The latest edition of Research That Matters, "The Power of Partnership," explores how the UW College of Education is working with schools, educators and communities to make learning come alive for all students. The following story about a College partnership that is helping fathers discover and strengthen their parenting skills also appears in the online version of the magazine.
A father sits at the table of his Seattle home with Luke Quinn, a home visitor from Children’s Home Society of Washington. Mom’s away, and Dad’s caring for his two small children.
It’s a noisy, lively scene as the toddler and kindergartner play together—until Quinn suggests watching a short video. The kids scurry over and snuggle with Dad as they all gather around Quinn’s laptop.
The clip starts. It’s Dad and the kids, a week earlier, at the park. The toddler takes a spill and starts to cry. Dad’s there immediately to gently comfort the little guy. They share a simple back-and-forth conversation about what just happened.
Quinn pauses the video. He compliments Dad, and explains how this small moment perfectly illustrates a specific element of effective parenting they’d talked about in a similar meeting a week before.
“That is really cool,” Dad says. “When I see these clips, I get how important it is.”
“I want to watch it again!” says the older child.
Simple interactions with complex roots
This is one of hundreds of similar moments from a pilot focused on helping low-income dads positively support and engage with their children from 6 months to age three, led by College of Education Assistant Professor Holly Schindler.
While moments like this look simple, Schindler said this video-based intervention method—called FIND (Filming Interactions to Nurture Development)—represents a big departure from traditional early childhood education programs.
FIND, developed in collaboration with Oregon Social Learning Center and Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, where Schindler was a post-doctoral fellow, is based on recent advances in neuroscience and the biology of adversity. It’s unique in that it focuses 100 percent on reinforcing existing strengths rather than critiquing mistakes, Schindler said. And while FIND has been used extensively to help moms improve their early childhood education skills, Schindler’s focus on fathers—which she calls FIND-F—is a first.
“The beauty of this program, what makes it unique, is that we have specific skills we highlight,” Schindler said. “They’re things that Dad’s already doing—things that all parents naturally do. But parents who are experiencing stress or have had adversity in their own lives often don’t recognize they might be doing them less frequently.”
A great community partner is good to find
In order to make the pilot possible, Schindler sought out a community partner with deep experience serving low-income families, and a desire to expand those services to dads. She found the perfect match in Children’s Home Society of Washington (CHSW).
Schindler first connected with CHSW through a group she now co-leads called the Washington State Innovation Cluster, which is part of the Frontiers of Innovation (FOI), a rapidly-growing nationwide learning community based at the Harvard Center.
“FOI brings together community organizations, researchers, policymakers and parents to have conversations about innovation,” Schindler said. “That’s where I met people from CHSW—and it felt like a really good match. They touch families in the tens of thousands across Washington state through their early childhood education and parenting programs.”
“We’d already used the FIND model in a small pilot study with moms,” said Jason Gortney, director of CHSW’s Office of Policy and Innovation. “But we’d been trying to figure out how to adapt it to families in our home visiting program. Holly’s interest in programs to support fathers was very appealing. Our expertise in service delivery and Holly’s expertise in science has created a fantastic relationship that’s helped us start from a much stronger place.”
Other important partners were low-income fathers like those the pilot targeted, Schindler said. Before launching the pilot, Schindler and her team, which included CHSW’s Quinn and College of Education doctoral candidate in school psychology Cindy Ola, spent months interviewing dads who were receiving CHSW services. Their input helped the team design a program tailored specifically to work well for dads like themselves.
Tennis metaphor, anyone?
At the core of FIND-F is a concept known as “serve and return,” Schindler said. It’s a simple metaphor that helps fathers interact with children in ways shown to nurture optimum neurological development.
“Basically, it’s a lot like tennis,” Schindler said. “The child gives a cue and the dad returns it.”
That core concept is further broken down into five supporting behaviors. For the pilot, Schindler and her team settled on a six-week, six-visit model with 15 dads. The first week was spent introducing the concept of “serve and return.” Each following week focused on one of the five supporting behaviors:
- Sharing the child’s focus
- Supporting and encouraging
- Back and forth
- Endings and beginnings
“These are very foundational skills in a nicely laid out framework that people seem to easily understand,” Schindler said. “Each week builds on the previous week. We give a little overview of that week’s concept, then film Dad and child interacting together—just doing simple things like playing or making dinner.”
The videos of those interactions are then analyzed to pull out moments that best illustrate each behavior.
“We edited the films down to three very clear examples of Dad doing that week’s behavior,” Schindler said. “Dads then watch each example three times with us narrating.”
“We never tell fathers what they’re doing wrong. Only what they’re doing right,” Quinn said. “When you actually see yourself doing one of these behaviors, it’s really hard to say that you can’t do it—because you just did it. So now you can do it with intention, and do it more often.”
Gratifying interactions, promising results
After the pilot, both fathers and children showed positive results. The 80 percent of fathers who completed all six sessions reported lower stress and showed improvements in observed parenting skills. In addition, fathers who had experienced the most adversity in their own lives reported higher levels of parental involvement and decreases in their children’s behavior problems.
This success led to an expanded pilot focusing on Mexican-American fathers (see sidebar) over the next two years, with plans to apply for grants that would expand the work moving forward, Schindler said.
It also cemented the partnership between the College of Education and CHSW.
“A project like this is not something we at CHSW would have the know-how or resources to do on our own as well as we can in partnership with a researcher,” Gortney said. “Being able to work with someone like Holly, to innovate and meet unmet needs and translate the latest science into real-world programs that benefit families, is hugely important. It’s been a very fruitful relationship. I’m confident we’ll continue to work together.”
New dads to FIND
Positive results from Holly Schindler’s recent pilot program with fathers served by the Children’s Home Society of Washington (CHSW) has led to a grant from the Foundations for Child Development Young Scholars program for a two-year expanded pilot that began in May.
The new project will take learnings from the original pilot, including input from an advisory committee of dads served by the original project, and apply them to using FIND-F methods with 50 Mexican-American fathers in King County.
Schindler said that during the initial project, she learned that CHSW serves a large number of Mexican-American families, who sometimes face barriers to service and a lack of tailored supports (e.g. materials that reflect Mexican-American fathers and their cultural values and a program structure that accommodates their work schedules).
In addition, she explained that Mexican-American dads show characteristics that make them ideal candidates for FIND-F.
“In spite of challenges, these fathers often live with their children and consistently report that building good relationships with their children is ‘the most important thing of all.’”
CHSW plans to use the results from this study to inform their own home visiting practices. CHSW serves over 30,000 children and their families each year, including a high percentage of Mexican Americans. Should FIND-F be found to be effective, it may be scaled within CHSW’s constellation of family services to reach a greater number of fathers, Schindler said.
Holly Schindler, Assistant Professor of Education
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications