You call to schedule the first intervention visit and the child’s father answers the phone. He says, “Hold on, let me get my wife…”
During the assessment, the father comes home for lunch, opens his front door, sees three strangers sitting in his living room floor, takes a quick glance at his girlfriend, then quietly closes the door and goes back to work.
Several months into early intervention, you finally meet the baby’s father. He is eager to learn but doesn’t want to “interrupt” the session so he stands in the hallway and watches. You invite him to join the fun but he says he’s okay watching for a while.
This toddler’s father comes home from work early to make sure he’s at each visit. He always has questions, is eager to show you what the child has learned, and likes to try new things. He struggles with understanding the medical jargon surrounding his child’s diagnosis so uses you as a resource regularly. He sees you as a partner with his family.
Every Father is Different
I’ve met each of these fathers…maybe you have too. Just like any caregiver, every father is different. Unfortunately, though, I think fathers in early intervention are often put into a category, one that has them designated on the side lines of intervention. Most intervention visits are conducted with mothers, or even other female caregivers. Mothers are most likely to be our main contact for the family. This is certainly not true for all families, but being aware of our thoughts about fathers’ roles in early intervention is important because it affects how services and supports are delivered.
Fathers’ Roles in Early Intervention
Father’s roles in EI can vary just as much as they generally do across families and within cultures. Some dads are more hands-on than others; some dads see themselves in more of a supportive role with the mother being the primary caregiver. In many families, this varies from day-to-day. The father’s role can be affected by many things, such as his parenting beliefs, his cultural values, his understanding of the child’s delay or disability, his concerns for the child’s future, or his thoughts on how to support his family. All of these issues and more affect how fathers choose to participate in early intervention and are important considerations for service providers as they collaborate with fathers. We have to be careful not to judge these considerations and understand that our role is to meet families, including fathers, where they are. Fathers are part of that essential parent-professional partnership that makes early intervention work, so don’t forget them!
Don’t Forget Fathers!
If we are truly using family-centered practices, then being sure that we remember to include fathers in intervention activities is so important. Here are a few ideas to help you do that:
Consider fathers’ schedules – When scheduling the intake, assessment, IFSP meetings, and intervention visits, ask about who would like to be present. Try to accommodate the family’s schedule, including the father. If he is typically unable to join the visit because he works during the day, consider offering a session in the evening, videotaping a visit, or doing a visit using Skype or some other teleconferencing. This might work well with parents who are separated by many miles, such as when a military parent is deployed or parents don’t live together but both wish to be involved.
Ask for the father’s insights – Rather than primarily shooting questions to the child’s mother, which often happens, turn your body towards the father to ask if he has anything he’d like to share. Often, he may have a different perspective that can help the rest of the team better understand the family’s priorities or the child’s abilities.
Build intervention around father-child interests – Even if the father isn’t able to join visits, ask about what they do together and try to provide some ideas so that he has some strategies to try. For instance, if he loves wrestling with his toddler, you might talk with the mother about ways they can integrate communication into that game and help her be prepared to coach her husband in doing that. Sometimes those “daddy” games really get children excited and motivated and offer fantastic learning opportunities that shouldn’t be missed!
What other strategies do you use to include fathers in early intervention? If you are a father of a child who has received EI, what ideas do you have for how providers can support dads?