Parenting help for dads tied to better school readiness for kids

(Reuters Health) - A reading program designed to help men become better fathers is associated with better parenting skills as well as behavior and learning improvements in kids, a small study suggests.

In the study, researchers focused on fathers and kids at Head Start centers in New York City, where programs are designed to improve school readiness for children under age 5 with education, healthcare and social services.

Researchers randomly assigned 126 families to either participate in a reading-based parenting program with eight weekly sessions or join a control group of people on a waiting list for the program.

“We found that our program supported positive changes in fathers’ behavior, children’s language skills, and children’s behavior in comparison to families who did not participate in the program,” said lead study author Anil Chacko, a psychology researcher at New York University.

Even though fathers play a significant role in the social, emotional and behavioral development of children, much of the previous research on parenting programs to improve kids’ behavior and learning abilities has focused on mothers, Chacko added by email.

“Our study did not compare the effects of book exposure or mother-child versus father-child reading interactions, but we did use reading with fathers as a specific situation to have fathers practice father-child interactions that support children’s positive behavior and reduce risk for behavior problems while also fostering children’s literacy skills,” Chacko said.

“We found that fathers engaged well in the program and saw benefits, and the program was feasible to deliver in Head Start with staff in the center being the ones who delivered the intervention,” Chacko added.

For the study, fathers in the parenting program watched videos showing dads reading with children but with exaggerated errors. The fathers in the program discussed better approaches to these interactions with kids in groups, and then they were encouraged to practice these strategies when reading at home with their own kids.

Among other things, the program tried to improve parenting skills such as establishing consistent routines, spending time with kids doing things children choose. The program also encouraged dads to use praise and rewards to promote good behavior and use distraction or reduced attention to discourage negative behavior.

Compared to kids with dads who didn’t join the program, children with fathers in the program had significantly bigger improvements in behavior and language development during the study period, researchers report in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.

Fathers in the program also reported improved discipline approaches and promotion of their children’s psychological growth by the end of the study.

When researchers observed how dads’ interactions with kids changed after the program, they found fathers made fewer critical statements to their children and used more positive parenting behaviors like praise and affection.

Overall, researchers estimate that the program was associated with a more than 30 percent improvement in parenting and school readiness outcomes.

Beyond its small size, another limitation of the study is the lack of follow-up data to see if the program had a lasting effect on fathers or kids after the parenting help ended, the authors note.

The type of shared book reading used in the program may work well with preschoolers but not with older kids, Chacko said.

Still, the study suggests that approaches previously tested to help mothers improve parenting can also help fathers, said Dr. Caroline Kistin, a pediatrics researcher at Boston University who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Shared reading supports child cognitive development, but probably more importantly, helps children develop the ability to pay attention and cooperate,” Kistin said by email. “For these social-emotional skills, the shared experience – sitting close together, pointing out pictures, making connections between the book and daily life - are critical.”

SOURCE: Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, online January 19, 2017.