How to Strengthen Participant Attendance and Why it Matters

Publication Date
October 10, 2018

Fatherhood Research and Practice Network (FRPN) recently reviewed 21 studies of fatherhood programs to identify program policies associated with high rates of attendance, and how program outcomes differed for fathers with varying rates of attendance. We found that while attendance is a problem for most fatherhood programs, with fathers attending half or fewer sessions, the following program formats appear to help:

  • Programs closely connected with a court where judges “urge” fathers to attend.
  • Intensive programs that engage fathers on a daily, full-time basis.
  • Programs that offer driver’s license reinstatement, jobs, or job training to attendees.
  • Programs that build strong father-staff relationships through case management.

Group of Dads

Naturally, not all programs can adopt these approaches. While programs that serve unemployed fathers may be able to schedule intensive services that run all day for a few weeks, programs that serve employed fathers will have to schedule sessions during evenings and weekends. And only programs with supportive child support agencies, workforce programs, and courts, may be able to provide helpful judicial engagement and/or attractive incentives for participants with good attendance, such as drivers’ license reinstatement or real job opportunities.

Nevertheless, programs should see whether they can build in some of these elements: e.g., schedule class sessions two times per week rather than once to deepen intensity and offer attractive job and/or child support incentives to participants who attend faithfully.

All but one of the studies we reviewed found that dosage matters and that outcomes are generally stronger for those with better attendance patterns. Measuring attendance, however, is not so obvious. Some studies show that fathers benefit more from the program with each additional session that they attend, others find that program benefits do not accrue until fathers receive a specified level of programming; and looking at the average numbers of hours of attendance may be misleading if most fathers attend very few sessions while a few attend most or all.  The best solution may be to create categories of attendance (e.g., low, moderate, high) and compare fathers’ outcomes (e.g., effects of program on father engagement with children) across different levels of attendance. For example, it is helpful to know that fathers can benefit from moderate levels of attendance as well as from high levels of attendance, as was the case in Fagan and Iglesias’s (1999) Head Start study, or that benefits only accrue to program graduates who attend 8 out of 10 sessions as was the case in Kim and Jang’s (2018) study of TYRO Dads. 

Program staff and researchers should be aware of other considerations that come to play in measuring attendance, trying to improve it, and explaining program outcomes. For example:

  • How much programming does the participant get from all sources: classes, case management sessions, coaching and workshops?
  • How much programming does the participant get in specific content areas such as co-parenting or healthy relationships as opposed to economic security?
  • How can the sequencing of program components be manipulated to improve attendance in less popular content areas dealing with parenting, co-parenting and relationships?

Finally, researchers and program staff need to set realistic attendance expectations for low-income fathers and tailor programs accordingly. Simply stated, it may be of little value to expect fathers to attend 20 to 30 parenting classes when experience shows that they attend only 25-50% of those sessions.  A better approach may be for programs and researchers to determine whether gains in father involvement and parenting skills can be obtained from programs with fewer sessions, an exercise that is already being done in the field of relationship education with low-income parents (Halford et al., 2015). 

For more information see the full FRPN Research Brief: Attendance in Community-Based Fatherhood Programs.

Jessica Pearson, Ph.D. and Jay Fagan, Ph.D. for the Fatherhood Research and Practice Network (FRPN)

Fagan, J., & Iglesias, A. (1999). Father and father figure involvement in Head Start: A quasi-experimental study. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 14, 243–269.
Halford, W. K., Pepping, C. A., Hilpert, P., Bodenmann, G., Wilson, K. L., Busby, D., & Holman, T. (2015). Immediate effect of couple relationship education on low-satisfaction couples: A randomized clinical trial plus an uncontrolled trial replication. Behavior Therapy, 46(3), 409–421. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2015.02.001
Kim, Y-I, & Jang, S.J. (2018). A randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of a responsible fatherhood program: The case of TYRO Dads. Report prepared for the Fatherhood Research and Practice Network.

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