If you run or plan to run a fatherhood program that allows fathers to enter the program after it starts, reconsider that approach.
Allowing fathers to enter and exit a program at the beginning, middle, or end -- known as "open entry" -- can seem like a practical and compassionate approach to structuring a program. The rationale for such a program is that it offers the flexibility many fathers need (e.g. helps them integrate participation with work and family commitments) and respects their innate knowledge of what they need and will best help them become better fathers. Unfortunately, the best intentions are not indicative of the best approach to working with fathers. Research shows this approach can backfire and actually harm fathers and fatherhood programs.
In a just released practitioner's brief from Mathematica Policy Research that is part of a national evaluation of federally-funded fatherhood programs known as PACT (Parents and Children Together), researchers compared two open-entry fatherhood programs to two "integrated cohort" programs, an approach that requires fathers enter a program at its start and proceed through the entire program together. One way to think of the difference between the two approaches is one is a four-course meal that everyone eats and the other is a buffet from which everyone chooses what they eat.
The similarity in the four programs is they provide the same kind of education on parenting, relationships, and employment in a workshop format. The two integrated cohort programs, however, offer the workshops in a prescribed sequence because the content is integrated. The two open-entry programs, on the other hand, encourage but don't require fathers to attend workshops in a specific sequence. They offer separate workshops that allow fathers flexibility in which ones they attend and when they attend them. This difference makes the latter approach "self-paced." Another difference is in the intensity of the programs. The integrated cohort programs are more intense. Fathers participate daily and, as a result, can receive more total hours of content and complete the program in a shorter amount of time than can the fathers in the open-entry programs.
Given what I've shared so far about the two types of programs, take a minute to answer this question before you read further: What result(s) for the programs did the researchers compare?
If you're unfamiliar with the objectives of the PACT evaluation, it might surprise you that they compared overall participation in the programs and retention in the two programs. Perhaps you thought they compared the effect of the programs on knowledge, attitudes, or skills related to father involvement. That's not an incorrect answer, but you're ahead of the game. Researchers will release those data in a future brief/report.
As you undoubtedly know, participation and retention are two of the greatest challenges faced by fatherhood programs. So the focus of this research speaks directly to the impact of these two approaches (program structures) on those pain points.
If you were surprised by the focus of this research on participation and retention, you might also be surprised by these results:
- Participation (defined as attending a workshop at least once) in integrated cohort programs was much higher than in open-entry programs.
- Retention (defined as participation in at least half of a workshop's sessions within the first four months) was much higher in integrated cohort programs than in open-entry programs.
To review the detailed results, click here to download the brief.
To be fair, a number of factors likely affected the results other than the structures of the two approaches, such as the characteristics of the fathers (e.g. fathers in the integrated cohort programs had more challenges than fathers in the open-entry programs); the quality of the content of parenting, relationships, and employment components; and the characteristics and skills of the staff who delivered the workshops. Nevertheless, the differences in participation and retention were so large that it's clear the structure of the approaches affected participation and retention. The fathers in the integrated approach, for example, completed an average of 79 hours of education compared to an average of only 13 hours for the fathers in the open-entry programs.
Recall that I said you should reconsider an open-entry approach. Whether you use such an approach depends on the goals and objectives of your program, the needs and wants of the fathers you serve or want to serve, and the resources at your disposal. Regardless, if you use a program with integrated content--such as NFI's 24/7 Dad®, InsideOut Dad®, or Understanding Dad® programs--you should use an integrated cohort approach to ensure you will achieve the outcomes the programs can produce.
What goals and objectives do you have for your fatherhood program/effort?
Have you thought through whether your program/effort should use an integrated cohort or open-entry approach to meet its goals and objectives?