Children and Fathers Bonding

Findings from the B3 Study of the Just Beginning Parenting Intervention

By Michelle S. Manno, Kristen Harknett, Bright Sarfo, Ann Bickerton


A father’s support—both financial and emotional—is linked to better outcomes on nearly every measure of a child’s well-being. Past research has shown that fathers with low incomes—particularly those who do not live with their children—find it particularly difficult to provide that support.

To continue building an evidence base for effective, innovative interventions that support fathers and their families, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, with funding from the Office of Family Assistance (OFA), engaged a team led by MDRC to conduct the Building Bridges and Bonds (B3) study. B3 partnered with fatherhood experts and practitioners to identify new and promising approaches to supporting fathers working toward economic stability and improved relationships with their children. Parenting and economic stability are in fact two of the three required program areas for OFA Responsible Fatherhood grants. The study team tested three innovative, interactive, skill-building approaches that addressed parenting and economic stability in the context of existing Responsible Fatherhood programs. Just Beginning is the parenting intervention tested in the B3 study and the subject of this report. The Just Beginning intervention invited fathers with their young children to participate in one-on-one parenting training sessions that included engaging skill-building videos and father-child play activities. In Just Beginning, a father learned and tried out one new strategy for interacting with his child per session, for five sessions.

For the B3 study, three organizations offering Responsible Fatherhood programs implemented Just Beginning in addition to their usual services. Fathers were randomly selected to participate in one of two groups: one group was eligible to receive the organizations’ usual services, and the other was eligible to receive the Just Beginning curriculum in addition to the usual services. This report builds on previously released findings about curriculum implementation and expands on how each organization implemented Just Beginning and who participated in services. It also presents the effects of Just Beginning on father-child relationships and estimates the costs to service providers of operating Just Beginning.

Primary Research Questions

Is it feasible to include children in fatherhood program services, and what is necessary to facilitate their inclusion?

Does a parenting program that works with fathers and young children together generate more positive effects on parenting and father-child relationships than standard program approaches?


Although fatherhood programs use a variety of approaches to encourage fathers’ positive involvement with their children, the existing evidence has shown that these programs have had minimal success in achieving the goals of building parenting skills and strengthening father-child relationships. Their lack of evidence of effectiveness provided the rationale for developing and testing new approaches.

This report describes Just Beginning’s effects on father-child relationships and the costs of implementing the curriculum. It also analyzes how services operated and who participated in them, information that serves as context for the other findings.

Findings and Highlights

  • Just Beginning can be implemented in fatherhood programs, though recruitment and engagement are challenging. For example, 46 percent of fathers randomly assigned to the program group never attended a Just Beginning session. Fifty-four percent of fathers in the program group completed at least one Just Beginning session and 37 percent completed at least four sessions, which the curriculum developer considered adequate exposure to the curriculum. Seventy percent of those who attended the first session attended at least four sessions. However, it took a great deal of staff effort to accomplish this level of engagement.
  • In these program and study contexts, the Just Beginning intervention did not produce statistically significant effects on measures of father-child relationship quality, on fathers’ parenting confidence, nor on levels of father-child contact, all as reported by fathers in a six-month follow-up survey. The results suggest that this intervention is not effective in strengthening parent-child relationships for a general population of fathers seeking fatherhood program services in the community.
  • The Just Beginning intervention cost $3,220 per participant. About one-third of this cost is attributed to identifying and recruiting eligible fathers, and to engaging children’s other caregivers at the time of enrollment (in an attempt to enlist their help in getting fathers to attend the intervention with their children). Planning for and delivering Just Beginning sessions made up nearly half the cost, with the remainder attributed to training and technical assistance.


Document Details

Publication Type
September 2021
Manno, Michelle, Kristen Harknett, Bright Sarfo, and Ann Bickerton. 2021. Children and Fathers Bonding. New York: MDRC.