Fathers in Head Start

Head Start recognizes that both mothers and fathers play an essential role in the healthy development of children. Father involvement coordinators and family services staff will find the activities outlined in this document useful as a complement to the strategies that programs are currently using to encourage father involvement. A great deal of reflection on current beliefs and practices, discussion, and planning are necessary to achieve maximum participation by fathers.

The following is an excerpt from Designing Parenting Education.

Fathers in Head Start

Design Parenting Education with Mothers and Fathers in Mind
Fathers also benefit from regular interactions with their children
Outreach Efforts
Learning Activities:
Listening to Fathers
Myths about Men

It is a standing assumption in Head Start that parents are their children's first and most important teachers. Parenting education efforts can and should support parents in their important roles as children's teachers. Sometimes, efforts to increase parent involvement in Head Start and to provide parenting education opportunities have been done with mothers in mind. While it is true that increasing numbers of children live in single-parent, female-headed households, a national survey of Head Start programs found that a man is present (whether father, mother's boyfriend, or other male relative) in approximately 60 percent of Head Start families (Levine, 1993). Another survey showed that a majority of mothers surveyed reported their children had regular and consistent interaction with a father or other male figure despite the high proportion of single-parent families served by the program studied (McBride and Lin, in press). And finally, there is also an increasing number of single-parent families headed by fathers.

Most fathers care about their children and want to be involved in their children's lives. What fathers offer their children is not the same as what mothers offer, though both can be nurturing and stimulating. For example, in their dealings with young children, men tend to resemble other men much more than they do women - whatever the biological relationships between the men and the children may be. From the beginning of children's lives, fathers handle babies differently than others do. At first glance, one might think that men's and women's differing levels of experience with infants might explain differences in handling, but close observations document that even men who are very experienced with children handle them differently from women. Not better, not worse, but differently.

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Not only do children benefit from regular interaction with fathers, but the fathers themselves benefit. Men who care for infants and young children have been described by the children's mothers as more emotionally available to them as well as to their children. Changes in fathers' sense of self is also related to regular care giving of young children as men move into seeing themselves as “fathers.”

Many programs already recognize the importance of involving fathers and are making extra efforts to engage men more actively in Head Start. As new programs and outreach efforts are being designed, programs should consider the following:

  • Fathers (or other significant males) may not recognize the important role they play in raising children and/or they may be afraid that by becoming more involved, they will expose their own inadequacies. Programs can do a lot to distill the myths about male involvement by providing men (and women) with information about the important role men do play in raising children. Furthermore, it is critical that programs model the importance of involving fathers - for example, programs can display photos of fathers working with children in everyday activities, address correspondence to both parents, and conduct home visits at a time convenient to both parents.


  • Provide staff development opportunities and hire male staff members when possible. It is important for staff to understand the importance of supporting men in their role as father and [for staff] to gain the skills that will enable them to help fathers become more involved. For example, staff may need information or training on the expectations different cultures place on men in regard to child rearing or on facilitating support groups. When possible, consider hiring male staff to facilitate male support groups and providing them with staff development opportunities to keep them connected to the rest of the Head Start program.


  • Partner with parents who are already involved to design outreach activities and plan programs targeted to men. Parents are a program's best source of ideas. Parents can provide important insight into what it might take to make a program more inviting to fathers (or other significant males), how other parents are likely to react if special attention is paid to fathers, who might be seen as a leader for a father initiative, and what special supports might be needed.

Increasing fathers' involvement in Head Start does not happen overnight. A great deal of reflection on current beliefs and practices, discussion, and planning are necessary to achieve maximum participation by fathers.

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Tree on a book

Listening to Fathers

Purpose: Participants will listen to the perspectives of fathers in order to consider ways of encouraging greater male involvement in the parenting education experiences offered through Head Start.


Handout 2 [PDF, 98KB]: Summary Sheet; Handout 3 [PDF, 151KB]: Interviews With Fathers; Handout 4 [PDF, 108KB]: Tip Sheet on Increasing Male Involvement; chart paper; markers.

Begin this activity by asking participants to think of how they would complete this sentence:

Men should be involved in parenting because...


Allow 3-5 minutes for participants to share responses.

Then state that involving fathers (or other significant male role models) in parenting is critical for the social and emotional growth of children. For example, children in fatherless homes are five times more likely to live in poverty, compared to children who live with both parents, and children who do not live with their fathers are at greater risk for teenage pregnancy, school failure, and juvenile delinquency.¹

Then say, “How do we get more fathers involved in parenting through Head Start? One way is to ask them what they think and what they want.”

Distribute Handout 3 [PDF, 151KB]: Interviews with Fathers. Organize participants into pairs or groups of three, making sure there is a participant in each group who is comfortable reading the handout for their group. Ask them to work together to read the three interviews and to discuss the questions that appear on the first page of the handout.

Reconvene participants. Ask each group to summarize their discussions. Point out similarities and differences between the small group discussions.


Provide participants with a copy of Handout 4 [PDF, 108KB]: Tip Sheet on Increasing Male Involvement. Allow time for the group to discuss each point in turn.

Conclude this activity by asking participants to summarize their thoughts using Handout 2 [PDF, 98KB]: Summary Sheet.

¹Annie E Casey Foundation, Kids Count Data Book, 1995

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Tree on a book

Myths About Men

Purpose: Participants will explore several myths about men which create barriers to their inclusion in parenting education experiences at Head Start.


Handout 2 [PDF, 98KB]: Summary Sheet; Handout 5 [PDF, 107KB]: Myth Cards; index cards; glue or tape; chart paper; markers.

Trainer Preparation Notes:

Handout 5 [PDF, 107KB] has two versions. One set of myth cards has just the myths on them. The other version has the myth and some thoughts to stimulate the discussion. Either version can be used in this activity.


Prior to the workshop make four to six sets of the myth cards (either version) from Handout 5 [PDF, 107KB]. Paste each myth card onto a separate index card. Group the cards into packets so each one contains a complete set of the four myths.

Begin the activity by stating that fathers - or significant male role models - are important for children's long term social and emotional development. In fact, children in homes where the father is absent are five times more likely to be poor. They are also at greater risk for teen pregnancy, school failure, and juvenile delinquency.¹

Fathers who are not living in the household may still have regular contact with their children. There also is an increasing number of fathers who are single parents and the primary caretaker of their children. For these reasons, outreach to fathers is critical.

Then state:

If we know the involvement of fathers is important, why is it often a challenge to engage men in their children's education?

Ask volunteers to suggest responses to this question and list them on chart paper. Continue by stating that in an article on Involving Fathers in Head Start, the author James Levine suggests that there are four major factors that discourage more father involvement:

  • Men's own fears of exposing inadequacies (for example, they may feel that they don't know anything about child development).


  • Staff attitudes about involving fathers (for example, staff may find it easier to always contact the mother.)


  • Mothers' attitudes about involving fathers (for example, mothers may believe being involved with children's learning is their job).


  • Inappropriate program design or delivery (for example, fathers aren't included in planning activities).²

Explain that since two of the factors affecting male involvement involve attitudes, this activity will focus on exploring the attitudes participants may have regarding male involvement in Head Start.

Divide participants into four to six small groups and give each group a set of myth cards. Tell participants that each card contains a myth - a story that many believe but that is not true - about fathers. Their task is to take each myth in turn (there are four in all) and discuss the following:

Why do you think this statement is a myth?

How does this myth create a barrier to greater male involvement?

What can we do to counteract this myth?

Each group should find a volunteer to serve as recorder. Allow 30-40 minutes for discussion.

After time is up, take each myth in turn and write it out on chart paper. Ask the recorder from each group to summarize their group's discussion related to this myth.


Summarize this activity with the following points:

  • Fathers, and other significant male role models, have important roles to play in supporting the healthy growth and development of children.


  • Parenting education is an effective way to inform and support men in their search to become more involved fathers.


  • It is important to recognize and support strengths that men bring to parenting.

Conclude the activity by giving participants time to write down ideas on male involvement on Handout 2 [PDF, 98KB].

¹ Annie E Casey Foundation, Kids Count Data Book, 1995
² Involving Fathers in Head Start, Families in Society, 74 (1): 4-19

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"Fathers in Head Start." Listening to Fathers & Myths About Men. Designing Parenting Education. Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 1998. English.

Last Reviewed: December 2010

Last Updated: June 19, 2013