Volume 5 Number 2
©The Author(s) 2003
Reaching Out to Fathers: An Examination of Staff Efforts That Lead to Greater Father Involvement in Early Childhood Programs
In recent years, researchers and practitioners have become increasingly interested in father/male involvement in early childhood programs. However, few empirical studies have examined early childhood educators' efforts to involve fathers in such programs. The purpose of the present investigation was to assess early childhood educators' efforts to involve fathers and to determine which efforts lead to greater success at overall father involvement. Surveys were completed by 213 early childhood educators attending regional training events. Findings demonstrate that efforts are being made in a number of areas to increase father involvement. Multiple regression analysis revealed that three factors significantly accounted for early childhood educators' success at involving fathers: (1) including the father's name on the enrollment form, (2) sending written correspondence to fathers even if they live apart from their children, and (3) inviting fathers to the center to participate in educational activities with their children. Implications for practitioners are discussed.
Child care by someone other than a parent has become a reality for millions of children across the United States. According to recent estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 54% of children birth through third grade (roughly 20 million) receive some form of nonparental child care on a regular basis. For children ages 3 to 5 who have not yet started kindergarten, 60% attend center-based early childhood programs, which include Head Start, day care centers, nursery schools, and various other preschool programs. From 1996 to 1999, the percentage of children within this age bracket attending early childhood programs increased from 55% to 60% (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2001).
Given that such a large percentage of children are spending as much, if not more, of their waking hours in nonparental care arrangements, parents are faced with the challenge of finding ways to remain involved in their children's lives. One avenue that parents can pursue to fill this gap is through active involvement in their children's early childhood and school-age programs. Researchers have consistently found a positive relationship between level of parental involvement and children's academic success during the school-age years (Henderson & Berla, 1994; Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Stevenson & Baker, 1987). High levels of parental involvement are associated with higher student grades and test scores, better attendance, higher rates of homework completion, more positive student attitudes and behavior, higher graduation rates, and greater enrollment rates in postsecondary education (Henderson & Mapp, 2002).
The positive benefits of parental involvement do not appear to be limited to school-age children. Emerging evidence indicates that parental involvement in children's early childhood programs can have a very positive influence on children's academic outcomes, especially when programs offer training opportunities to parents on how to become more involved at home and in the centers (Eldridge, 2001; Fagan & Iglesias, 1999; Marcon, 1999; Starkey & Klein, 2000). In a three-year study of 708 preschoolers in the Washington, DC, area, Marcon (1999) discovered that increased parent involvement (e.g., volunteering at school, attending parent-teacher conferences, participating in home visits, helping with class activities) was significantly related to children's mastery of skills in all subject matter areas. Positive child outcomes were also noted in a series of experimental studies conducted with African American and Latino Head Start families (Starkey & Klein, 2000). Head Start staff provided training to mothers on how to use math activity kits with their children at home. Results indicate that children in the program developed greater math knowledge and skills compared with a control group (Starkey & Klein, 2000).
Father Involvement in Early Childhood Programs
In recent years, greater attention has been given to father and father-figure involvement in early childhood programs (Fagan, 2000; Fagan & Iglesias, 1999; Levine, 1993; McBride & Rane, 1997; McBride, Rane, & Bae, 2001; Turbiville, Umbarger, & Guthrie, 2000). This interest is primarily focused on Head Start and Early Head Start programs (Cabrera, Tamis-LeMonda, Lamb, & Boller, 1999); however, efforts to involve fathers in a variety of other early childhood and after-school programs have also been pursued (Levine, Murphy, & Wilson, 1998; Levine & Pitt, 1995; McBride, Rane, & Bae, 2001). A growing body of research has led to an awareness of the important role that fathers can occupy in their children's development (Lamb, 1997; Marsiglio, Amato, Day, & Lamb, 2000; Parke, 1996; Yogman, Kindlon, & Earls, 1995). Children who grow up with actively involved and nurturing fathers (as opposed to uninvolved fathers) reap numerous benefits, including better school performance (Grolnick & Slowiaczek, 1994; Nord, Brimhall, & West, 1997), increased self-esteem (Radin, 1994), healthier relationships with peers (Mosley & Thompson, 1995; Snarey, 1993), healthier sex-role development (Radin, 1986), and access to greater financial resources (Horn & Sylvester, 2002).
Studies indicate that when specific efforts are made to involve fathers and father-figures in early childhood programs, these men are more likely to participate. Fagan and Iglesias (1999) discovered that when traditional parental involvement activities were adapted for fathers of preschool-age children in Head Start, overall involvement increased, and fathers' involvement led to improvements in their children's mathematics readiness scores. In a more recent study, McBride, Rane, and Bae (2001) examined the impact of an intervention program aimed at state-funded preschool teachers. Staff members were trained to encourage and facilitate father/male involvement in their programs. When compared with a control group, the researchers found that the treatment site was significantly more successful at involving fathers.
Despite recent efforts to involve fathers, some fathers hesitate to participate in their children's early care arrangements (Levine, Murphy, & Wilson, 1998; McBride & Rane, 1997; McBride, Rane, & Bae, 2001). Possible barriers to involvement include teacher and staff attitudes toward father involvement, mothers' attitudes toward father involvement, societal views concerning male involvement in child care, family/cultural beliefs, fathers' educational level, irregular work schedules, and lack of knowledge on the part of fathers of how to become involved (Fagan & Iglesias, 1999; Levine, Murphy, & Wilson, 1998; McBride & Rane, 1997).
Purpose of Study
Recent studies on father involvement in early childhood settings (e.g., Fagan & Iglesias, 1999; Frieman, 1998; Levine, Murphy, & Wilson, 1998; McBride & Rane, 1997; McBride, Rane, & Bae, 2001) have contributed significantly to the knowledge base surrounding this issue. However, more studies are needed to help researchers and practitioners gain a more thorough understanding of the factors that influence fathers' participation in their children's early childhood programs, including what program staff are doing to facilitate this process. Therefore, the purpose of the present investigation was twofold: (1) to examine early childhood educators' efforts to involve fathers in their programs, and (2) to determine which program efforts lead to greater father involvement.
Underlying this investigation is Epstein's (2001) theory of "overlapping spheres of influence," which takes into account the three major contexts in which children learn and developschool, family, and community. According to the theory, all three contexts influence, and are influenced by, one another's decisions with regard to their desire for closeness or separateness. For example, educational institutions can make concerted efforts to bring all three spheres of influence closer together through frequent and high-quality interactions with families and communities, or they can choose to keep the spheres relatively separate (Epstein, Sanders, Simon, Salinas, Jansorn, & Van Voorhis, 2003). Families (i.e., parents), within certain constraints, can make similar choices with regard to how involved they want to become in their children's learning environments. Optimally, children's potential for success is enhanced when all three spheres are brought closer together.
The theory is particularly useful for understanding the role of schools (early childhood programs in this case) and families in fostering greater parental involvement in children's learning environments. Out of Epstein's framework and an extensive body of empirical research have emerged six types of involvement: (1) parenting, (2) communicating, (3) volunteering, (4) learning at home, (5) decision making, and (6) collaborating with community (Epstein et al., 2003). Although Epstein acknowledges the role of each sphere in fostering a positive learning environment for children, much of the responsibility for creating successful partnerships lies with educational institutions and their personnel (e.g., teachers, administrators).
One of the major tenets of the theory is that greater collaboration between spheres (i.e., families and school) will result in positive benefits for students, parents, and teachers (Epstein, 2001; Epstein et al., 2003). The theory predicts that students will do better academically and socially by experiencing a closer connection between home and school environments. Parents are predicted to benefit by establishing a closer relationship with their child's teacher(s), while also gaining a better understanding of their child's learning environment. Teachers are predicted to gain a better understanding of families' backgrounds, cultures, concerns, needs, and unique strengths. Equipped with this knowledge, teachers, it is thought, will be more inclined to involve parents in novel ways in their centers.
Epstein's theory is useful in the present context for understanding how educators can encourage greater father involvement in children's early childhood programs. When special efforts are made to increase fathers' participation in children's early childhood settings, the theory predicts that the two spheres under consideration (i.e., home and school) will experience a greater closeness, or connection, thus leading to better outcomes for children. This connection is facilitated when early childhood educators seek to gain a better understanding of the position of the father in the child's family, including his cultural background, educational level, relationship with his child (e.g., custodial vs. noncustodial), employment status, willingness to participate in his child's education, and his unique strengths as a parent. When early childhood educators become more familiar with the fathers of the children in their care, they can make special efforts to involve fathers in their centers through activities such as parent-teacher conferences, special educational events, and parent volunteer opportunities (e.g., field trips, career day, facility maintenance). Special effort on the part of early childhood educators to reach out to fathers can have the desired effect of stimulating greater father involvement in children's learning environments both at home and at the centers (Fagan & Iglesias, 1999; McBride, Rane, & Bae, 2001).
Despite an increased interest in the role of fathers in children's development, more studies are needed to determine what early childhood educators are currently doing to involve fathers and which efforts appear to be more successful at accomplishing the desired outcomes. The present study, which was guided by the following research questions, is an attempt to contribute to our understanding of father involvement in the context of early childhood programs:
- What efforts, if any, are being made by early childhood educators to involve fathers in their programs?
- What are the specific staff efforts that lead to greater father involvement in early childhood programs?
Sample and Procedure
The sample for this study was drawn from a series of early childhood educator regional training sessions conducted between June 2001 and February 2002 in a large southern state. Training sessions were conducted in three separate regions. The events included a general session and multiple breakout sessions, which allowed participants to rotate through various topics. The training sessions concentrated on general themes important to early childhood educators (e.g., child development, nutrition, health and safety issues, discipline) and were open to educators from a variety of public and private early childhood programs (e.g., Head Start, Even Start). Attendees were able to sign up and receive continuing education units or contact hours to fulfill state licensing requirements. Prior to training sessions, paper-and-pencil surveys were distributed in person to approximately 350 participants. Attendees were informed that the survey was strictly voluntary and confidential.
Of the 350 surveys distributed, 314 were partially or fully completed, for a return rate of approximately 90%. Surveys were then examined to assess whether or not they were complete. Out of 314 returned surveys, 213 surveys qualified as fully complete. Sample characteristics can be found in Table 1. As noted in the table, nearly all of the educators were female (98.6%). There was adequate variation in the racial/ethnic makeup of the sample, with Caucasians making up the majority (51.6%) followed by Hispanics (36.2%), African Americans (8.5%), Native Americans (2.3%), and other (1.4%). The vast majority of the respondents reported having obtained a high school diploma or greater (96.7%), but only 20% reported having graduated from college with an undergraduate or graduate degree. Nearly 90% of the early childhood educators in this sample worked in public or private early childhood programs other than Head Start or Even Start, while 5.6% percent worked with Head Start and 5.2% with Even Start.
Efforts to Involve Fathers
To measure early childhood educators' efforts to involve fathers in their programs, an 8-item survey (excluding demographic items) was developed. Participants were asked the following question: "In my early childhood program, we. (a) Include a space on our enrollment for fathers to fill in their name, address, and telephone number; (b) Make a special effort to talk to fathers as they drop off and pick up their children; (c) Invite fathers to participate in parent-teacher conferences/meetings; (d) Send letters and written announcements to fathers (even if they do not live in the child's home); (e) Ask fathers to participate in special events sponsored by our center (e.g., field trips, potluck dinners, parties); (f) Invite fathers to the center to participate in educational activities with the children (e.g., read a book, talk about their jobs); (g) Ask fathers to participate on advisory boards or other special committees; and (h) Ask fathers to help maintain the facilities (e.g., paint, clean, build equipment, etc.)."
Response options to the above items ranged from 1 (Never) to 5 (Always). When combined to form a single measure of effort to involve fathers, this 8-item scale was shown to have good internal reliability. In the present study, 213 participants completed all items. Alpha reliability was .82 for the 8-item scale.
Success at Involving Fathers
Success at involving fathers was measured using a global item that asked participants the following question: "How successful are you at involving fathers in your early childhood program?" Response categories range from 1 (Very unsuccessful) to 5 (Very successful).
Staff Efforts to Involve Fathers in Early Childhood Programs
The first research question asked, "What efforts, if any, are being made by early childhood educators to involve fathers in their programs?" In order to answer this question, frequencies were run on participants' responses to the 8-item scale as well as individual sub-items. Response categories ranged from 1 to 5; however, the response percentages on several of the items fell under 1%. Therefore, response categories were collapsed into the following three categories: (1) always or often, (2) sometimes, and (3) seldom or never. Examination of the results indicate that approximately 50% (51.2) of respondents often or always make efforts to involve fathers in their early childhood programs. Of the remaining 50%, just over a third (32.4%) reported that they sometimes make an effort to involve fathers, while less than 20% (16.4) seldom or never make similar efforts. Mean scores generated from the 8-item scale, along with the standard deviations and percentages, can be found in Table 2.
When items are considered separately, a slightly different picture emerges. On the first two items of the scale (i.e., include a space on the enrollment form for the father's name, address, and telephone number, and make a special effort to talk to fathers), over 90% of respondents indicated that they often or always make efforts in these areas. Percentages decrease with subsequent items; however, over 70% of respondents reported making strong efforts to invite fathers to parent-teacher conferences (78.4%) and ask them to participate in special events sponsored by their centers (71.9%). More than half of those surveyed reported that they invite fathers to educational activities at the center (56.8%), yet over 20% (22.5%) indicated that they seldom or never invite them to these events.
Approximately 40% of early childhood educators surveyed indicated that they always or often ask fathers to serve on advisory boards or special committees (41.7%) and ask fathers to help maintain the center facilities (39.0%), whereas a very similar percentage indicated that they seldom or never ask fathers to do the same (37.6 and 41.3%). Also of interest is the finding that over 40% of those surveyed (41.2%) reported that they send letters and written announcements to fathers even if they do not live in the child's home. In contrast, over 32% (32.9%) indicated that they seldom or never send letters and written announcements to fathers.
Staff Efforts That Lead to Greater Father Involvement in Early Childhood Programs
Question 2 asked, "What are the specific staff efforts that lead to greater father involvement in early childhood programs?" To arrive at an answer to this question, the 8 items in the aforementioned scale were treated as separate independent variables and were entered into a multiple regression equation. Overall success at involving fathers served as the dependent variable.
Table 3 presents the results of the multiple regression analysis, including standard error coefficients, unstandardized and standardized beta coefficients, and significance levels. Forty-three percent (R2 = .43) of the variation in the dependent variable (success at involving fathers) was explained by the independent variables under consideration, F(8, 204) = 19.18, p < .001. Editor's note: These values were reported incorrectly prior to December 7, 2004.
The following variables significantly influenced early childhood educators' level of success at involving fathers in their programs: sending written correspondence to fathers even if they live apart from their children (ß = .30, p < .001); including the father's name, address, and telephone number on the enrollment form (ß = .18, p < .01); and inviting fathers to the center to participate in educational activities with their children (ß = .16, p < .05). Each of these variables is discussed below.
Early childhood educators in this sample appear to value father involvement in their programs as evidenced by their efforts to include fathers in a variety of center-related activities. More than half of all of those surveyed indicated that they always or often make efforts to involve fathers, whereas slightly over 16% seldom or never make similar efforts.
When specific practices were examined, the majority of those surveyed made a special effort to involve fathers in five of the eight areas that were assessed. Early childhood educators were especially diligent to ask for the father's name on the application, make a special effort to talk to fathers, invite them to parent-teacher meetings, and ask them to participate in special events and educational activities sponsored by the center. It is also interesting to note that 40% of the respondents often or always send letters and written announcements to fathers even if they do not live in the child's home. This finding is important for two reasons. First, demographic data indicate that many children live apart from their fathers (Horn & Sylvester, 2002). Second, recent studies have found that, despite living apart from their fathers, children have some form of regular or consistent contact with their father or another male role model (Fagan, Newash, & Schloesser, 2000; Levine, 1993).
Results from the multiple regression analysis suggest that there may be specific efforts that appear to be more helpful than others at encouraging fathers to become involved in their children's early childhood programs. Sending written correspondence to fathers even if they live apart from their children was one of the strongest predictors of successful involvement as perceived by early childhood educators in this sample. As noted above, many children (possibly the majority) reside in homes in which their fathers do not live. In these situations, it cannot be assumed that information sent to one parent will be shared with the other. Frieman (1998) and Levine, Murphy, and Wilson (1998) note that special efforts must be made to keep fathers involved in their children's early learning environments, especially when dealing with divorced fathers. Levine, Murphy, and Wilson (1998) suggest duplicating copies of information about meetings, progress reports, and special events so that both parents have access to this important information.
The two other staff efforts that significantly influenced father participation in early childhood programs included leaving a space on the enrollment form for the father's name, address, and telephone number, and inviting fathers to participate in educational events at the centers. Similar to sending written correspondence to fathers, including a space on a program's enrollment form for the father's name and address is a simple measure that can help fathers and mothers understand that fathers' participation is highly valued by program staff. This practice also serves as a means of obtaining the father's contact information if he does not live in the child's home.
Inviting fathers to the centers to participate in educational activities can serve a number of positive purposes. When fathers are regularly invited to their children's educational activities, it encourages them to be involved, lets them know that their participation is welcome, has the potential to strengthen the educational experiences of children, and forges a stronger relationship between the family and school spheres (Epstein, 2001; Epstein et al., 2003; Frieman, 1998; Frieman & Berkeley, 2002). Activities that have been suggested, and in fact are being implemented in many early childhood programs across the country, include fathers reading to children in the classroom, coming to the centers to discuss their jobs and hobbies, participating on field trips, and leading educational demonstrations (Frieman, 1998; Frieman & Berkeley, 2002; Levine, Murphy, & Wilson, 1998).
Overall, the study lends support to Epstein's theory of "overlapping spheres of influence," which considers the shared responsibilities of home, school, and community in promoting a positive learning environment for children. The present investigation considered one aspect of this framework by examining the role of the school (early childhood program) in fostering a greater connection with one segment of the family (i.e., fathers). Findings indicate that the majority of those surveyed make a concerted effort to involve fathers through various outreach methods. Over 90% reported that they obtain contact information for fathers at registration, and an equal percentage make a special effort to communicate with fathers once their children are enrolled. These special efforts on the part of early childhood educators to communicate with fathers of the children in their care enables them to gain a better understanding of the family and, in particular, the position of the father in the family. As educators grow in their knowledge and understanding of the home environment, they can seek to involve fathers in more in-depth ways in their children's early childhood programs (e.g., assisting with educational activities). Prior empirical studies indicate that regular attempts to bridge the home and school spheres enhance the likelihood that fathers will participate in their children's early childhood centers (Fagan & Iglesias, 1999).
Although this study provided valuable information regarding early childhood educators' efforts to involve fathers in their programs, it should be noted that there are limitations, particularly in the regression data, that must be taken into account. First, the dependent variable utilized to measure overall success at involving fathers was not an objective measure of father involvement. Rather, it assessed early childhood educators' perceived success at involving fathers in their programs. In this investigation, both independent and dependent variables were derived from the same source (i.e., early childhood educators' responses to survey items), increasing the likelihood of shared method variance. As a result, caution should be exercised when attempting to interpret and generalize the regression findings to other contexts. In future studies, it would be beneficial to collect data from other sources, such as the fathers themselves, or develop a measure that attempts to objectively assess the level of father involvement in their children's early childhood programs. For example, numerical records could be kept of father participation in parent-teacher conferences, special educational activities, and classroom volunteerism.
Second, although respectable in size, the sample used in the present investigation was not randomly selected; therefore, it may or may not be fully representative of early childhood programs across the nation. Some early childhood programs focus more attention on involving fathers than others, including allocating resources to hire male involvement coordinators. Naturally, efforts to increase father involvement will be greater in such organizations, because center policies are geared toward this goal. In subsequent studies, it would be interesting to randomly select a group of educators from various early childhood programs (e.g., Head Start, Even Start) to determine whether the type of program significantly influences the level of success at involving fathers.
Implications for Practitioners
The level of outreach to fathers reported by early childhood educators in this sample is consistent with the growing interest in male/father involvement in children's early care and education (Fagan, 1999; Fagan & Iglesias, 1999; Levine, Murphy, & Wilson, 1998; McBride, Rane, & Bae, 2001; Nord, Brimhall, & West, 1997). Early childhood programs across the nation are making concerted efforts to involve males/fathers in their programs, including hiring greater numbers of male staff members. Some programs have even taken steps to recruit and hire male involvement coordinators to increase male/father involvement in programs (Levine, Murphy, & Wilson, 1998).
Findings from this study and others (e.g., Fagan, 1999; Levine, Murphy, & Wilson, 1998) indicate that greater programmatic support of fathers in the form of specific efforts to involve fathers can increase the likelihood that fathers will participate in their children's early childhood programs. Very simple steps can be taken by early childhood educators and administrators to reach out to fathers and father figures. Actions that require minimal effort include leaving a space on the enrollment form for fathers to provide contact information and making a special effort to talk to fathers when they stop by the center.
Other activities or efforts that may require a greater commitment on the part of staff/administration include inviting fathers to participate in educational activities at the center (e.g., reading to children, participating in a career day in which fathers share what they do for a living with the children in the program), sending correspondence to fathers even if they live apart from their children, asking certain fathers to participate on advisory committees, and organizing events where fathers can help maintain the facilities (e.g., paint the center). As fathers' participation increases in specific activities, it is likely that fathers will become more invested in their children's care and education (Fagan, 1999; Fagan & Iglesias, 1999; Levine, Murphy, & Wilson, 1998).
Decades of research have demonstrated that parental involvement in children's early care and education contributes significantly to children's potential for academic success. Recently, more attention has been directed toward father and father-figure involvement in this process. Evidence indicates that fathers contribute in valuable ways to their children's development when they are actively and positively involved in their lives. One arena in which fathers can contribute, which appears to have beneficial effects for children, is through participation in their early childhood programs. The present study examined early childhood educators' efforts to involve fathers and the specific efforts that led to greater father involvement in their centers. Findings suggest that efforts are being made to increase father involvement in a number of areas, and that there are simple, yet effective efforts that appear to increase the likelihood fathers will participate in their children's early childhood programs.
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Dr. Stephen Green serves as assistant professor and Extension child development specialist with Texas Cooperative Extension, The Texas A&M University System. He received his B.A. in psychology from the University of California, Davis, his M.S. in marriage and family therapy from Harding University, and his Ph.D. in family and child development from Virginia Tech University. Dr. Green's research interests include father-child relationships, the role of parental involvement in children's early learning, and children's literacy development. He is the author of the Fathers Reading Every Day (FRED) curriculum.
Assistant Professor and Extension Child Development Specialist
Texas Cooperative Extension
The Texas A&M University System
311 History Building
College Station, TX 77843-2251