Engaging Fathers in their Children’s Learning: tips for practitioners

2 October 2005

by Adrienne Burgess, Research and Policy Officer, Fathers Direct

This document was written by Fathers Direct for inclusion in the Step in to Learning project, jointly funded by the Skills for LifeStrategy Unit and the Sure Start Unit, and an abidged version is available at www.stepintolearning.org . Step in to Learning trains staff and managers in the early years and childcare sector to identify parents/carers and other staff with a literacy, numeracy and/or language need and signpost them to take up appropriate local learning opportunities to improve these skills. Step in to Learningoffers practitioners opportunities to access nationally recognised accreditation and meets the curriculum requirements for Unit 1 of the City & Guilds Adult Learner Support Certificate and Unit 19 the CACHE Level 3 Certificate in Professional Development. For further information visit www.stepintolearning.org



Why engage with fathers?

Since mothers usually spend more time with their children than fathers do, their impact on their development is more obvious, and has been more thoroughly studied. However, research now shows that fathers have substantial impact on children’s development too (for the most recent research summary, see Lamb & Lewis, 2004). Fathers’ influence on children can be both similar to and different from mothers’, and there can be a powerful impact from ‘double dose’ combined parental influence (e.g. Dunn et al., 2000). Fathers can also act as a buffer when mothering fails or mothers are not available due to long hours working (O’Brien, 2004). It’s now clear that even a father who spends little time at home or does not live with his child can have an impact as much by what he doesn’t do, as by what he does (Amato & Sobolewski, 2004). What’s more, as fathers spend more time on childcare their direct influence increases – and today’s dads undertake 800% more care of their infants and young children than their own fathers did (O’Brien, 2004).

Of course, the huge rise in separating families means that more fathers are living apart from their children and this trend is stronger among low income families. However, the early years are the time when parents are most likely to live together and to be in a reasonably satisfying relationship. Even when couples break up (or have never lived together) a non resident father is likely to be more involved than a separated father was thirty years ago (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002), and many of these fathers spend a substantial time parenting alone. In some families, particularly those reliant on state benefits, the apparent absence of a father should not always be accepted at face value. Most of these men live locally, and at least in the early years may be quite strongly present in their children’s lives (Speak et al., 1997)

Basic skills and fatherhood

A substantial body of research has charted the impact that parents’ participation and non-participation in learning activities can have on their children’s educational achievement. Specifically, for fathers, higher expectations about their children’s educational level, and greater level/frequency of interest and direct involvement in children’s learning, education and schools, are associated strongly with better educational outcomes for their children, including:
• better exam / test/ class results
• higher level of educational qualification
• greater progress at school
• better attitudes towards school (e.g. enjoyment)
• higher educational expectations
• better behaviour at school (e.g. reduced risk of suspension or expulsion) (for discussion/review of all this research, see Goldman, 2005).

It seems likely that poor language, literacy and/or numeracy skills will undermine a father’s confidence and effectiveness in interacting with his child in some, if not all, learning situations. This, in turn, is likely to contribute to low or unproductive involvement in children’s learning and education – and/or in their school: it is hard to see how a father with poor language, literacy and/or numeracy skills can easily feel confident discussing his child’s progress with teachers. He may also feel negative towards school itself, as his own experiences of education are not likely to have been positive. Embarrassment may lead to angry, defensive behaviour both with teachers, and with children.

It is likely that fathers with poor literacy, numeracy and/or language skills will avoid situations which involve form-filling-out, as in taking children to the doctor or registering them for school or nursery. Not only does this leave mothers unfairly burdened with the organisation of children’s lives, but it deprives fathers of valuable learning experiences, and of useful introductions to healthcare or educational settings.

In addition, research has shown that men who find infant care books unappealing (as will be the case when they cannot read them easily) miss out on important information about parenting and child development, and that this lack of knowledge is likely to impact negatively on the level and quality of their involvement with their children (Lewis, 1986).

Given that poor communication skills are strongly correlated with violent behaviour in men, it seems likely that a father with poor language skills will be more likely to act violently towards both his partner and his children; or for family interactions to be less productive and pleasant. A father with poor language, literacy and/or numeracy skills is also more likely to be unemployed and to manage what money he has badly. Both of these factors are linked with violent behaviour (Mirralees-Black & Byron, 1999)

Why engage with fathers in early years settings?

At first sight, early years settings don’t look like an obvious place to engage with men around anything – let alone literacy/numeracy issues. Men have even been explicitly banned from some early years premises. Or exclusion may be implicit: settings may be heavily ‘feminised’ and/or hardly ever used by men.

Looked at in another way, however, early years settings emerge as a particularly fruitful setting for identifying and screening men with literacy/numeracy skills deficits – and for engaging with them, or referring them on.

Firstly, the early years period is the time when family professionals have the most ‘natural’ contact with fathers. Although many think they ‘only meet mums’, research shows that lots of dads do present in early years settings (almost all fathers ‘drop off and pick up’ at the very least) (Fagan and Palm, 2004). Others are spoken to on the phone or are at home when early years workers call (or could be, if efforts were made to include them). Early years workers are also in a position to talk to mothers and children about fathers, and so to find out about and reach them indirectly.

Another reason why early years professionals have a special window of opportunity for addressing men’s literacy/numeracy needs, is that it is legitimate for them to engage with fathers about their children’s educational and social development – and men are powerfully motivated by their love and concern for their children (Hawkins and Dollahite, 1997). Fathers will undertake learning activities that they perceive will benefit their children through:
„« a desire to build stronger relationships with their children
„« a belief that helping their children to learn is important for their children’s success (even when their own school experience was poor)
„« a strong desire for their children to do better than they did (Fletcher, 1997).

The early years period is also the time when fathers, like mothers, are most child-focused: this is the period when parents of both sexes spend more time caring for and interacting with their children than they ever will again.

Who are the ‘fathers’?

When we talk about ‘fathers’ we first mean biological or birth fathers. A biological father (who in the eyes of the child is ‘the other person who made me’) is always significant to his child – even if they never meet. However, when we talk about fathers in early years settings, we also include father figures: step-fathers, older brothers, uncles, grandfathers, mentors and others who may be the “lead adult male” in a child’s life. Engaging with father figures doesn’t mean ignoring birth fathers. Children need as many supportive adults as they can get, and fathers and father figures often cooperate in children’s lives.

Bringing fathers in

It used to be thought that engaging fathers in early years settings would be difficult, but that was before practitioners had tried a range of engagement strategies from simply smiling at them and learning their names, to organising activities specifically to appeal to them (Fagan & Palm, 2004). It is now recognised that fathers can be ‘encouraged in’ to early years settings in quite large numbers. This is mainly achieved through transformation of service practice, such that being inclusive of fathers becomes a policy priority; whole team training and development take place; settings, services and practice are reviewed for father-friendliness; targets for male involvement are set; and so on (Fagan and Palm, 2004). What is also clear is that labelling a service for ‘parents’ does not mean that fathers will step forward, or even be welcome if they do. Most early years workers hear the word ‘parent’ as ‘mother’, as do most mothers and fathers (Burgess and Bartlett, 2004).

You may be lucky enough to be working in one of the increasing number of early years settings that are beginning to include fathers in their focus. However, you may not – and it is clearly not the job of a basic skills development specialist, to undertake to transform agency practice on their own. But even if you cannot change agency practice you can transform your own personal practice, in terms of making real efforts to identify and engage positively with the men in the lives of the women and children you work with.
„« A first step is to get clear, in your own mind, how ‘seeing’ fathers and helping them develop basic skills, can benefit mothers and children.
„« The second step, is to recognise that engaging fathers requires a differentiated approach: even when you are seeking to foster the same kind of behaviour from fathers and mothers towards their children, you need to remember that fathers ‘come from a different place’. Their life experience and situation will tend to be different, and their expectations of themselves (and others’ expectations of them) will also be different from those you will usually encounter among mothers.
„« The third step is to recognise that not all fathers are the same: they come to you, as do mothers, with varied histories, life situations, hopes and fears.
„« Fourth, you need to remember that most men love their children passionately and want to do the best by them, even if they cannot express these feelings, or these are temporarily blocked by grief or trauma – in the father’s own past, or in his present.
„« Fifth, you need to put women’s and children’s safety and wellbeing first, and this can mean tackling negative behaviour in fathers, or seeking specialist services to help address this. Simply ignoring difficult or abusive behaviour in fathers puts an unfair burden on mothers to keep themselves and their children safe. And even if an abusive man can be successfully detached from ‘his’ family, his absence will, in itself, not be without its problems. What’s more, he is likely to go on to found, or join, another family, and behave unproductively there, too.

To sum up, much can be achieved if you simply ‘hold fathers in mind’ in your work in a realistic yet hopeful way. How can this be done?

Putting yourself in the fathers’ shoes

Triggers to encourage fathers with basic skills deficits to address these issues, and barriers discouraging them from doing so, can be different from those that inspire or deter mothers. Here are some examples, and some suggestions for positive approaches:

1. Unpleasant memories of compulsory education, and tendency to apply these to other learning situations

Appreciate this and give fathers hands-on opportunities to see how things have changed for the better. Encourage their children to invite them into your centre and into school, where they can experience modern approaches to learning. Ensure the delivery of basic skills education is hands-on, consultative, practical and interactive, avoiding a ‘shhhh’ atmosphere. Consult with local fathers about ways in which your premises can be made to look and feel more welcoming to men and fathers, with photos of different kinds of men interacting with children in play and learning. When inviting ‘parents’ in, use the terms “father” and “mother”.

2. Conformism with masculine norms of behaviour (can include distancing themselves from anything perceived as feminine). e.g.

a) Reading and writing: seen particularly by younger Caribbean and white working class men as a ‘girl thing’

Avoid written work to start with. Provide reading material that is factual and of practical relevance. Think outside the box: e.g. find out how the father himself can use the acquisition of basic skills to communicate better with his children (perhaps via text messages). Perhaps build on text messaging skills.

b) Preference for counter-authority activities

Avoid being patronising or directive in tone. Actively seek the men’s views and ideas and engage in a proper dialogue. Focus on the ways in which working with fathers will benefit their children. If the men bring issues or problems make sure that they are dealt with rapidly and that there is a personal response: a direct conversation or telephone call is a good idea

c) Non-work-related learning: seen as a female activity, or for children, teenagers or retired people

Do not present acquisition of basic skills as being for personal development or interest. Relate to specific, achievable, relevant employment or to hobbies (such as music) that may be perceived as one day becoming a career. e.g. numeracy can be linked to reading music ‘tabs’

d) Hesitancy to ‘study’ anything not associated with traditional male roles and employment routes

Constantly make the link between literacy/numeracy and craft skills. Relate acquisition of basic skills to effective operation in these areas –even if the father does not work in them: e.g .producing written quotations for work; pricing up jobs; writing out materials lists; finding out about new products related to a trade; communicating effectively with site managers; communicating effectively with colleagues e.g. (developing verbal wit). Be aware that definitions of male ‘craft’ skills may be changing (e.g. becoming a chef – being able to produce menus, list ingredients, read recipes)

e) Fear of failure: particularly potent for the male sex, who are expected to ‘know what to do’

Look for anonymous forms of learning, including ICT-based learning where deficiencies will not be seen by others; avoid group learning situations initially.

3. Reluctance to ask for help and advice, particularly at times of crisis or transition

Make sure that basic skills education is “sold’ to fathers on the basis of the help it will give to their children, not themselves. Offer them opportunities to network with other fathers and children, or with other men with similar needs. This may lead to them engaging in basic skills programmes later. Remember that engaging them may take time, consistency and creativity, and they may only accept direct references to addressing their needs when confident relationships are established. Try indirect approaches – for example, via their child’s mother. But remember that mothers can act as gatekeepers as well as facilitators and may be especially ambivalent about non resident fathers. Work sensitively with mothers and let them tell their story. Reassure them when you see them feeling downgraded because you are suggesting support for their child’s father and outline benefits to themselves and their children.

4. Reluctance to engage in learning that is not practical, work-related and which
offers immediate, tangible rewards

Ensure the approach is practical and that the benefits to the father’s working life, or anticipated working life, are made clear. Topic areas can be chosen that reflect traditional masculine, employment concerns, not only because these are likely to engage men’s interest, but also because they imply that the learning is male-directed. Certificates, monetary reward and food can all provide immediate gratification..

5. Lack of appropriate learning opportunities

Do your best to identify (or try to organise) local basic skills programmes in male-friendly locations, such as workplaces, sports centres, employment services or youth settings (for young fathers) or in community venues with a strong male presence (some Muslim communities). Be wary of programmes heavily populated by women, or held in woman-identified venues (this can include community venues). Avoid venues associated with ‘authority’ – e.g. social services.

6. Lack of awareness of basic skills support locally

Give fathers opportunities to find out more about the basic skills learning opportunities available via employment/unemployment settings, distance learning, local colleges etc. Encourage fathers who have accessed these to talk about this with the fathers you are working with. They can, where appropriate, indicate how basic skills training can lead on to achievement/work experience in employment areas the men may value – e.g..music .

7. Isolation due to loss of work, lack of networking and activity in local

Use the telephone, email and text messaging to contact fathers, including non-resident fathers and fathers who are working long hours. If you write letters, don’t put them in brown envelopes. Make a commitment to contact fathers regularly with good news about their children; and/or target particular fathers as a result of the needs of their children. Log each contact (noting when one contact mechanism does not work – it may indicate basic skills deficit) and try to ensure that all fathers are contacted. Ensure that fathers can access a direct telephone line to a “link” member of staff who they know and trust. Think about “hard to reach” fathers (or is the early years setting hard to reach for them?) Consider liaison/partnership with other agencies/male community leaders who can help you make contact with local fathers. Make sure you have contact details for non-resident fathers and work collaboratively with mothers where possible.

8. Time pressures because of shift work and long working hours

Start with a low level of interaction and gradually build up. Consult about the best times for classes and be flexible possibly offering evenings or weekends, while stressing that normal working hours would be preferable (if they would be). Fathers will take time away from work with the agreement of their employers if they see a real purpose and benefit to their children, and release arrangements may sometimes be negotiated with local employers.

9. Job and economic insecurity: perceived need to ‘earn not learn’; downright

Demonstrate links between acquisition of basic skills, employment and money. Help with time/money management so earning/learning do not conflict. Recognise that fathers’ individual circumstances, such as the physical distance of non-resident fathers from their children, can create financial as well as time barriers and that many isolated low income fathers lack basic necessities. Think about offering incentives, including fares, food.

10. Absence of relevant role models

Draw in community/peer group ‘leaders’ to model learning, and identify famous men to whom the fathers you work with can relate, who have overcome difficulties to develop basic skills

11. Lack of interest

Lack of interest can be based in such things as lack of confidence; absence of role models; failure to perceive immediate rewards; learning difficulties; insufficient knowledge and understanding of how a father’s developing his own basic skills can contribute to his children’s learning. Take small initial steps. Try to discover the men’s passions, and relate basic skills development to advancing these. Fathers’ interest and confidence may also be spurred by supporting their children in any aspect of their lives (including play and/or computers) and by observing other fathers engaging in learning and/or supporting their children. Demonstrate links between acquisition of basic skills and pursuit of activities they value (which will normally include dreams of achievement – e.g. music


Fathers Direct, the National Information Centre on Fatherhood, provides training and consultancy to individuals and organisations wishing to develop effective strategies for engaging positively with fathers. Specifically, the organisation provides a coaching and kitemarking process called the Fatherhood Quality Mark, developed with DfES funding, which supports an organisation in developing strategies to make its services father-friendly. Fathers Direct also publishes, among other things, a six-step guide: Working with Fathers: a guide for everyone working with families which is full of tips and strategies for engaging effectively with dads. Contact: 0845 634 1328 or www.fatherhoodinstitute.org

Three other outstanding publications that should help you are:

Jay Fagan and Glen Palm (2004) Fathers and Early Childhood Programs (New York: Delmar Learning – or try Amazon)

Engaging Fathers: involving parents, raising achievement (2004) – an accessible booklet about engaging fathers effectively in schools, published by the DfES and available as a pdf download from their website


Rebecca Goldman’s (2005) report for the National Family and Parenting Institute in London: Fathers’ Involvement in their Children’s Education which can be ordered via www.nfpi.org


Amato PR & Sobolewski JM (2004) ‘The effects of divorce on fathers and children: non-residential fathers and stepfathers in Michael E Lamb (Ed) The Role of the Father in Child Development. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons

Burgess A & Bartlett D (2004) Working with Fathers: a guide for everyone working with families. London: Fathers Direct

Dunn J, Davies L, O’Connor T & Sturgess W (2000) ‘Parents’ and partners’ life course and family experiences: links with parent-child relationships in different family settings. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiaatric and Allied Disciplines 41(8): 955-968

Fagan J & Palm G (2004) Fathers and Early Childhood Programs . New York: Delmar Learning

Fletcher R (1997) Getting DADS involved in Schools. Newcastle, Australia: Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle

Goldman R (2005) Fathers’ Involvement in their Children’s Education. London: National Family and Parenting Institute

Hawkins AJ & Dollahite DC (1997) Generative Fathering: beyond deficit perspectives. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications

Hetherington EM & Kelly J (2002) For better or for worse: divorce reconsidered. New York: Norton

Lamb ME & Lewis C (2004) ‘The development and significance of father-child relationships in two-parent families’ in Michael E Lamb (Ed) The Role of the Father in Child Development. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons

Lewis C (1986) Becoming a Father. Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Mirralees-Black C & Byron C (1999) Domestic violence: findings from the BCS self-completion questionnaire. London: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate.

O’Brien M (2004) Shared Caring: bringing fathers into the frame. EOC Working Paper Series. Manchester: Equal Opportunities Commission

Speak S, Cameron S & Gilroy R (1997) Young Single Fathers: participation in fatherhood – barriers and bridges. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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