A parenting program in which fathers read to their preschoolers was found to boost the dads’ parenting skills while also improving the preschoolers’ school readiness and behavior, according to a new study led by New York University (NYU).
“Unlike earlier research, our study finds that it is possible to engage fathers from low-income communities in parenting interventions, which benefits both the fathers and their children,” said lead author Dr. Anil Chacko, associate professor of counseling psychology at NYU Steinhardt.
Fathers play a vital role in the social, emotional, and behavioral development of their children. However, few studies have focused on helping fathers improve their parenting skills — and, in turn, outcomes for their children — as most parenting research is conducted with mothers. Furthermore, previous research on parenting interventions for fathers have issues with high rates of fathers dropping out of the studies.
The new study evaluated the effects of the program called “Fathers Supporting Success in Preschoolers,” an intervention that focuses on integrating parent training with shared book reading to improve outcomes among fathers and their preschoolers.
Shared book reading is an interactive and dynamic activity in which an adult uses prompts and feedback to allow a child to become an active storyteller. It relies heavily on pictures and encourages parents to give their children praise and encouragement. Shared book reading fosters father-child interactions and also helps develop school readiness.
“Rather than a goal of increasing father involvement, which implies a deficit approach, a program that uses shared book reading targets a specific parenting skill set and represents a valued activity for parents and children,” said Chacko.
For the study, 126 low-income fathers and their preschool-aged children were recruited across three Head Start centers in New York City. The families, a majority of whom spoke Spanish, were randomly assigned to either participate in the eight-week program or were put on a waitlist (which acted as the control condition).
The short-term intervention included weekly sessions lasting 90 minutes each. In these sessions, small groups of dads watched videos showing fathers reading with children but with exaggerated errors.
The fathers then identified and, in small and large groups, discussed better approaches to these interactions. Fathers were then encouraged to practice the strategies they identified at home with their child during shared book reading.
The program was designed to help improve parenting strategies by establishing routines, encouraging child-centered time, using attention and incentives to promote good behavior, using distraction and ignoring to reduce attention-seeking behavior and resorting to time-outs sparingly.
The researchers then evaluated the program’s effects on parenting skills, child behavior and language, and outcomes for fathers, including stress and depression. The researchers measured these factors before and immediately after the program through direct observation, standardized assessments of language, and self-reported information. Attendance data was also collected as a measure of engagement.
The findings show that parenting behaviors, child behaviors, and language development of the children who participated in the program improved significantly compared to those on the wait-list.
In addition, fathers reported improved discipline approaches and promotion of their children’s psychological growth. The researchers also observed that fathers made fewer critical statements to their children and used more positive parenting behaviors like praise and affection.
The researchers also found a moderate effect on language outcomes among the children. Overall, the data suggest more than a 30 percent improvement in parenting and school readiness outcomes.
Importantly, the average attendance rate for the weekly sessions was 79 percent, which was substantially higher than past parenting programs for fathers.
“Unlike other parenting programs, fathers in this program were not recruited to work on parenting or reduce child behavior problems, but to learn — with other fathers — skills to support their children’s school readiness, which may remove stigma and support openness among fathers in supporting their children,” said Chacko. “The findings are particularly noteworthy given the study’s population of low-income, Spanish-speaking, immigrant fathers.”
The researchers added that shared book reading may not be the best approach for all fathers and children, so interventions should be tailored to the preferences of communities and parents in order to increase the chances of success.
“Ultimately, we believe that developing a program that is both focused on the parent and child, and one that is not deficit-driven or focused on improving problematic parenting but is focusing on skill development, would be appealing and engaging for fathers,” said Chacko.
The findings are published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.