Early Intervention Strategies for Success

Sharing What Works in Supporting Infants & Toddlers and the Families in Early Intervention

Early Intervention Strategies for Success, Tips, Insight and Support for EI Practitioners


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…”Dad in Pool with Baby

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?

13 comments on “Don’t Forget Fathers!

  • Adele says:

    We try very hard to include the fathers in our initial visits and give praise to those fathers that sit out there with us and take part in the conversation. We encourage mothers to give our numbers to the fathers so they can call if they have questions. Typically however the fathers are either at work or hiding in the back bedroom! Very strange when you have been in a home for an hour during a visit and suddenly hear noises from the other room. Dads need to be more involved! Good topic Dana!

    • Thanks Adele. I often think that how fathers participate has a lot to do with how the family operates (who the primary decision maker is, who takes care of the children, etc.) and how comfortable the father feels with the EI process. How have you handled it when you find out that the father is home but hasn’t chosen to join the visit? Why do you think he might be more comfortable saying out of the way?

  • Mary Ellen Plitt says:

    So glad you addressed this one. Even those of us who would like to think of ourselves as “not sexist” struggle with our own notions of who is the “primary parent”. What we may perceive as the family’s choice of who interacts with the rest of the e.i. team may actually be a combination of factors – including the generations of ingrained belief that the mother takes care of the children. I’m looking forward to hearing some more ideas on how to bring fathers in.

    • Thanks Mary Ellen. You make a good point – that these ingrained beliefs come from all sides, from service providers and from families. We all bring our own beliefs into each visit and families bring theirs as well. Maybe part of our work is just making an effort to make the father feel welcome and helping him know that his part in intervention is important. I hope we hear from some fathers with their advice on this topic too!

  • Allan says:

    Great topic! We offer a Dads Pizza Night once a month for any Dad who wants to drop in and talk with other Dads about whatever is on his mind. As Dana points out they are diverse in their ways of operating. Some are hands on, very comfortable with the child and his needs and others see their wife as the expert for the child. Some Dads see their main focus in providing for the family and how to plan for a different future than they anticipated.

    I have learned so much from meeting them regularly and I find that they all agree that having time with other Dads is very supportive!

    • Thanks Allan! I LOVE the idea of a monthly pizza night. How many fathers usually attend? Do you plan topics/speakers for them or just keep it open (which is what it sounds like in your comment)? Thinking about how to relate to fathers seems especially important to me because the vast majority of EI providers are female and would approach a pizza night from their perspective. I’d love to know more about what the dads like about it, what happens there, etc. Thanks for sharing the idea!

  • David Munson says:

    Last week I was in a class (the only male) and a guest speaker was trying to engage every class member. I was silent…typical for many of us guys. It was clear I was the only one not engaged. The facilitator saw I was wearing a Denver Broncos shirt and asked me, out of the blue, what I thought about Peyton Manning and how the Bronco’s were doing. I enthusiastically shared with him my views. He called me “Bronco” the rest of the evening and I willingly participated in all every discussion point from then on. The moral of this story is to find ANYTHING appealing to the dad. MI would venture to say most males still see the mother as the primary caregiver and they are reluctant to step into the EI world with their young children. I believe that many of us males have insecurities we don’t want others, especially EC professionals, to know about. It is safer to avoid it all together.
    We discussed this blog at a staff meeting this week and here are a few ideas from our EI home visitors:
    *If the father is present ask alternating questions to the mother then to the father.
    *In the development of the IFSP try to direct at least one outcome to include the father.
    *Have parents BOTH rate their satisfaction with routines (as part of the Routines-Based Interview) and compare their views.
    *Learn about the father and his interests, his work, his style of communication…
    *Find ANY way to engage the father in conversation to break the initial barrier.

    • As always, David, you share a great perspective and practical ideas! I agree that finding a way to engage and relate to the father is the key. One time, I “won over” a father by knowing about wrestling (the TV show kind). Once the dad knew that I knew who the characters were (my husband was a fan), then we had a way to relate and I was accepted.

      Thanks for sharing the ideas from your staff too! Since I haven’t used the RBI, I’m curious – do you find differences in how fathers respond to it??

      • David Munson says:

        It is interesting when we have a father sit in on the Routines-Based Interview (infrequently) he will often rate routines higher than the mother. For example the mother might report that the toddler runs away during diaper-changing time and it is a “hellish” several minutes for them. The father might report the child does just fine with him. It is also not unusual to see fathers rate their favorite time of the day different than the mother. The RBI offers opportunities for families to discuss openly their differences in perceptions. Most of the times it is enlightening to them and fun!

  • Nasir says:

    Socio-economical/education factors usually come into factor if and when fathers may or may not be involved in the EI process. It will be prudent for the therapist to educate and make aware of the diagnosis/limitations/strengths/potential of the child to parents, particularly fathers since they may be unaware of certain things due to the limited time spent with the child. It’s best for the therapist to engage both parents in therapy/parent carryover however if one of them is not available then suggested activities should be offered which will incorporate the daily routines into the outcomes. Ultimately, every parent, whether they be mothers or fathers, seek the best interest and welfare of their child.

  • Nasir says:

    I forgot to mention cultural factor. This might be one of the strongest factors. As we already know, in most non-Western cultures, the mother is the primary caregiver and father’s role is primarily delegated in providing financial resource and discipline to the child.

    • Thanks for bringing up such great points, Nasir. These factors affect the father’s role in his family, as you said, his view of intervention, and certainly his interactions with intervention providers. It’s our job to find a way to support him and meet the family where they are without judging how their roles work. I’ve heard people say “families define themselves” which is true, but then think of this as excusing providers from trying to include both parents because the mother is the main person participating in visits. By asking good questions, maybe scheduling a visit or two when the father is home, videotaping sessions so he can see what happens, or touching base with him by phone – all of these are relatively simple strategies providers can use to try to include fathers. Like you said, they too want what’s best for their children and we want them on the EI team!


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