A University of Washington researcher has started enrolling low-income fathers in a program that involves filming their everyday moments with their children as a way to help them strengthen their parenting skills.
Early in her career as a researcher, University of Washington education professor Holly Schindler noticed a big imbalance in the kind of support available to parents.
Program after program focused on moms, aimed at helping them improve their parenting skills.
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Did their parenting skills matter as much? And who was helping them improve?
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Those questions led her, in 2014, to develop a pilot project in which 15 fathers were filmed interacting with their children, a way to help them understand how they could actively support their sons’ and daughters’ early development.
The initial results, she said, were promising enough that she’s now embarking on a larger study that will involve 50 dads over the next year and focus on Latino families in particular.
“The opportunity to have somebody show you really good things you’re already doing and to point that out and see that on film, that can be especially powerful for a father,” she said.
Schindler’s interest in dads started in Boston, where, as a graduate student, she worked with a professor trying to quantify what impact an involved father has on a child.
She also volunteered with the Boston Public Health Commission to observe an initiative that helped dads join support groups or get access to their children after leaving prison.
“That really changed my perceptions of what men, particularly low-income men, were facing,” she said.
“It was just eye-opening,” she added. “I realized there were very few services they could access. There were lots for the women, which was great, but not the same level of opportunity for dads.”
Schindler continued her research at Harvard University, where she led a team that reviewed hundreds of evaluations of early childhood and parent support programs, which dated back to the 1960s.
Virtually none of them focused on fathers, she said.
That’s despite growing research that dads can help increase a child’s cognitive development and reduce psychological problems in young women and behavioral problems in boys. In addition, Schindler said, dads’ involvement reduces mothers’ parenting stress.
Over six sessions, the fathers allowed home visitors to film everyday activities, such as playing with a toy or family dinner.
The team later created highlight reels to show the dads their parenting strengths. That could include identifying objects the child picked up to build vocabulary skills or allowing the child to take the lead during playtime.
Participant fathers reported that, as a result of seeing those films, they interacted with their children more and felt less parenting stress, and their children’s behavior problems went down.
“I liked stepping back and looking at the big picture, and then focusing on their reaction to our response,” one dad said. “Like when they do something good, and you say ‘good job,’ they look at you and smile.”
The benefits were particularly strong for dads who as children had experienced some trauma or adversity, Schindler said.
The pilot, she said, “was designed to really focus on the highest risk families. It’s a strength-based program and who has the most to gain from that?
“It may be people who may not have had the same supportive relationships in their own lives.”
Enrollment in the expanded program has already started, with two dozen fathers signed up, and 16 more in the middle of filling out paperwork.
It’s one of six similar efforts across the country — all aimed at designing and testing new ways that caregivers can use to help children develop their mental ability to plan, remember instructions, and set and achieve goals.