Fatherhood in Head Start & Early Head Start

The Office of Head Start launched The Fatherhood Initiative in response to the Clinton Administration’s June 1995 introduction of a government-wide initiative to strengthen the role of fathers in families. Parent involvement is an essential part of Head Start and Early Head Start, and fathers are encouraged to participate in all aspects of the program. Fathers who become more involved can help Head Start programs become more effective in achieving positive outcomes for children.

50 Years of Service to Children, Families and Fathers
By David Jones

david_2Father engagement has changed a lot over the years. As we celebrate Head Start’s 50th anniversary, it’s a time for us to reflect and celebrate our accomplishments. We have come a long way, and yet, there is still so much more to do.

When I look back to 1965, one aspect of Head Start that I consider to be truly innovative was the focus on parent involvement. This was not just jargon. It was an inherent belief that soliciting the advice of parents, respecting their culture, and involving them in all aspects of service provision could enhance the quality of care provided to their children. As a former Early Head Start director, I took this to heart. I made it a part of the agency’s mission statement and a core component of its approach to serving children and families. Our most innovative programs across the country are those that understand the importance of partnering with parents.

So what about fathers? How has fatherhood changed over the years within Head Start? The title of this blog suggests programs began providing direct services to fathers at the very moment Head Start was conceptualized. Certainly, Head Start’s early innovators had to think about what part, if any, fathers would play in ensuring that their children were prepared to enter kindergarten. Staff quickly learned they, along with the rest of the nation, needed to evolve in their thinking about the role fathers played within the family. Equal rights, women’s rights, and civil rights legislation changed how parents’ roles were defined. They had to deconstruct prescribed gender roles and recognize shifted expectations. All of these factors influenced how programs viewed fathers within Head Start.

Over the years, a significant number of programs have moved away from basic awareness of the father’s role. They now acknowledge their influence and expect that fathers will be fully engaged in their children’s lives and school experiences. The development and progress of father engagement can be described in three Acts:

Act I. Aware that fathers were part of families, Head Start staff were not clear about their role since fathers did not frequent programs. As they encountered more dads, programs were asked to provide support. Family Service Workers or Fatherhood specialists responded to the demand. They met with fathers, linked them to services and support groups, and helped them negotiate systems they encountered. In 1991, Head Start funded six male involvement demonstration projects. Intentional focus on father involvement by the Office of Head Start (OHS) included targeted funding and allocations of resources.

Act II. Head Start programs learned a great deal from their initial work with fathers.  In the past 10 to 15 years substantial changes were made. OHS funded 21 fatherhood demonstration grants and launched the 21st Century Exploring Parenting Curriculum. Programs developed nationally recognized fatherhood initiatives. Statewide fatherhood coalitions emerged in New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, to name a few. Research influenced our understanding of the benefits of father involvement, shedding light on some of the adverse impacts for families and communities when fathers were absent or not positively involved. Programs acknowledged fathers’ contributions with great enthusiasm and invested in professional development for staff working with fathers. However, moving away from the societal prescribed definition of fathers as financial providers continued to be challenging.

Act III. In several programs with thriving fatherhood initiatives, a loss in funding or the loss of the fatherhood specialist caused these programs to struggle. The loss of the institutional knowledge resulted in program leadership using the Building Blocks resources to draw upon lessons learned, research, and their past successes to provide meaningful supports to fathers. Although, the services were meaningful and directed solely toward fathers-they failed to connect fathers to overall goal planning and child development activities supporting school readiness.

Around that time, new research illuminated how actively and positively involved fathers could impact their children’s educational success and pro-social behaviors. Programs took notice of this deeper understanding of the way fathers impact their children’s development across all domains. Some programs also used this data to engage mothers and communities in conversations, gaining support for an expanded definition of the fathers’ role within the home and in their children’s lives.

Moving from involvement to engagement enhances the decisions programs are making about how to improve services, including those they will do away with and the services they will build upon. The Head Start Birth to Five Father Engagement Guide helps programs build upon past success and sustain gains. Programs are increasing their capacity to fully integrate all of their fatherhood activities’ with thoughtful professional development, continuous improvement, supervision, and training. They are developing systemic, integrated, and comprehensive goals that are focused on serving fathers, but also are aligned with overall program goals connected to individual child development. Programs also are beginning to evaluate data and use the self-assessment process to re-align goals and improve upon service delivery. There is an expectation that fathers are involved, want to be involved, and when supported, can positively impact their children, families, and communities.

Father engagement is everybody’s business. Within Head Start, how we think of fathers has shifted significantly. Rather than viewing them solely as financial providers, we’ve expanded definitions of the multiple roles they can play in their children’s lives. In the past, programs went to great lengths to give careful consideration to how they communicated with fathers. Now, with increased recognition on how important it is for fathers to be actively and positively involved in their children’s lives, staffs engage men and are having thoughtful and meaningful conversations with them.

Fathers participate in program governance as members of Policy Councils and Parent Committees. They are involved in the annual program self-assessment and volunteer in classrooms. They are increasingly called upon, whether living with them or not, to participate in all aspects of their children’s care and development. These activities are no longer a means to an end or provided just to check off a box. Fathers are instrumental in making decisions to support their child’s school readiness goals. Great intentionality and thought go into planning activities where fathers are engaged with staff in developmentally appropriate activities that support and enhance their children’s individual goals.

David Jones is the Fatherhood Specialist for the Office of Head Start.

50 Years of Service to Children, Families, and Fathers. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2015. English.