Negotiating a Better Future: How Interpersonal Skills Facilitate Intergenerational Investment

In Zambia, negotiation training for teen girls may increase their continued enrollment in school.


Female education, especially secondary school enrollment, is low in Zambia and much of sub-Saharan Africa. Adolescent girls in Zambia and their parents often find themselves powerless to navigate the economic and social constraints that lead to spikes in dropout rates at the end of middle school (9th grade).

Negotiation training interventions are based on a movement in low and middle-income countries to improve developmental outcomes by empowering young women. These trainings build one’s skills to identify and reconcile one’s own and others’ interests and ultimately develop “win-win” solutions that create value for both parties. Research suggests that negotiation skills can empower women, especially those in environments that have strong cultural traditions of obedience and reciprocity to parents like those found in Zambia, by increasing their agency. Girls may use negotiation skills to influence their parent’s decisions about continuing school and in turn improve their own outcomes.

The study examined the impact of a two-week interpersonal negotiation skills training on educational outcomes in advance of the peak female school dropout period. The training taught girls to identify and reconcile differing interests within their households and use their agency to jointly create “win-win” solutions with their parents. To investigate the effects of the intervention on girls’ educational outcomes, data was collected on school enrollment, attendance rates, pregnancy, paid school fees, and national exam scores. 


Negotiation training given to 8th grade Zambian girls significantly improved educational outcomes over the next three years, specifically reducing dropout rates in the 9th grade during the transition to secondary school, with the largest impacts on school enrollment by the 11th grade.

After tracking the girls’ enrollment levels and educational outcomes over the 9th, 10th, and 11th grade, the study found that:

  • Participation in a 2-week negotiation training in the 8th grade increases enrollment of girls in the 11th grade by 4.4 percentage points (10%).
  • Furthermore, in the 11thgrade, being in the negotiation training also increased the probability from 25% to 29% of girls being enrolled in a higher quality “morning school” that requires higher scores on the national exam.
  • Participating in a 2-week individualistic empowerment training without the negotiation skills in the 8th grade had positive but not statistically significant effects on enrollment.
  • Providing more information about returns to education or health protection during the trainings had no effect on school enrollment or in morning school enrollment. Information alone appears to be insufficient to alter girls’ school enrollment outcomes in this context.

The study finds that it is possible to empower girls to change their educational outcomes through interpersonal skills, even in highly constrained environments. Teaching girls noncognitive interpersonal skills like negotiation appears to lead to greater human capital investment in part because these skills allow young women to become better advocates for themselves among differing household interests. The Zambian Ministry of Education has begun adapting elements from the negotiation training into the national life skills curriculum for all grade 8 students.


Using a randomized control trial study design, the researchers assigned 2,336 eight-grade girls in 29 co-ed public schools in Lusaka, Zambia to receive either the negotiation (n=801 girls), safe space (n=785 girls), or control (n=780 girls) treatment. An additional 12 schools (n=780 girls) served as “pure control” schools to assist in the measurement of spillovers to untreated girls. Everything was cross-randomized with an informational intervention to test other means of empowering girls. The negotiation treatment entailed a 2-week negotiation training while the safe space treatment entailed a 2-week individualistic empowerment training with female role models but without teaching negotiation skills. The information treatment provided more information about returns to education or health protection than the negotiation treatment. To measure the effects of the treatments, follow-up data was collected three to four months after the interventions. A lab-in-the-field experiment was conducted at the same time. The study tracked school enrollment and collected administrative data on the girls’ educational and pregnancy outcomes for three years. Short-term follow-up data was obtained through follow up surveys of the girls and their parents. The researchers also implemented a lab-in-the-field game designed to measure the effect of the girls using their negotiation skills with their parents in a controlled setting.

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