Research News

‘COACHES’ workshops help dads be better parents

A young boy stands in his uniform participating in an indoor soccer game.

The COACHES program stems from a program Greg Fabiano conceived in 2001 that used soccer workshops as a hook to engage fathers as agents to help their elementary and middle school children diagnosed with ADHD.


Published March 8, 2017

Headshot of Greg Fabiano.
“Parents can focus on catching their child being good, rather than being bad.”
Greg Fabiano, professor and associate dean
Graduate School of Education

It’s become a familiar sight for Graduate School of Education professor Gregory Fabiano: Parents, mostly fathers, walking their elementary-school-age children back to their cars after taking part in their parenting-skills activity.

But instead of watching parents and children bicker and argue, Fabiano is struck by the repeating image of fathers putting their arms around their kids as they walk through the parking lot.

Sure enough, Fabiano watched the same scene the last time his COACHES parenting workshop program met. As the elementary school students with academic and behavioral issues walked through the parking lot at Mullen Elementary School in Tonawanda, parents congratulated their children for doing a good job and for earning a juice box on their way out the gym door.

“All these parents walking to their cars with their arms around their kids are building a foundation for other positive encounters,” says Fabiano, GSE associate dean for interdisciplinary research, whose work has focused on helping families with ADHD children.

“Parenting any child is hard work,” he says. “If you have a child with extra challenges, it’s even harder. Any good family-practices program has to start with a foundation of warm, positive, nurturing parent interaction. That’s one of the things we hope our program helps cultivate.”

Those promising images of fathers and children at Mullen Elementary are the latest results of the $1.5-million U.S. Department of Education grant Fabiano administers. Called the COACHES program — a near-acronym for “Coaching Our Children: Heightening Essential Skills — Fabiano’s latest counseling success stems back to a program he conceived and started in 2001 that used soccer workshops as a hook to engage fathers as agents to help their elementary and middle school children diagnosed with ADHD.

Fabiano revived that program by starting a similar soccer program for below-the-poverty-line Head Start preschool students. Beginning in 2013, this program originally attracted 60 fathers or father figures. Fabiano’s GSE team eventually opened the sessions to any parent, and the ranks escalated. He added sessions until “lots and lots of families” joined the workshops, which ended in December.

This year, beginning the last Saturday in January and aided by a grant from the Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences, Fabiano brings the COACHES program into the Tonawanda City School District. Taking on 10 families with children in need of some academic or behavioral improvement, the workshop repeats the accomplishments of the past and builds in some bonuses.

One crucial element: Fabiano is trying to move his successful program away from the university and into the community.

“We’ll be there to help as facilitators,” Fabiano says. “But we’re trying to give it away.”

Like the earlier programs, Fabiano’s latest workshop is based on the idea that a parent can indeed be a valuable agent to shape positive behavior and experiences in their children, including these children with behavioral challenges. The trick is getting these parents to sign on.

“Parents can focus on catching their child being good, rather than being bad,” says Fabiano, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology, whose earlier research included using a driving simulator to bond while parents teach their ADHD child how to drive. “So for kids with behavioral problems, they always hear about it when they mess up. But they almost never get an ‘attaboy’ or ‘attagirl’ when things go well.

“When things go well, we don’t say anything because as a culture, we tend to let sleeping dogs lie,” he explains. “But the first time the child steps out of line, they get a reprimand or a correction.

“If you have a child with challenging behavior, they’re getting way more of those correcting or reprimanding things. And over a lifetime, they run a deficit where they get many more negatives relative to the positives, especially if you compare them to the kid sitting next to them in the classroom.”

And that, literally, is a deficit, Fabiano says.

“It’s not surprising that these kids decide to check out of school or not listen to their parents. Eventually they say, ‘You know what? If I’m just going to hear all these negatives, why bother?’ They shut down and they quit.”

But positive parenting can change things, Fabiano says. And parenting programs that successfully teach positive parenting have been around for some time.

“There is really clear evidence that if you work with parents to teach them how to help support their child, the child does better,” he says. “The problem is attendance in these programs is almost all moms. Dads don’t show up near as much.”

Fabiano concluded the traditional “process-oriented” classroom model for good parenting practices might work for mothers, but doesn’t address what fathers are looking for.

“We thought, ‘Where do we see Dads?’” he says. “And we thought, community little leagues are often lined up and down the sidelines with fathers. Fathers as coaches, fathers watching their children.

“We thought if we can’t get fathers to come to our program, maybe we will bring our program to them.”

So Fabiano and his team of graduate education students created these “community little league programs,” soccer programs where dads learn and practice good parenting skills while their sons and daughters practice their soccer skills.

“We feel it’s really important to develop competencies in the child we’re working with,” Fabiano says. “So the children actually walk out of the program with some skills they can take to their playground or their neighborhood.

“And during the time when the kids are practicing their soccer skills, the dads are meeting with other dads and learning parenting strategies.”

Fabiano’s team is compiling data on past programs now, but it’s clear — based on interest and individual stories — the programs are working. Fabiano says his group conducted a series of studies comparing his COACHES program to more typical parent-training programs that just feature group discussions.

“Dads showed up more often for our program,” Fabiano says. “They don’t leave early. They do their homework. They show up on time. They drop out less. They are more engaged. And they get better in their parenting. We see them become more positive with their kids.”

Essential in Fabiano’s “action-oriented” approach are special features that attract interest and keep the dads coming back:

  • The COACHES sessions initially separate the dads from their children. So while the sons and some daughters practice their sports skills, their dads are meeting with other dads in another room learning parenting strategies.
  • Following these separate sessions. Fabiano’s team runs an actual soccer game, weekly. The players have jerseys with their numbers on the back. There are referees.

And a newsletter goes home after every game explaining who made a nice pass, who was a good sport, which goalie played the best. Then the newsletter (Fabiano or a graduate student writes it) is sent home via U.S. mail. With an envelope. Addressed to the kids. It’s much more fun, Fabiano says.

“It’s almost like an Amherst Bee article where there is a play-by-play of who did what,” he says. “We mention every kid, and the kids really like it. We address it so the kids get the mail.”

  • Participation from the dads during these soccer games differs from conventional Little League games, Fabiano says.

Normally, fathers would just sit along the sidelines while their son or daughter played in front of them. “We tell the dads their job is to coach their kids in the sport,” Fabiano says. “And we give them an assignment. So if we have a topic of how to use praise and catch your kid being good — for the first quarter they have a little card and they have to keep track of how many times they say something positive to their kid during the activity.

“They go right out on the field,” he says. “They practice their strategy. And after each quarter, when it ends, we have a little water break, and the kids go get water and the dads meet together and talk about how it went. The dads actually get to try out what they have learned in the context of a fun activity.”

For more information and to ask about future sessions call (716) 829-5975.