Teaching Skills to First-time Fathers via Video Coaching

In recent years, both practitioners and researchers have sought to answer the question: What types of educational approaches work best with fathers?

A recent study from Alberta provides the latest piece of the puzzle. A team led by University of Alberta researchers Joyce Magill-Evans (Rehabilitation Medicine), and Margaret Harrison (Nursing), and University of Calgary researcher Karen Benzies (Nursing) tested the effectiveness of video-coaching as a way to teach parent/baby interaction skills to new fathers.

One hundred and sixty-two fathers were randomly assigned to two groups. The intervention group received two home video coaching sessions when their babies were five and six months old. Fathers were videotaped while teaching their babies how to play with a toy provided by a trained home visitor. The fathers then watched the video with the home visitor, who gave positive feedback when the father's behaviour was sensitive and responsive to the baby or promoted the child's social-emotional and cognitive growth. For example, fathers were praised for recognizing and responding to infant cues, giving a child time to respond to the father's actions or words, praising the child and using language to describe the task clearly.

The control group received one home visit in which they received information about developmentally appropriate toys, and discussed activities they like to do with their child. The control group fathers were also videotaped teaching their child to play with the toy provided by the visitor, but they did not watch the videotape or get feedback. This was to control for the possibility that a home visit might, in itself, have a positive effect.

When the babies were eight months old, both groups of fathers were visited again and videotaped as they played with their babies.

Researchers, who did not know which group the fathers were assigned to, watched the videos and rated the father/infant interactions using the Nursing Child Assessment Teaching Scale (NCATS). NCATS is a tool for measuring the type of sensitive and responsive parent interaction known to promote children's social, cognitive and emotional development. Fathers' own feelings of parenting efficacy and satisfaction were assessed using the Parenting Sense of Competence Scale.

The results showed that, on average, fathers who received video coaching improved their NCATS scores between five and eight months, while the average scores of fathers in the control group actually declined slightly. Examination of the subscales of NCATS revealed that the primary difference was that fathers in the intervention group increased their skill at fostering cognitive growth and maintained their sensitivity to infant cues. Fathers in the control group lost ground in both areas.

Interestingly, both groups of fathers rated their self-efficacy and satisfaction with parenting higher at eight months. Magill-Evans believes this may reflect the commitment and enthusiasm likely to be found in fathers who would volunteer to participate in this type of study.

Video coaching is an expensive and labour intensive intervention. Magill-Evans does not expect it to become widely used as a primary parent education tool. However, she thinks it may have potential as a specialized intervention with certain fathers of children with special needs.

"In our earlier longitudinal work on the developmental outcomes of pre-term babies, we found an effect of father interaction that was quite separate from and above and beyond the contributions that mothers make," she says. "Specifically, children whose fathers were good at interacting with them as babies tended to have better language skills at age 18 months. And in our work with children with cerebral palsy we found that their perceptions of how mature they were as young adults was related to the degree to which their fathers encouraged independence."

However, Magill-Evans and her associates also observed that fathers varied widely in their interaction skills, much more so than with mothers. One thing the researchers found difficult to watch at times was the way some fathers seldom talked to their babies. "They'd be holding or looking at their babies but not saying anything. Some didn't seem to know what to do." Magill-Evans says. Her team also observed that some fathers were very goal-oriented. Intent on teaching the skill, they would keep showing the baby what to do over and over, and did not always pick up on the baby's signals.

"We were looking for a way to increase father's ability to recognize and respond contingently to their baby's behavioural cues," says Magill-Evans. "We also wanted to build on the father's motivation. Many of them told us they wanted to learn more about how to play with their babies."

Videotaped self-modeling was an effective intervention with mothers of infants. It made particular sense for fathers given previous research which showed that fathers are most interested in programs based on activities rather than discussion and those that teach them how to help their children learn.

"Most of the fathers said they liked getting the video feedback and also liked the fact that we paid attention and were interested in what they were doing with their babies," says Magill-Evans. "And we did find that the intervention led to a significant improvement in fathers' interaction skills. So we're encouraged to continue with this line of research which we hope will lead to the development of an intervention that can be targeted specifically to fathers of preterm babies."

The article, Effects of Parent Education on First-time Father's Skills in Interaction with Their Infants, was published in the journal Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research and Practice about Men as Fathers. (Vol. 5 No. 1, Winter 2007) Other co-investigators were Mark Gierl (University of Alberta) and Cathy Kimak (Capital Health).