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Mel Gravely

How can programs promote positive, goal-oriented relationships with fathers?

Mel Gravely with his grandchildren at Easter

“Father engagement is not a stand-alone program initiative, but a vital and integrated aspect of parent, family, and community work.”

Birth to 5 Father Engagement Guide

Like most things in life that are worth the effort, engaging fathers takes work. Sometimes, it takes a lot of work. However, family engagement is one of the core missions of Head Start, and that includes fathers. It’s a big part of why Head Start even exists. It’s part of our mandate, and not something that we as program leaders can push off for another day.

We talk a lot about father engagement at The Gravely Group, with trainings available both online and in-person on the subject. Perhaps because as a father, grandfather, and great grandfather myself, of both biological and foster children, I can appreciate the special bond between father and child and the unique joy that comes from it. Of course there’s a lot of evidence that father engagement helps children. But in my experience, fathers gain just as much.

The Birth to 5 Father Engagement Guide on ECKLC is a valuable tool program leaders will find helpful for learning strategies to support and promote father engagement, create father-friendly environments, strategies to build partnerships with fathers, and strategies on how to promote positive, goal-oriented relationships. 

It’s this last phrase that I want to focus on in particular. Positive, goal-oriented relationships are those among staff, families, and fathers that promote positive engagement and progress toward goals. Goal-oriented relationships with fathers contribute to the well-being of families, fathers, and children. Positive relationships can develop over time through interactions that focus on the individual’s strengths. When staff and fathers have strong, positive relationships, they share a commitment to set meaningful goals, develop strategies, assess progress, and celebrate success.

So how do you promote and build positive, goal-oriented relationships with fathers? According to the Guide, there are many different ways you can accomplish this:

Create a program-wide environment that values fathers as individuals, honors their experiences, and appreciates the role they play in their child’s life.

Back in 2019 we wrote a blog titled “Ying to the Yang: How Fatherhood Compliments Motherhood for a Happy, Healthy Childhood.” In it, we explore the unique differences in how mothers and fathers parent, and how they are complimentary to each other.

“I learned from first-hand experience how important my role as a father was to my children’s development,” I wrote at the time. “I’m not saying more important than a mother’s contributions, but rather an equally important weight on a perfectly balanced scale. The other side of the coin. A ying to the yang.”

Communicate that father engagement is a program priority. It’s everyone’s responsibility to welcome fathers and support them.

Including fathers in all aspects of a program is critical. It starts with a program’s outreach efforts to all fathers in all circumstances. Inclusiveness means creating an inviting, affirming environment for fathers of Head Start-eligible children. Fathers are included in discussions about their child’s progress and related concerns. They are encouraged to participate in decision-making about program activities and program governance.

In “What is your plan to engage fathers in Head Start?,” we give some simple strategies to begin the process of engaging fathers in your program.

Accept differences and believe that each father has strengths and the capacity for resilience.

An integral part of the PFCE Framework is the equity, inclusiveness, and cultural and linguistic responsiveness. Equity refers to providing opportunities based on the needs of the individual or group. It doesn’t mean the same or equal; it means fair. For example, an equitable perspective recognizes that fathers and mothers may parent differently, but their roles are equally important.

Make sure that father engagement strategies recognize the strengths of the individual and the diversity within any group of fathers. Encourage learning about the cultures, beliefs, and circumstances of each father.

Focus on professional development that enhances the relationship-building skills and practices.

Positive relationships with fathers often require awareness of one’s own biases and how they can impact mutual respect and trust. For example, staff may be unfamiliar with practices or beliefs of a cultural or religious group. Staff’s prior experiences with men — including their own fathers, father figures, and male partners — can affect their relationships with fathers in the program. Focusing on positive past interactions with men provides staff with a foundation for effective partnerships with fathers in Head Start.

Encourage staff to partner with all fathers, including nonresident fathers. Invite them to meetings and activities.

We have encouraged agencies before to develop marketing and educational materials specifically for fathers. When the program makes the effort to connect with fathers, a partnership between the staff and the father is formed. This partnership is a powerful bond, and it’s an opportunity to do amazing things.

Reinforce the concept of co-parenting. Both mothers and fathers are partners in their child’s well-being and school readiness. Include other co-parents in decisions about the child.

It’s easy to just add one parent’s information to receive text messages from your program. Make sure both fathers and mothers are included in all outgoing communication regarding the child. Have a separate section on all your forms for both the mother’s and father’s phone numbers, emails, and addresses, if different.

Help staff understand that self-care is essential for being open to building relationships with children, fathers, and families.
Promote respectful, responsive relationships among all staff, volunteers, and consultants.

I’ve had countless experiences of teaching father engagement to rooms of only women. And to be perfectly honest, some of those women have become discouraged by the lack of father involvement in Head Start children’s lives, or perhaps, might even have relationships issues with the father of their own children.

One blog commenter wrote: “After my ex-husband & I divorced, I tried my best to keep my children’s father in their lives, but he just wasn’t interested.”

Be respectful of staff’s individual experiences, and give them the space to talk about them. Their experiences are valid. However, it’s important to remind staff that just like any demographic group, not all fathers are a monolith. How one father behaves doesn’t represent all fathers.

The key is open communication and training for all staff on father engagement and the PFCE Framework, moving the entire group along the continuum of building positive and goal-oriented relationships with fathers.

Build strong community linkages so fathers can access critical resources to help them reach their goals.

“Community partnerships allow Head Start agencies to vastly increase the available services to families without bringing on additional staff and costs,” we wrote in a blog titled “Using Community Partnerships to Enhance Father Engagement. “By connecting families with local service providers, Head Start can help families with areas such as job training, transportation, medical costs, and housing. For fathers, these services can fill important gaps that may be preventing them from taking a more active role in their children’s lives.”

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