVATE kids by helping them understand what they're carrying on their hands—show kids vivid photos of the H1N1 virus and other germs, display photos near sinks and eating areas (photos available at:
  2. TEACH kids where germs live. Make inexpensive petree dishes and use swabs to grow cultures from places kids often touch. Similarly, teach kids how to wash their hands by actually practicing while singing the “birthday song” to ensure they've washed long enough.
  3. HARNESS PEER PRESSURE by starting a friendly competition between kids. Or, involve an older sibling in the responsibility of reminding a younger one—the best way to influence kids is to involve them in the challenge.
  4. REMIND kids by posting signs on your fridge or in the bathroom. Place a temporary tattoo, sticker or band aid on kids' hands that will remind them to wash.
  5. REWARD kids when they wash their hands using a point system geared toward an enticing activity or treat.
  6. EQUIP every child’s back pack with their own personal sanitizer that smells good or has fun packaging. Put stools near tall sinks in your home so kids can wash more easily.

About VitalSmarts

An innovator in corporate training and organizational performance, VitalSmarts is home to award-winning training products that deliver powerful tools for enriching relationships and improving end results. The company also has three New York Times bestselling books, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer. VitalSmarts has been listed twice on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies and has taught more than 2 million people worldwide.

Note to editor: Joseph Grenny, coauthor of Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, is available for interview. Copies of the book are available upon request. Video footage is also available featuring an entertaining social science experiment conducted by Joseph's 13-year-old son Hyrum on how to get kids to wash their hands. For interviews, books, or video access please contact Brittney Maxfield at

About the research: The study collected responses via an online survey tool from 774 individuals. Margin of error is approximately 3%. Full survey results are available upon request.

CONTACT: Brittney Maxfield of VitalSmarts, L.L.C. +1-801-724-6272, or

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