Engaging fathers: An overview of evidence-based practice

Engaging fathers Wordle

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Fathers are important. Research demonstrates that close involvement of fathers from birth can support positive infant and child development. This includes boosting social, emotional and academic development. Effective co-parenting, where fathers are engaged in positive ways with the mother and children is also a positive factor for children’s well-being. However, the influence of fathering on the development of children is complex with some evidence emerging that demonstrates the negative impact fathers can have on their children e.g. a father’s violence towards a mother has a negative effect on children. New approaches and understandings are developing in biology and the social sciences relating to families which further complicates the evidence.

For many fathers the modern workplace is a significant barrier to engagement with services. This is due to factors like inflexible work hours and leave provisions; employer attitudes towards fathers attending child-related events, activities and services during work hours; long work hours and increasing casualisation of the workforce, especially for low income families. Further, Government policy structurally discourages the engagement of fathers through the current arrangement of social benefits and provision of parental leave. For example, many Australian fathers do not take their available opportunities for paternity leave, or their employment circumstances (casual, contract etc.) continue to prevent this. In Australia men continue to work longer hours in paid work than their partners who tend to work in part-time employment. These structural barriers and limitations make engaging fathers challenging for many organisations and service providers. (See 36 ideas for helping to engage fathers.) Services for families and children continue to prioritise work with the mother and children and many services have less experience working with the whole family system [1,2].

For services working with families, the policies of the organisation, training, professional standards and staffing structures are all important factors that influence the involvement of fathers. The orientation and limited accessibility of many services remains problematic for fathers. Father-inclusive practices tend to be ad hoc and practitioners frequently focus on maternal concerns while over estimating father inclusion.

Father-inclusive practice acknowledges the importance of fathers to their children. This remains so even when the father is not pres0ent or the immediate focus of service provision is on the needs of the mother. Building strong father-inclusive practice requires the development of new ways of thinking and fundamentally different approaches to the involvement of fathers [3]. This incorporates diverse family care arrangements like single parent families, separated families and families where both parents have the same gender. There are a number of identified strategies or effective approaches to father inclusivity. These include improved practitioner skills and competencies, a clear service orientation that considers fathers in service level policy and practice, and governmental strategies that support men’s involvement in family life that have the potential to enhance father-inclusion. There are also examples of evidence-based programs targeting fathers (e.g. Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids). However overall there remains a lack of appropriate services for intervening with fathers.

Emerging research across a number of areas have confirmed brain differences linked to perceivable behavioural and social differences between males and females. These differences occur in memory, vision, hearing, emotion, language and navigation. However, many professionals fail to see that these gendered bio-psycho-social differences influence parenting. These brain differences influence how fathers behave in relation to their children which has an impact on the development of children’s social and thinking skills that influence learning and success (e.g. dads are more likely to engage in rough and tumble play) [4].

What’s the evidence?

There is a limited research and evidence base for the inclusion of fathers in practice. Many of the evaluations conducted on programs involving fathers are flawed. For example they don’t report recruitment, engagement and outcomes of fathers separately. Evaluations of father-specific initiatives are frequently of poor quality [5]. In practice the engagement of fathers can be influenced by many factors outside the family or the context in which the program is conducted. Assessing the outcomes from any specific intervention remains extremely difficult. Consequently, there is a need to build the evidence-base around what works in father-inclusive practice, including the engagement and retention of fathers in programs and evaluations. Despite these limitations there are some beginning indicators which are useful for building father inclusive practice.

What works?

A systematic search for evidence of the participation of fathers and impact on parenting interventions found a variety of program types [6] however few were thoroughly evaluated. Capacity building and knowledge exchange are important for promoting father inclusive practice. This relates to not only building the competence and confidence of practitioners but also building organisational capacity by shaping policies, practices, routines and systems to ensure father inclusivity is embedded in organisational structures and processes. Despite the limited evidence base there are a number of features in the programs examined that may support successful engagement of fathers. (Also see 36 ideas for helping to engage fathers.)

Intervene early into men’s transition to fatherhood

The perinatal period provides an opportunity to engage fathers. It is a time when most fathers attend services with their partner (e.g. antenatal ultrasound or classes). Redshaw and Henderson indicated that greater engagement with parents was positively associated with antenatal checks, attendance at antenatal classes and breastfeeding [7]. Education during the antenatal phase can influence a father’s beliefs and behaviours during the postnatal period [8]. Further, fathers who attend antenatal services with their partners are more likely to engage in childcare during the postnatal period [5]. This suggests that ‘striking while the iron is hot’ during family transitions like birth of a first child or the first day of school is effective.

Target co-parenting

There is increasing evidence that suggests targeting couples and the relationship they share as parents is effective in raising children. The quality of coparenting has an important relationship with parenting stress (especially for fathers) and the socio-emotional development of children [8,9]. A longitudinal randomised trial found that couples participating in eight pre- and post-birth classes targeting parenting partnerships reported higher levels of parenting self-efficacy (the belief they can make a difference or succeed), lower levels of parenting stress and better coparenting quality than controls and that this occurred for up to five years after the intervention [10]. Parents who had the poorest quality partnerships reported the greatest benefits from the program. This contrasts with father-only parenting programs which were reported as enjoyed by participants but poorly attended even when they had excellent recruitment strategies in place. Further, where parents attended as a couple, the effect of the program were greater and maintained longer than where parents attended by themselves [11,12,13]. Generally, fathers are less likely than mothers to attend parenting programs, although fathers hold greater concern about the attitude and skill of the program facilitators and are also more likely to be disappointed by a strong maternal focus in program content and delivery [1,6,14]. This suggests it is important to work with couples to address the needs of fathers. In this way it is possible to address the limited success of father-only initiatives and the critical role that mothers often play in either promoting or inhibiting father involvement.

Use behaviour change programs to address fathers’ violence

Within child welfare practice negative stereotypes of fathers remain prevalent. Many practitioners feel unprepared to work with men in domestic violence contexts. Programs aimed at successfully changing men’s violent behaviour focus on men’s accountability, prioritise the safety of women, and acknowledge power relationships [15,16,17,18,19]. Such programs use the states of change model and motivational interviewing techniques [20] to build motivation to change [1,21]. A key motivator appears to be becoming a better father or parent [20]. Successful programs also include a focus on an awareness of the impact of violence on children, examining how participants co-parent and their experience of fathering [22]. As new research about trauma emerges, promoting opportunities for men to explore their emotions and using a strengths based approach to examine social bonds including family ties and social networks emerge as potential pathways to behavioural change [23].

Link programs, staff development and community awareness

It is unlikely that any one program will serve to embed father-inclusive practice within any single organisation or community given the multiple barriers that exist. Therefore, linked, co-ordinated approaches that provide resources and engage service staff in adapting existing procedures are more likely to help create successful change. Organisational policy and support for staff training and for managing change can tailor father-inclusive initiatives to meet the needs of individuals, organisations, and sector, reflecting their readiness for change [24]. One step toward this is to connect with other services. It is important to build strong relationships with universal services that serve as touch points for fathers (e.g. child and family health and other services, schools, Centrelink, GPs early education and care services).

Include Indigenous fathers by building relationships between fathers, community and service and focus on school-based programs

The expectations and behaviours of fathers in Indigenous communities are influenced by education, income, employment location, and Aboriginality [25]. When planning parenting interventions with Indigenous men it is important to consider traditional beliefs and practices, life experiences, and community expectations (e.g. in more traditional Indigenous communities child birth and early parenting are considered ‘Women’s Business’ and in this context it may be inappropriate to increase inclusion of fathers [26]). A number of programs engage Indigenous fathers through their fathering relationships and responsibilities within the school context [23,27] and appreciate the significant role of Indigenous fathers in the behavioural management of boys [1] to successfully increase wellbeing, empowerment, family connections and social cohesion. Five key principles have been identified for successful inclusion of Indigenous parents:

  • A culturally welcoming environment
  • Empowering parents to support their child’s learning
  • Including parents in their child’s learning program
  • Socially connecting parents with each other
  • Ensuring that the program is coordinated with relevant community agencies [28].

Building relationships with fathers prior to program commencement, consistency in the timing and running of a program and the provision of practical hands-on activities are also important strategies for working with Indigenous fathers. All these strategies can be further enhanced by having an Indigenous program coordinator who is well respected and connected to the community in which the program is running and who is well supported by the organisation conducting the program.

Staff skills and competencies that facilitate father-inclusive practice

While more research is needed, the following skills and competencies appear to be important:

  • Knowledge, skills and attitudes that focus on self reflection. This can include reflection on personal values combined with an improved understanding of men and fatherhood [29]
  • An understanding of the historical discourse of father involvement [30]
  • Cultural sensitivity toward men [30]
  • Awareness of parental roles [31,32].

Keep fathers in mind

Fathers do not have to be physically involved in every professional-parenting interaction. Effective support for the parenting relationship may also happen indirectly. For example, keeping fathers present in work with families even when dad is not in the room by inviting mothers share their understanding of a father’s point of view about an issue or providing resources for the mother to work through with the father at home. Keeping fathers in mind can be done at an organisational level by collecting, monitoring and acting on data about fathers involved with a service. It is important to know how many are engaged in service provision, how they are responding and if outcomes are improving for fathers, children and families [33]. The following data collection and evaluation strategies can assist in supporting organisational policy and standards:

  • Establish data collection systems which objectively assess and report on father inclusion [34].
  • Identify screening, assessment and research tools appropriate for use with fathers to help equip agencies to measure changes in father wellbeing and fathering practice more effectively. These tools could be used therapeutically and for measuring outcomes (e.g. The Emotional Availability Scales measure the level of fathers’ sensitivity, behaviours such as hostility and the child’s attachment to the father [1]).

When considering working where violence is present

Many practitioners feel they lack the capacity to respond to men’s violence when working with families. In light of this it is important to acknowledge that intervention may not always be possible or appropriate when the violence or abuse present in a family means safety may be compromised for that family or staff if these men are engaged. If services work with men where violence is present, there are several factors that the literature highlights for consideration:

  • Concerns about effectively dealing with men’s aggression can be a barrier to including these fathers in family work and may also impact upon the content and approaches of fathering programs and initiatives.
  • Programs for fathers targeting father-child relationships generally fail to address violence-related aspects of fathering [35].
  • Most programs attempting to change men’s violent behaviour don’t include fathering in their curricula despite the desire to be a good father and to have good relationships with their children is a recognised motivator for changing violent behaviour [36,37].


Fathers are important. While the research is complex and remains limited due to the difficulties in conducting research on programs and complex interventions, it provides some useful indicators for building father inclusive practice. This practice brief provides an overview of the main ideas from the research that services working with family may find helpful to consider to support a greater focus on fathers in the work.

This overview  of literature on engaging fathers was written by my Family Action Centre colleague Leanne Schubert (with input from Deborah Hartman and myself) and  has drawn heavily on the work the Fathers and Families Research Program at the Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle, led by Richard Fletcher. In particular, we have relied on the Engaging Father: Evidence review by Richard Fletcher, Chris May, Jennifer St George, Lyn Stoker, and Michele Oshan [1].

Further reading:

If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. 36 ideas for helping to engage fathers
  2. Being a father
  3. A great 1 minute video of fathers and their kids
  4. Being an Aboriginal father in prison
  5. Workshop for Aboriginal fathers in prison – what worked
  6. Creating positive images of Aboriginal fathers


  1. Fletcher, R., May, C., St George., Stoker, L., & Oshan, M. (2014) Engaging fathers: Evidence review. Canberra: Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY). Retrieved from http://www.aracy.org.au/publications-resources/area?command=record&id=197&cid=6
  2. Burgess, A., (2009). Fathers and parenting interventions: What works? Preliminary research findings and their application. Retrieved 8 October, 2014 from http://www.fatherhoodinstitute.org
  3. McAllister, C.L., & Thomas (2007). Infant mental health and family support: Contributions of Early Head Start to an integrated model for community-based early childhood programs. Infant Mental Health Journal, 28(2), 192-215.
  4. Fletcher, R. (2011) The Dad Factor: how father-baby bonding helps a child for life. Finch.
  5. Zvara, B.J., Schoppe-Sullivan, S.J., & Dush, C.K. (2013). Fathers’ involvement in child health care: Associations with prenatal involvement, parent’s beliefs and maternal gatekeeping. Family Relations, 62(4). 649-661
  6. Panter-Brick, C., Burgess, A., Eggerman, M., McAllister, F., Pruett, K. & Leckman, J.F. (2014). Practitioner review: Engaging fathers – Recommendations for a game change in parenting interventions based on a systematic review of the global evidence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(11), 1187-1212.
  7. Redshaw, M., & Hendeson, J. (2013). Fathers’ engagement in pregnancy and childbirth: Evidence from a national survey. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 13, 70.
  8. May, C.D . (2014). The importance of coparenting quality when parenting a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder: A mixed method investigation. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://nova.newcastle.edu.au
  9. Scrimgeour, M.B., Blandon, A., Stifter, C., & Buss, K. (2013). Cooperative coparenting moderates the association between parenting practices and children’s prosocial behaviour. Journal of Family Psychology, 27(3), 506-511.
  10. Feinberg, M., Jones, D., Kan, M., & Goslin, M. (2010). Effects on family foundations on parents and children: 3.5 years after baseline. Journal of Family Psychology, 25, 532-524.
  11. May, C., & Fletcher, R. (2013). Preparing fathers for the transition to parenthood: Recommendations for the content of antenatal education. Midwifery, 29, 474-478.
  12. Cowan, P.A., Cowan, C.P., Pruett, M.K., Pruett, K., & Wong, J.J. (2009). Promoting fathers’ engagement with children: Preventive interventions for low income families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 663-679.
  13. May, F.S., McLean, L.A., Anderson, A., Hudson, A., Cameron, C., & Matthews, J. (2013). Father participation with mothers in the Signposts program: An initial investigation. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 31(1), 39-47.
  14. Fletcher, R., Freeman, E., & Matthey, S. (2011). The impact of behavioural parent training on fathers’ parenting: A meta-analysis of the triple P-positive parenting program. Fathering, 9, 291-312.
  15. Stanley, N., Graham-Kevan, N., & Bothwick, R. (2012). Fathers and domestic violence: Building motivation for change through perpetrator programs. Child Abuse Review, 21, 264-274.
  16. Kulkens, S., & Wheeler, E. (2013). Shame and denial: Engaging mandated men. Ending Men’s Violence Against Women and Children, Spring (1), 89-108.
  17. Laing, l., & Humphries, C. (2013). Social work and domestic violence: Developing critical and reflective practice. London: Sage.
  18. McCrae, R. (2014). The Caladonian System: An integrated approach to address men’s domestic violence and improve the lives of women and children. Ending Men’s Violence Against Women and Children, (2), 37-58.
  19. Osborn, M. (2014). Working with fathers to safeguard children. Child Abuse and Neglect, 38, 993-1001.
  20. Bunston, W. (2013). What about the fathers? Bringing ‘Dads on Board™’ with their infants and toddlers following violence. Journal of Family Studies, 19(1) 70-79.
  21. Garvin, D., & Cape, J. (2014). Insights from a leading batterer intervention program in the USA. Ending Men’s Violence Against Women and Children: The NO to Violence Journal, Autumn, 203-226.
  22. O’Malley, R. (2013). CollabrACTION. Ending men’s violence against women and children. Spring (1), 51-71.
  23. Family Action Center (FAC). (2013). Reaching the heart of Indigenous families and communities. Retrieved October 19, 2014 from http://www.newcastleedu.au/_data/assets/pdf_file/0009/43929/FAC-Report_FINAL_WEB-2.pdf
  24. Prochaska, J.M., Prochaska, J.O., & Bailey,D. (2013). Toward an integration of stage theories of planned organizational change. The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of the psychology of leadership change and organizational development, pp. 347-356.
  25. Morgan, G. (2012). Urban transitions – Aboriginal men, education and work in Redfern and Waterloo. Postcolonial Studies. Published online http://dx.org/10.1080/13688790.2012.693046
  26. Jones, J.N. (2011). Birthing: Aboriginal women. Paper presented to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Native Title Conference, Brisbane.
  27. Urbis (2013). Descriptive analysis of the strong fathers strong families program. Retrieved 22 October 2014 from http://www.health/gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nfs/Content/sfsf-report
  28. Higgins, D., & Moreley, S. (2014). Engaging Indigenous parents in their children’s education. Resource sheet No. 31 produced by the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse. Retrieved 19 October 2014 from http://apo.org.au/research/emgaging-indigenous-parents-their-childrens-education
  29. Maxwell, N., Scourfield., J., Featherstone, B., Holland, S., & Tolman, R. (2012). Engaging fathers in child welfare services: A narrative review of recent research evidence. Child & Family Social Work, 17, 160-169.
  30. Fletcher, R.J. & St George, J.M. (2010). Practitioners’ understanding of father engagement in the context of family dispute resolution. Journal of Family Studies, 16(2), 101-115.
  31. Ewart-Boyle, S., Manktelow, R., & McColgan, M. (2013). Social work and the shadow father: Lessons for engaging fathers in Northern Ireland. Child and Family Social Work. Retrieved 19 October, 2014 from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cfs.12096/pdf
  32. Storhaug, A.S. (2013). Fathers involvement with the Child Welfare Service. Children and Youth Services Review, 35(10), 1751-1775.
  33. Knox, V., Cowan, P.A., Cowan, C.P., & Bildner, E. (2011). Policies that strengthen fatherhood and family relationships: What do we know and what do we need to know? The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, 635, 216-239.
  34. Cullen, S.M., Cullen, A.M., Band, S., Davis, L., & Lindsay, G. (2011). Supporting fathers to engage with their children’s learning and education: An under-developed aspect of the Parent Support Adviser pilot. British Educational Research Journal, 37(3), 485-500.
  35. Kaspiew, R., & Humphries, C. (2014). Family violence, separated parents and fathering: Empirical insights and intervention challenges. Retrieved 22 October 2014 from https://www3.aifs.gov.au/cfca/events/family-violence-separated-parents-and-fathering-empirical-insights-and-intervnetion
  36. Featherstone, B., & Frazer, Working with fathers around domestic violence: Contemporary debates. Child Abuse Review, 21(4), 255-263.
  37. Ferguson, H., & Gates, P. (2013). Early intervention and holistic, relationship-based practice with fathers: evidence from the work of the family nurse partnership. Child and Family Social Work. Retrieved 23 October, 2013 from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.exproxy.newcastle.edu.au/doi/10.1111/cfs.12059/pdf

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Families & parenting, Working with communities and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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