When fathers play sensitively, math performance at kindergarden is higher
Photo: Jo Zimny Photos. Creative Commons. 

When Latino and African American fathers play sensitively with their toddlers, performance in math is likely to be higher at kindergarten

By Child & Family Blog Editor and , | February 2020 

The overall sensitivity of the fathers during play in this sample of 312 families – 119 African American fathers and 193 Latino fathers – was high.

A research study focusing on low-income Latino and African American fathers in the USA has found a correlation between how sensitively they play with their preschool children and their children’s math achievement scores in kindergarten. This correlation exists irrespective of the level of mothers’ sensitive support for these children.

The researchers’ combined various aspects into their measure of sensitive play:following the child’s lead in what the child wants to play with, responding positively to the child’s behaviors and language, and helping the child when needed. 

Overall in this sample of 312, fathers’ sensitivity during play was high. In all the families selected for the research, the father lived in the child’s home. (This means the research is not fully representative of fathers’ contributions in all family formations.)

The correlation was found between sensitive play and kindergarten math achievement only; there was no correlation with reading achievement.

According to the researchers, “Early childhood intervention programs focused on parenting skills too often focus almost exclusively on mothers and neglect the importance of involving fathers. They argue that the results of this play study show that supporting fathers can lead to better academic achievement at school. But they caution that involving fathers in early childhood programs will require innovative delivery models that accommodate the needs and preferences of fathers.”

Much research shows a link between preschool parenting and early school academic achievement. Parental sensitivity can buffer the negative effects of the kinds of risks that are more prevalent in the environments where many ethnic minority families live. 

The great majority of research on this link focuses on mothers, but evidence is growing that fathers also play an important roleThe role of father is particularly important when the mother is unsupportive of the children: supportive fathering is associated with higher school readiness in children whose mothers are unsupportive.

One problem in the research is that measures of parental sensitivity tend to be designed to capture how mothers care for children. Such measures may not capture important aspects of how fathers interact with their children. On average, observations show, fathers care for their children differently from mothers, with more teasing, more physical play and risk taking, and the use of more challenging language.

The deficit in research regarding fathers is even stronger in relation to ethnic minority fathers. Some research adopts a ‘deficit perspective’, focusing on the problems of ethnic minority fatherhood such as father absence. Yet research shows generally high levels of father contribution: one study found that twothirds of fathers in a racially diverse study read to their toddler at least once a week.

To understand parenting in ethnic minority families, we must take into account the environmental conditions that such families experiencefor example, high rates of poverty and confronting racism and prejudice. Such environmental factors can require a different parenting approach to prepare the child for a different world. For example, the “no nonsense” parenting style seen in some African American families may be a necessary protective factor for the children and can be associated with high levels of warmth.

In this research project, involving 119 African American and 193 Latino fathers (mostly Mexican), the children were observed and videoed at play, first with their fathers and then their mothersWhen the child was 2.5 years old, each parent was given three bags with toys in them to open and play with their child over 15 minutes. This process was repeated when the child was 3.5 years old (but with only two bags and for only 10 minutes). Later, in kindergarten, the child was tested for academic achievement in both math and language.


 O’Brien Caughy M, Brinkley DY, Smith EP & Owen MT (2020), Fathering quality in early childhood and kindergarten achievement in low-income racial-economic minority children, Journal of Family Psychology 

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