It can be hard to be a parent even under the best of circumstances. Dealing with behavior issues of young children and preparing them for entry into school takes skills and patience.

There are many programs designed to teach parenting skills. Unfortunately, those specifically aimed at addressing behavior problems may carry a stigma that makes families less likely to participate. Parents may feel that they have been targeted because they are “bad” parents.

A New York University program focuses on skill development in the form of shared reading experiences instead of instruction.

Improving school readiness in low-income and socio-economically stressed families also presents a challenge. There are many reasons why young children from these families may enter the school system unprepared: children may come from homes with no primary English speakers; they may lack books and appropriate toys; caregivers may have little time and attention to provide stimulation to the children and instead rely on television shows that are not appropriate for young children.

Father Power

To address these issues researchers at New York University developed a program in which fathers and children read together. The training, called Fathers Supporting Success in Preschoolers (FSSP), was designed to increase and improve fathers' participation in their children's early lives through the interactions they had while they shared reading.

Many programs target mothers rather than fathers as the key caregivers. Yet studies have shown that fathers' involvement in their children's 
lives can make a positive difference in their behavior and their overall adjustment.

Fathers were taught to praise the children, encourage their efforts and correct them without criticizing them.

One hundred and twenty-six low-income, Spanish-speaking, father-child pairs were recruited from Head Start Centers. The pairs were randomly placed in either an intervention group or put on a waiting list — the non-intervention group.

Those fathers in the intervention group were given training that took place over eight weeks, with 90-minute sessions once a week. Using videotapes, group discussions, role playing and homework practice, the program taught fathers ways to read with their children that increased their positive interactions and enriched the reading experience.

Instead of just reading to their children, fathers explored the book with their children, encouraging their kids to be the storytellers and following their children's lead in the discussion, keeping in mind the child's age, developmental level and abilities. They learned to praise the children, encourage their efforts and correct them without criticizing them.

Help with Behavior Issues, Too
Reading and sharing stories was just one part of the training. Fathers also were offered different ways to deal with behavior problems that might come up while they were reading with their children. They learned to use a consistent routine and consistent expectations to frame their time with their kids — they promoted good behavior with incentives; they reduced attention-seeking behaviors by ignoring and distracting; and they used time-outs sparingly for really challenging behavior.

The researchers assessed parenting, child behavior, communication, as well as parental stress and depressive symptoms, with questionnaires and observation of the pairs.

The study group was compared to the similar father-child duos who were wait-listed for the FSSP intervention. Parenting skills, child behaviors and the language development of the participating children all showed improvement compared to the wait-listed children and fathers who received no training.

Praiseworthy Outcomes

Not only did fathers report they felt they had improved their approaches to discipline and their support of their children's psychological well-being, those improvements showed up in how they interacted with their children. After the training, fathers were more likely to praise their children and show them affection, rather than criticize them. The researchers report that they saw an overall greater than 30% improvement in both measures of parenting and children's school readiness.

Average attendance rates were high — 79 percent of fathers in the program came each week — further evidence of how positively dads viewed participation in the program.

The program seems to have done it all: it served as an effective intervention to support children's psychosocial growth and school readiness, and it also helped sharpen fathers' parenting skills. One of the program's strengths appears to be that by focusing on skill development in the form of shared reading experiences instead of instruction in parenting skills or behavior problems, it was more readily accepted.

The researchers note that there is much more work to be done to find ways to strengthen parenting skills and school readiness in lower income communities. They call for additional research and attention to this area, so critical to the success of children and families.

The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.