Enhancing father engagement in parenting programs:
A challenge for practitioners and policymakers
Meryn Lechowicz, Australia, August 2019
This short article has been adapted from a paper published in Australian Psychologist titled “Enhancing father engagement in parenting programs: Translating research into practice recommendations”. Read the full article here.
Why focus on engaging fathers?
Evidence-based parenting interventions have been shown to have immediate and long-term positive effects on children’s wellbeing.17 More recently, research has shown increased positive changes in children’s behaviour and better parenting practices resulting from programs involving fathers as well as mothers.15 Yet fathers are underrepresented in services that concern child wellbeing.4, 23 Therefore, an important challenge for practitioners and policymakers is to promote father engagement in order to optimise the benefits of parenting interventions for children and families.
How can practitioners and services engage fathers?
A recent literature review by the University of Sydney identified six evidence-based policy and practice recommendations to enhance father engagement:
1. Engage the parenting team
Clinicians and services should work to engage the core parenting team (i.e. fathers alongside mothers) in parenting interventions, as this has been found to lead to enhanced child and family outcomes.15, 19 Furthermore, research has suggested that fathers have a preference for, and willingness to, engage in programs alongside their parenting partner.7, 21
Practitioners and organisations should aim to collect family information from both parents to optimise engagement, avoid marginalising either parent, and track outcomes for fathers as well as mothers.4
It may take time to identify who forms the core parenting team across different family structures. It is also important to recognise that there may be circumstances in which engaging the father (or the mother) may not be appropriate and should be explored with the referring parent (e.g. domestic and family violence situations).
2. Avoid a father deficit model
When engaging fathers, practitioners and services should convey positive representations of fathers’ roles and contributions. Fathers have cited negative assumptions made by staff as a common barrier to their engagement with services.2
Research has also found that fathers’ own beliefs in their capabilities (i.e. perceived self-efficacy) are associated with their intentions to participate in programs.20
Therefore, it is critical for practitioners and services to recognise the expertise of both fathers and mothers, and to work with fathers as well as mothers to foster engagement, identify areas for skill-building, and increase both parents’ capacity to parent effectively.12
3. Increase fathers’ awareness of parenting interventions
Studies have shown low levels of awareness about parenting interventions amongst fathers.10, 27 Research with fathers has also indicated that their decision to participate is most influenced by:10, 22, 27
- understanding what is involved
- knowing the facilitator is trained
- knowing the program has evidence to support its effectiveness; and
- the program being held at a convenient location.
As a result, it is recommended that professionals and services:
- actively communicate information to fathers (as well as mothers)
- emphasise the importance and benefits of father participation; and
- highlight information regarding program content, effectiveness and accessibility.
4. Ensure content and delivery of programs is father-inclusive
Practitioners and organisations should ensure interventions reflect the needs and preferences of fathers as well as mothers. Research has suggested fathers are interested in topics related to practical parenting skills and enhancing children’s social competence.10, 27
Fathers, like mothers, also prefer less intensive interventions, such as brief parenting programs and internet-based programs.10, 17, 28 This suggests practitioners may need to consider:
- how parenting programs can be made available in a variety of formats; and
- how programs can be delivered in briefer and/or more targeted ways.
Incorporating both direct and indirect engagement into the design and delivery of parenting interventions may provide more flexible options for father participation. Practitioners should directly invite fathers to participate in parenting interventions where possible,18 as poor attendance rates have been linked to a lack of direct invitation.3
Practitioners can also seek to engage fathers indirectly via mothers, by emphasising the importance of father involvement and offering to contact fathers to discuss participating in the program.27
It is also important for practitioners not to assume that a non-attending parent is disinterested or disengaged. Indirect engagement, such as participating in at-home discussions about program content and actioning program strategies, may also effectively engage non-attending fathers.
5. Increase organisational support for father-inclusive practice
Father-inclusive practices and policies at the organisational level can be critical in increasing father engagement. Organisational support for father-inclusive practice has been found to be a key predictor of practitioner-reported father attendance rates,14, 26 with a lack of organisational support found to be a major barrier to father engagement.11, 26
Supporting father-inclusive practice at the organisational level could involve:
- emphasising the importance of father attendance and tracking father engagement data26
- promoting flexible service delivery models, such as online programs and after-work sessions that may counter barriers to attendance faced by fathers; and
- ensuring advertising is targeted towards fathers as well as mothers.
6. Increase training on engaging fathers
Practitioners and organisations may beneﬁt from father engagement training and professional development activities to increase father-inclusive practice.
Research has demonstrated that training in father engagement strategies is associated with enhanced practitioner conﬁdence and skills, with some studies also linking training to increased rates of father engagement.1, 13, 24, 25
Father-inclusive practice is likely to improve as a result of training targeted towards the following practitioner skills:
- Knowledge about the importance of fathers’ participation in programs for improving outcomes for children and families.
- Positive attitudes and beliefs about fathers.
- Self-reﬂection that assists practitioners to recognise the link between their own attitudes and behaviour.
- Skills to positively engage fathers; and
- Skills to promote father-inclusive practice within a practitioner’s team or organisation.6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 24, 25
Father engagement in parenting programs is an important topic that requires considerable further attention and research. Gathering adequate information about the rates of father participation in services will further strengthen and inform practice and policy recommendations for the future, ensuring parenting interventions are beneficial for both the parents and their children.
Note: The term ‘father’ in this article is used to refer to biological fathers, social fathers, and father-ﬁgures who undertake parenting responsibilities. Likewise, where the term ‘mother’ is used, it is intended to refer to biological mothers, social mothers, and mother-ﬁgures. Where the term ‘parent’ is used, it is intended to refer to those in a primary caregiving relationship with a child.
- Burn, M., Tully, L.A., Jiang, Y. et al. (2019). Evaluating practitioner training to improve competencies and organizational practices for engaging fathers in parenting interventions. Child Psychiatry Human Development, 50, 230-244. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-018-0836-2
- Campbell, C. A., Howard, D., Rayford, B. S., & Gordon, D. M. (2015). Fathers matter: Involving and engaging fathers in the child welfare system process. Children and Youth Services Review, 53, 84–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2015.03.020
- Davison, K. K., Charles, J. N., Khandpur, N., & Nelson, T. J. (2016). Fathers’ perceived reasons for their underrepresentation in child health research and strategies to increase their involvement. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 21(2), 267–274. https://doi.org/10.1007/ s10995-016-2157-z
- Fabiano, G. A. (2007). Father participation in behavioral parent training for ADHD: Review and recommendations for increasing inclusion and engagement. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(4), 683–693. https:// doi.org/10.1037/0893-3220.127.116.113
- Fletcher, R., Freeman, E., & Matthey, S. (2011). The impact of behavioural parent training on fathers’ parenting: A meta-analysis of the triple P- positive parenting program. Fathering, 9(3), 291–312. https://doi. org/10.3149/fth.0903.291
- Fletcher, R., Freeman, E., Ross, N., & St George, J. (2013). A quantitative analysis of practitioners’ knowledge of fathers and fathers’ engagement in family relationship services. Australian Dispute Resolution Journal, 24(4), 270–277.
- Fletcher, R., May, C., St George, J., Stoker, L., & Oshan, M. (2014). Engaging fathers: Evidence review. Canberra: Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY). Retrieved from https://www.aracy.org.au/publications-resources/command/download_file/id/268/filename/Engaging-Fathers-Evidence-Review-2014-web.pdf
- Fletcher, R., & St George, J. (2010). Practitioners’ understanding of father engagement in the context of family dispute resolution. Journal of Family Studies, 16(2), 101–115. https://doi.org/10.5172/jfs.16.2.101
- Fletcher, R., & Visser, A. (2008). Facilitating father engagement: The role of Family Relationship Centres. Journal of Family Studies, 14(1), 53–64. https://doi.org/10.5172/jfs.318.104.22.168
- Frank, T. J., Keown, L. J., & Sanders, M. R. (2015). Enhancing father engagement and interparental teamwork in an evidence‐based parenting intervention: A randomized‐controlled trial of outcomes and processes. Behavior Therapy, 46(6), 749– 763. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2015.05.008
- Glynn, L., & Dale, M. (2015). Engaging dads: Enhancing support for fathers through parenting programmes. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 27(1/2), 59–72. https://doi.org/10.11157/anzswj-vol27iss1-2id17
- Gordon, D. M., Oliveros, A., Hawes, S. W., Iwamoto, D. K., & Rayford, B. S. (2012). Engaging fathers in child protection services: A review of factors and strategies across ecological systems. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(8), 1399–1417. https://doi.org/10.1016/j. childyouth.2012.03.021
- Humphries, H., & Nolan, M. (2015). Evaluation of a brief intervention to assist health visitors and community practitioners to engage with fathers as part of the healthy child initiative. Primary Health Care Research & Development, 16(4), 367–376. https://doi.org/10.1017/ s1463423615000031
- Jiang, Y., Tully, L. A., Burn, M. T., Piotrowska, P. J., Collins, D. A. J., Moul, C., Dadds, M. R. (2018). Development and psychometric evaluation of the Father Engagement Questionnaire. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(11), 3457–3467.
- Lundahl, B. W., Tollefson, D., Risser, H., & Lovejoy, M. (2008). A meta- analysis of father involvement in parent training. Research on Social Work Practice, 18(2), 97–106. https://doi.org/10. 1177/1049731507309828
- Morawska, A., Sanders, M., Goadby, E., Headley, C., Hodge, L., McAuliffe, C., Anderson, E. (2011). Is the triple P-positive parenting program acceptable to parents from culturally diverse backgrounds? Journal of Child and Family Studies, 20(5), 614–622. https://doi.org/10. 1007/s10826-010-9436-x
- Nores, M., & Barnett, W.S. (2010). Benefits of early childhood interventions across the word: (under) investing in the very young. Economics of Education Review, 29(2), 271-282. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2009.09.001
- Pruett, M. K., Pruett, K., Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (2017a). Enhancing father involvement in low-income families: A couples group approach to preventive intervention. Child Development, 88(2), 398–407. https:// doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12744
- Pruett, M. K., Pruett, K., Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (2017b). Enhancing parental engagement in a co-parenting paradigm. Child Development Perspectives, 11(4), 245–250. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12239
- Salari, R., & Filus, A. (2017). Using the Health Belief Model to explain mothers’ and fathers’ intention to participate in universal parenting programs. Prevention Science, 18(1), 83–94. https://doi:10.1007/ s11121-016-0696-6
- Salinas, A., Smith, J. C., & Armstrong, K. (2011). Engaging fathers in behavioral parent training: Listening to fathers’ voices. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 26(4), 304–311. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedn.2010. 01.008
- Sanders, M. R., Haslam, D. M., Calam, R., Southwell, C., & Stallman, H. M. (2011). Designing effective interventions for working parents: A web-based survey of parents in the UK workforce. Journal of Children’s Services, 6(3), 186–200 https://doi.org/10.1108/17466661 111176042
- Scourfield, J., Cheung, S. Y., & Macdonald, G. (2014). Working with fathers to improve children’s well-being: Results of a survey exploring service provision and intervention approach in the UK. Children and Youth Services Review, 43, 40-50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2014.04.009
- Scourfield, J., Smail, P., & Butler, D. (2015). A systemic approach to improving the engagement of fathers in child safeguarding. Child Abuse Review, 24(2), 129–139. https://doi.org/10.1002/car.2333
- Scourfield, J., Tolman, R., Maxwell, N., Holland, S., Bullock, A., & Sloan, L. (2012). Results of a training course for social workers on engaging fathers in child protection. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(8), 1425–1432. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2012. 03.022
- Tully, L. A., Collins, D. J., Piotrowska, P. J., Mairet, K., Hawes, D. J., Moul, C., … Dadds, M. R. (2018). Examining practitioner competencies, organizational support and barriers to engaging fathers in parenting interventions. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 49, 109–122. https://doi.org/10.1007/ s10578-017-0733-0
- Tully, L. A., Piotrowska, P. J., Collins, D. J., Mairet, K., Black, N., Kimonis, E. R., … Dadds, M. R. (2017). Optimizing child outcomes from parenting interventions: Fathers’ experiences, preferences and barriers to participation. BMC Public Health, 17, 550. https://doi.org/ 10.1186/s12889-017-4426-1