Gone are the days when fathers were stuck in prescribed gender roles and only interacted with their children for disciplinary or financial matters. Today, fathers contribute to their children’s overall development and well-being in many ways. They shop and play with children. They shuffle children to sports practices and doctor’s appointments. They prepare food, change diapers, read books, and stay at home with their children. In today’s families, there are single fathers, gay fathers, married fathers, grandfathers raising grandchildren, and uncles raising their nieces and nephews. There are biological and adoptive fathers, stepfathers, and other males who are negotiating their roles as custodial and non-custodial dads. (David Jones, Fatherhood Specialist, Office of Head Start)

In August, I attended an Early Learning Quality Improvement Network meeting in Washington, DC with local education leaders. At this meeting, David Jones, Fatherhood Specialist at the Office of Head Start, talked with the audience about engaging fathers in Early Head Start. I was quickly drawn in as Jones shared his mission to help fathers who were struggling to embrace the responsibilities associated with fatherhood. He told stories from his time as Director of the Bronx Fatherhood Program, a program in New York serving 16-to 24-year-old non-custodial fathers. Jones described the barriers that exist to engaging fathers in their child’s education, including beliefs about parent and teacher roles, as well as rigid gender roles. Many of the fathers he worked with felt misunderstood or disrespected in early care settings. Jones also shared success stories of fathers in his program, like one father he worked with who was able to stay out of prison and remain present in his daughter’s life by using the anger management skills he gained during the fatherhood program.

Head Start, the nation’s oldest and largest public early childhood education program, has a long history of acknowledging that fathers and father figures are important contributors to children’s school readiness and well-being.  In 1995 the Office of Head Start launched the Fatherhood Initiative in response to the Clinton Administration’s introduction of a government-wide initiative to strengthen the role of fathers in families. Then, in 2001, the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), funded 21 Early Head Start fatherhood demonstration projects to increase father involvement. In 2004, the Office of Head Start (OHS) introduced Building Blocks for Father Involvement to the Head Start community with the goal of improving services for fathers and increasing their involvement in Head Start.

Many research studies have shown that engaged fathers can have positive effects on children’s well-being and brain development. For example, research indicates that infants with highly involved fathers are more cognitively competent at six months and score higher on the Bayley Scales of Infant Development. In a study of families in Early Head Start programs, a father’s presence in the family led to positive cognitive and social developmental outcomes, such as children’s ability to form more secure relationships with their fathers, a central aspect of social development. Studies have also shown the long-term benefits for children with involved fathers, including higher levels of economic and educational achievement, career success, and psychological well being. Simultaneously, related findings indicate that a father’s emotional or physical absence can have a long lasting negative impact on child development.

Despite these findings that show the importance of involving fathers early in their children’s lives, fathers report receiving limited support from social services and early childhood programs. Head Start has created a resource to try to do something about that. The Head Start Father Engagement Birth to Five Programming Guide, which was released in 2013, is designed to help programs move towards “systemic, integrated, and comprehensive father engagement.”  As Jones explained in his talk, as well as in this webinar, the guide encourages programs to examine how well they are engaging fathers and to think about how everyone in the program can work to ensure father-friendly environments. Programs are encouraged to host support groups for young fathers and engage them in developing their own skills and in achieving their personal goals, such as the desire to advance their own education to improve their employment.

One Head Start center in New Haven, Connecticut has made it their mission to bring absentee fathers back into the picture to help raise their children. This effort, led by Keith Young, works to find absent fathers and bring them to parenting classes at centers. “We’re meeting men on all different levels. We’re meeting men that don’t have jobs; we’re meeting men who might have been kicked out of the house or might have caused some kind of crime, domestic, whatever. The thing is, when they come in are we asking them, ‘How can we get you involved?’” Young explains during an NPR  interview. In addition to the benefits that it provides the children, Young also strongly believes that men with troubled lives can amend their own lives by connecting with their children.

Fathers and father figures play a key role in the healthy development of their children and have important and unique contributions to make to their Head Start communities. Yet, fathers aren’t always included as they should be, a problem which extends more broadly into policy areas such as childcare and the work-life balance debate.   Early education programs must continue to  work to break down the barriers to father engagement, such as prescribed gender roles of men that Jones mentioned above, and help to reevaluate and improve programs to engage fathers in their child’s early development. The Head Start Father Engagement Birth to Five Programming Guide is one tool that can help with this.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Lara Burt is a summer 2016 intern with New America’s Family-Centered Social Policy program. Previously, Lara worked as a Metro DC Reading Corps tutor in Washington, D.C., providing individualized reading instruction to students in grades K-3. She is currently pursuing an AM degree (MSW equivalent) at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration with concentrations in social service administration and family support work.