Written by John Ellis, Director, Mecklenburg County CDSA
On a recent home visit, Anna, an early intervention service coordinator, is surprised to find Jacob’s dad at home, in addition to his mom, for the scheduled IFSP review. This is the first time that she has met Dad, as he is usually at work during the day and not at home for any of the scheduled visits. Anna knows that the research on fatherhood shows that fathers’ involvement in their young children’s lives leads to overall improved health and developmental outcomes, and she is delighted that he is there. Dad is at the table for the meeting and seems interested and engaged, but Anna notices that, in spite of her attempts to do otherwise, she continues to direct her attention and her conversation almost exclusively to Mom. Mission accomplished, Anna leaves the meeting with the IFSP reviewed and many new strategies added, but she is still wondering what she could have done to better involve Jacob’s father.
On a similar visit, Reagan, a different service coordinator, is off to monitor Natasha’s IFSP outcomes at the family’s home. Reagan has been looking forward to this visit because she senses that progress in her relationship with the family has been slow, and she wonders if she has a clear understanding of the family’s concerns. When she arrives, she is surprised to find Natasha’s dad there, rather than her mother. It seems that Dad is off from work today, and Natasha’s mom has taken the opportunity to run some much-needed errands without Natasha. Reagan finds Natasha’s dad to be very welcoming and interested, but he doesn’t know answers to many of the questions that Reagan has, and, in discussing the outcomes with him, he doesn’t seem to have the same concerns as Mom. In fact, some of the things that Mom has mentioned as concerns don’t seem to be concerns at all for Dad. Reagan leaves the visit more confused than she was when she arrived.
It comes as no surprise to early intervention professionals that the involvement of men in early intervention on either side of the equation is something of an anomaly. In spite of ample evidence that points toward the value of involving fathers in their child’s development, most early intervention programs still struggle with engaging fathers consistently and effectively. To make matters more difficult, while our culture acknowledges the value of fathers’ roles in the well-being of their children, there is little guidance available to help them understand ways to participate in nurturing roles as fathers. Most often, this information is geared functionally toward women’s roles, but there are some pieces that are unique to males that deserve more attention.
So, what can we do to promote better engagement with fathers? Here are some tips to consider that might make a difference, one family at a time:
- Assume that fathers are interested in being involved.
Often times it doesn’t come up, and we don’t ask about how to involve Dad in the IFSP development and intervention processes. Refer to his involvement in active voice when discussing plans for meetings and intervention sessions. Rather than saying, “Does your husband want to be involved in this?” you can ask, “What is the best way for us to involve your husband?”
- Consider fathers’ schedules when planning meetings and intervention times.
I know, services and meetings are already hard enough to schedule given the busy lives of families and the variety of members on the IFSP team. However, by simply gathering information about Dad’s availability and his schedule, you will likely find some times that overlap with the availability of other IFSP team members. An appropriate role for the service coordinator in this case is to provide follow-up as needed to make sure that involvement is secured over the long run.
- Be aware that fathers may show their feelings about their child’s delays in ways that are different from mothers and less obvious to providers.
What we might interpret as Dad’s disinterest or denial of any problems may actually be a sign that he is having a hard time coming to grips with what he is hearing and seeing. To the degree possible, take time to form relationships with both parents and understand the differences in how they respond.
- When developing outcomes, include interests and activities that build on father-child interactions.
Because so many of our interactions in early intervention are with mothers, it is easy to forget that Dad isn’t there just as substitute for Mom – he is there to be Dad. In your family assessment, include information about what Dad brings to family routines and interactions that promotes success.
- Help fathers find appropriate supports and information.
Even though he may not be readily talking about it, don’t assume that Dad doesn’t need support. Look for opportunities to reflect on routines that he finds to be difficult and offer to provide support. Dad may seek out and process information in ways that are different from Mom’s, so be attentive to his possible need for a different approach to early intervention supports.
We know that all adults have different learning styles, and participation in early intervention may look very different from one person to another. Ways of engaging caregivers do not fall neatly along gender lines. How have you been able to successfully involve fathers in the early intervention process?
*Adapted from “Encouraging Father Care in Early Education and Intervention,” Indiana Association for Infant and Toddler Mental Health.