By Amy Sussman, NCSER Program Officer
When researchers study the impact of families on children, they usually investigate the role of mothers on their typically developing children. In an era when fathers are participating in child care responsibilities more than ever before, it should be no surprise that they also have a strong influence on their children’s education and development. Dr. Brent McBride of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been examining the role of fathers for over 30 years, carrying out both basic and applied research to inform and guide the development of initiatives aimed at supporting men in their efforts to parent young children. His more recent work on fathers investigates the impact of fathers of children with disabilities and/or developmental delays. Through a grant funded by the Institute's National Center for Special Education Research, Dr. McBride has been exploring data available from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth Cohort to investigate the roles fathers play in families of children with disabilities, a challenging parenting context. I recently asked him to describe how his interest in this subject emerged and to share some of his findings and their implications.
How did you become interested in studying fathers’ parenting of children with disabilities?
While working closely with one of my colleagues in special education, Rosa (Amy) Santos, we realized that we have several parallel and complementary research interests and began exploring ways in which our mutual interests could be merged. I was aware of the growing body of research that first emerged in the 1970s suggesting that active father involvement can lead to positive outcomes for both children and families. Although this literature is rich and diverse, the majority of the research has been with fathers in families of typically developing children. Little is known about father involvement in families of children with disabilities. Even less is known about the ways in which early intervention (EI) service providers and early childhood special educators reach out and support the unique needs of fathers. My work with Dr. Santos has been focused on using an interdisciplinary perspective to address this gap in the research.
What are some of your findings on how father involvement impacts children with disabilities?
Although we have had a number of encouraging and intriguing findings, I will describe just a few of them here. The first one is related to the impact of father involvement in routine caregiving, literacy, play, and responsive caregiving activities on maternal and family functioning. Our findings suggest that over time, when fathers are responsive to the needs of their children with autism spectrum disorder and related disabilities and engage in literacy activities with them, mothers experiences less stress and fewer depressive symptoms. This is important because maternal stress and depression have been found in previous research to be significant predicators of lower quality parenting by mothers of children with disabilities. We also examined the impact of early father involvement on children’s school readiness upon kindergarten entry for those who have disabilities or developmental delays but are not placed in self-contained special education classrooms. Results were mixed. For example, fathers’ play involvement at 9 months was negatively related to cognitive functioning but positively related to sociability and fewer behavior problems upon kindergarten entry. These analyses raised several intriguing questions that warrant further investigation. Another part of our investigation built upon previous research indicating that fathers are noticeably absent from EI services in spite of emerging evidence suggesting they can have a positive impact on child and family functioning. In an attempt to explore these barriers, our team analyzed data from EI service providers suggesting that inflexible schedules represent the most salient barrier, with expectations related to gender roles, father’s perceptions of EI services, and EI providers’ limited ability to adapt as additional barriers. Although EI providers believed that fathers could have a positive impact on their children’s development, they were less confident that efforts to target fathers would enhance EI services.
Do these results have any real-world implications for enhancing the development or school readiness of these children?
Most of the findings to emerge from our research program have clear implications for ways to enhance the school readiness of children with disabilities and/or developmental delays. For examples, findings have highlighted fathers’ engagement in early parenting activities such as responsive caregiving, play, reading to children, and routine caregiving has the potential to positively impact later child outcomes and family functioning. They also provide targets that EI service providers may want to focus on as they explore ways to help better prepare fathers to meet the needs of their children with disabilities. Findings on the disconnect between EI providers’ beliefs about father involvement and their actual practices when providing services suggest that they could benefit from training to more effectively include fathers in the services they provide to children and families.
Does your work have any implications for future research on this topic?
The next step in our program of research will be to use the lessons learned to date from our findings to guide the development, implementation and evaluation of an intervention program aimed at providing EI service providers with the basic foundation for developing the understanding, knowledge base and skill set needed to more fully engage fathers in the receipt of EI services, thus improving child functioning and outcomes. Doing so will be an important first step in moving EI from mother centered to truly “family centered.”
Questions? Comments? Please send them to IESResearch@ed.gov.