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University of Washington Research Finds Dads Need This to Thrive

Holly Schindler shares findings from her family-focused research

Published on: June 07, 2018

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Dad with baby

Anyone else surprised that for the last half-century, early childhood programs about parenting have almost exclusively targeted moms?

We didn’t think so.

But guess what? Nearly 70 percent of families in King County who are involved in an early childhood home visiting program include a dad. So, why aren’t we doing more to support them, asks Holly Schindler.

A researcher and assistant professor at the University of Washington (UW), Schindler is implementing and evaluating a program for dads with young children. More specifically, she’s trying to find more effective ways to give dads positive feedback on parenting skills that research shows matter for children’s development.

How it works

An early childhood home educator involved in the program arrives at a local home. There, they meet a dad and his toddler-aged daughter, whom the educator films as they interact.

One such interaction: Dad guides his daughter as she put together a puzzle. When she finishes and looks up at him, he says “Yay, you did it” and gives her a hug.

A week later, the educator sits with Dad and daughter to watch a highlight reel made from all of the positive interactions that were captured on video, including the puzzle moment. As they watch, the educator points out specific things that Dad did right. 

That’s how the program, called FIND (Filming Interactions to Nurture Development) originally developed by researcher Phil Fisher and adapted for dads by Schindler, works.

Schindler's team works with the Children’s Home Society of Washington and the University of Oregon. For the past two years, they’ve been running a video coaching program for low-income fathers in King County with kids ages 6 months to 3 years. Schindler’s team plans to publish the results this fall or winter.

So far, though, they’ve noticed this: Dads respond well to positive feedback, and that means good things for everyone involved.

Why you should care

“The early years are really important because a child’s neural connections are being formed,” Schindler says. “These connections build the foundation for learning.”

All caregiving adults, including dads, play an important role in early development. Indeed, the exchange of positive moments between caregivers and young children has a name: “serve and return interactions.”

This mimics a tennis game: A child gives a cue such as babbling or pointing or crying and an adult responds appropriately, whether that means eye contact, words or a hug, Schindler says. 

But while all caregivers are wired to recognize and respond to children’s cues, Schindler says, her program research is aimed at dads because she knows they are often faced with systematic and societal barriers when it comes receiving parenting support. 

“When dads have positive interactions with their young children, these interactions contribute positively to a child’s language development, executive functioning skills and social-emotional development,” Schindler says.

It’s Schindler’s hope that the highlight reels from FIND reinforce each dad’s strengths and lead to more positive serve and return interactions. 

“I’ve always wanted to support parents,” she says. “There are things children need. [Those things] can be provided by many types of caregivers. It’s important to support all caregivers in every child’s life, and that includes dads.”

More resources for dads

For local dads looking for support when it comes to parenting, Holly Schindler of the University of Washington recommends:

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