Where’s All the Daddies?: Engaging Fathers in Early Childhood Programs

Statistics and family studies provide us with some answers to why some dads will never see the inside of their child’s classroom. One in three children don’t have a father present in the home. That’s a little over 24 million and the number is growing.

Some dads, for various reasons, have learned to mistrust schools. They may have had a rough school experience themselves with teacher or administrators who were less than supportive. Other dads could feel wary of stepping into an active dad role due to present or past issues with the law or substance abuse. These dads may even get to a point where their self-esteem bottoms out and they feel they have nothing left to give their children.

If a dad is working all day, he may not have the opportunity to spend time in the classroom. Teachers will see him briefly at the beginning or end of the day, as he drops off or picks up his child. But, if a carpool line is in place, he may only be a face in the car window.

There is also still a stigma attached to dads who are actively involved in their young children’s education, especially for those dads whose own father was not an active participant. I think this is diminishing, but there is still the lingering belief that a mom holds the primary role of involvement in a child’s early education. It is important that we, as teachers, ensure this next generation of children understands that the early childhood environment is for everybody.

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Including male role models in the classroom can be very reassuring to young children, especially for those who don’t have this at home. Additionally, we know from research that there are other extraordinary benefits of having dads actively involved in their children’s education. These include better academic performance, better attitudes about school, and better social skills. We must be diligent in getting dads past the obstacles and into the classroom. If we can involve them at the preschool level… a fun, playful, and unthreatening stage of their child’s schooling… there is a really good chance they will continue to stay involved throughout the coming years, as well.

So, what can we do? Well, first there needs to be a deliberate focus on planning opportunities or events that include dads. Invite them to stay a few extra minutes in the morning or come in to have lunch with their child. Planning regular after-hours events can also be appealing if leaving work is difficult.

It is important to remember that if we are successful in getting a dad into the classroom even one time, chances are he will find the experience better than expected, enjoyable, and he’ll be back.

However, you can’t expect an overnight miracle. Some dads are going to have their reservations and excuses. Based on conversations with dads over the years as a preschool teacher, I’ve learned a few things about how they think.

I remember one of them confessing how he really dreaded bringing his daughter to preschool the first time, because he thought he’d be the only dad there. But, he was pleasantly surprised to see several other dads who not only brought their kids, but also stayed a while to play. “After that,” he said, “I became a regular.”

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Another dad said he felt good about the time he spent in the classroom, because it was making a positive impact on the other children and not just his own. “They got used to seeing me there and pretty soon they were all talking to me and wanting me to read them stories. I think my being there helped make having a man in the classroom just a normal thing.”

Something I noticed was how dads would take cues from how other parents were interacting with the children and then begin participating more themselves. Some dads will jump right in and participate, while others may need an invitation, a prop or suggestion, or even a push. Once they get the idea and come out of their comfort zone, the children will take it from there. “None of them wanted me to leave. I told them I’d be back tomorrow.”

If we can continue to overturn the misconceptions about dads who are unabashedly caring and nurturing toward young children, we will see more of them every day in our classrooms. And, they will be seen, not as uncustomary in their roles, but strong and valuable in their own right, fully devoted to supporting their children’s future.

And, that’s definitely worth all the effort it takes.

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