Inside the Black Box of Interactions Between Programs and Participants: Re-conceptualizing Subgroups for Fatherhood Program Evaluation. VII. LITERATURE REVIEW - KEY FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS


This literature review was conducted in two stages. In the first stage, we reviewed theories from a range of disciplines to identify psychosocial characteristics that have been hypothesized to affect behavior change in general or fathering behavior in particular. In the second stage, we conducted a literature search to find studies that empirically tested the relationships between such psychosocial predictors and fatherhood-related behaviors and outcomes. In this section, we summarize key findings and conclusions from the two stages of our review.

Our review of applicable theories suggests that a number of psychosocial factors pertaining to fathers, their relationships, and their broader community context merit consideration in order to understand whether and how the impacts of fatherhood programs may vary.

·      Fathers who recognize a need to change and are able to identify goals and execute action steps based on accurate information about what constitutes responsible parenting may be more likely to benefit from services that fatherhood programs provide.

·      Fathers who believe that they can change, that change will yield benefits that outweigh perceived costs, and that they are deserving of such benefits may also differentially be affected by fatherhood programs.

·      The father's views of himself as a father, the importance he places on the father role, his lifestyle, and his age and/or life stage may motivate him to make necessary changes in his fathering behavior and, thus, may be more likely to benefit from fatherhood programs.

·      Personality characteristics such as openness to change, emotional stability, and reactivity to stress are dispositional factors that may influence fathers' behavior and/or their willingness to change.

·      Relationships with "important others" in the father's life and the broader community context can also shape his fathering behavior and his inclinations to change. The mothers of his children, his friends, and his extended family can support (or thwart) a father's efforts to become better parents, providers, and partners by providing (or withholding) positive appraisals and various forms of support (informational, instrumental support, and/or emotional).

·      Contextual factors such as community and peer norms around what it means to be a man and a father and the extent to which fathers have positive role models in their peers or in their own fathers may shape a father's attitudes toward fatherhood, his father-related behaviors, and his inclination toward changing (improving) these behaviors.

Our search of the literature on low-income fathers yielded 64 studies that examined the role of our psychosocial characteristics in predicting one or more key fatherhood-related outcomes. We found considerable variation in the extent to which studies examined and found evidence of relationships between certain predictors and outcomes. Even among predictors that have been examined more extensively in empirical studies, variations in research design and a disproportionate focus on parenting behaviors as outcomes means that much remains to be learned about psychosocial predictors of fathering behavior.

·      By far, the most common outcome examined across these studies was fathers' parenting behavior. Less frequently examined were fathers' well-being and their relationship with the mother of the children, examined in about 20 percent of studies reviewed. Interestingly, despite the critical importance of the economic and child-support outcomes for low-income fathers, few studies examined links between fathers' psychosocial characteristics and these outcomes. (Though substantial research exists on the links between fathers' demographic characteristics and these economic outcomes.)

·      Categories of predictors most often examined pertained to the father's relationship with his child's mother (in 56 percent of all studies), his stress and coping (in 41 percent of studies), aspects of the father's general or role-related identity (in 33 percent of studies), and aspects of the father's personal history (in 28 percent of studies).

·      Even among the categories of predictors most often examined, we found a limited number of studies that used both multivariate and longitudinal designs.

·      In operationalizing psychosocial constructs within predictor categories, study authors used a variety of measures to create a wide range of variables, which made it difficult to assess the state of knowledge.

Some psychosocial predictors have an extensive theoretical basis but few studies have empirically tested their relationships with fatherhood-related behaviors and outcomes.

·      The lack of studies examining fathers' knowledge as a predictor was somewhat surprising, given that most fatherhood programs seek to improve fathers' knowledge (about parenting, child development, and the child-support system) as a means of improving parenting, relationship, economic, and child-support outcomes. The paucity of studies examining knowledge may stem in part from our decision to exclude program evaluations from this review.

·      It was also somewhat surprising that few studies examined social norms, given the theoretical relevance of this construct even among fatherhood researchers. It may be that social norms are more often examined in ethnographic and other qualitative research on fathers, which was excluded from this review if small samples precluded researchers from conducting statistical analyses on the link between social norms and fatherhood-related outcomes.

·      Although cognitions are widely theorized in public health education to affect behavior, few studies examined predictors in this category.

Additional research on the extent to which theoretically relevant but empirically understudied psychosocial factors predict fatherhood-related outcomes would be illuminating. But more importantly from a program evaluation perspective, research is needed on the extent to which psychosocial factors shape fatherhood program impacts-that is, whether program impacts differ in subgroups defined by psychosocial factors. We also need to better understand how best to operationalize these constructs with measures that have been validated for use with fathers, especially low-income and culturally diverse samples of fathers. Methodological research is needed on how best to categorize and combine such variables to create meaningful subgroups. Such information would be useful for identifying subgroups of fathers with various constellations of needs and who are more (and less) ready, willing, and able to participate in and benefit from fatherhood programs, allowing program providers to better target and serve low-income fathers and allowing program evaluators to test whether the program is effective (and equally effective) in these subgroups.

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