Using Learning Cycles to Strengthen Fatherhood Programs

Final Report on the Strengthening the Implementation of Responsible Fatherhood Programs (SIRF) Study


Federally funded Responsible Fatherhood programs work with fathers to promote healthy relationships and marriages, strengthen parenting practices, and help fathers attain economic stability. For programs to improve fathers’ outcomes, they need to be able to recruit fathers, engage them in services, and keep them actively participating in program activities. However, it is challenging for programs to achieve these participation goals. The Strengthening the Implementation of Responsible Fatherhood Programs (SIRF) study was designed to strengthen programs and build evidence on promising practices to improve the enrollment, engagement, and retention of fathers in program activities. Fatherhood programs participating in SIRF iteratively implemented and assessed promising approaches to addressing implementation challenges, with the support of and in partnership with the SIRF team.

Primary Research Questions

  1. Did the implemented approaches improve fathers’ participation in the programs?

  2. What aspects of the approaches were most challenging for programs to implement? What aspects did they implement most successfully?


  • Outreach. Programs used innovative ways of conducting recruitment and intake to enroll more fathers into programs and encourage more fathers to show up for initial workshops.
  • Peer mentoring. Program alumni or fathers with experience with the program served as mentors to newly enrolled fathers with the aim of increasing the number of fathers who persist through the program.
  • Coaching. Case managers used coaching techniques. Staff members used open-ended questions to talk with fathers about their goals and how to achieve them. Coaching was intended to increase the number of fathers who complete the program.

Key Findings and Lessons

  • Case managers and fathers thought coaching helped them develop better relationships, but staff members in the outreach and peer mentoring clusters were concerned that  the approach they tested did not encourage strong relationships with fathers. In the coaching cluster, case managers and fathers thought coaching helped them develop better relationships by encouraging case managers to listen in a nonjudgmental way rather than to solve the father’s problems. In the outreach cluster, by contrast, programs used text messages rather than phone calls since fathers were more likely to see them, but staff members thought that relying on text messages might make it difficult for them to build strong relationships with fathers because fathers often did not respond to the messages. Some staff thought the approaches taken in the peer mentoring cluster focused too much on collecting data rather than ensuring that mentors and fathers had substantive interactions.

  • In the outreach cluster, one approach to intake resulted in greater participation by fathers. One approach, called ease-of-intake, emphasized the value of workshops while the second, called case management intake, emphasized the value of case management for meeting fathers’ other needs. Fathers who received the ease-of-intake approach were more likely to enroll and to attend at least one workshop (although the second difference was not statistically significant). These differences were concentrated in one program, perhaps because it enrolled cohorts frequently, which reduced the time fathers had to wait to begin receiving program services. Retention was similar for the two groups, however.

  • In the peer mentoring cluster, an approach that required fathers to initiate contact with mentors resulted in greater participation than one that allowed mentors to initiate contact. It is unclear why one approach worked better than the other, but information collected through interviews suggests that some fathers did not feel a need to connect with their mentor because they felt sufficiently supported by program staff members, and that they thought the mentor trying to contact them was intrusive.
  • Coaching did not appear to improve retention in workshops when compared to other data from programs that were not using coaching. Fathers in the coaching cluster were as likely as fathers in the outreach cluster to attend at least one primary workshop and both groups attended about 70 percent of primary workshop hours.
  • Programs tried to improve the fidelity of implementation of the approaches across learning cycles. For example, programs in the peer mentoring cluster struggled initially to find enough mentors and to engage mentors in working with fathers. Programs responded to this by reducing what they asked of mentors and by identifying mentors who had the time to commit to program activities. In the coaching cluster, case managers worked on becoming more comfortable with coaching throughout the learning cycles.
  • Program staff members generally viewed the learning cycles as a positive experience. Participating in SIRF gave program staff members opportunities to talk about their programs and how to make them better. SIRF’s emphasis on using data to make decisions also helped to establish a culture of using data for learning and innovating. Program staff members noted that because of SIRF they are thinking much more creatively about their approaches.


To study the effects of the approaches on program participation, SIRF used several methods.

  • Outreach. Fathers were randomly assigned to either an ease-of-intake approach or a case management intake approach. The ease-of-intake approach was intended to encourage fathers to attend workshops by stressing the value of the workshop. The case management intake approach was intended to help identify and meet other needs fathers might have.
  • Peer mentoring. Fathers were randomly assigned to either a mentor-initiated group or a father-initiated group. Fathers could contact their mentors in either group, but mentors initiated contact only with fathers in the mentor-initiated group.
  • Coaching. The effects of a coaching approach to case management were assessed by comparing program retention for fathers in these programs to outcomes for fathers in the outreach cluster.

To assess how well their approaches were doing and to adjust the approaches across cycles, participating programs and the SIRF team looked at several data sources, including data from a management information system (called nFORM) on program participation, observation forms developed by the study team and used by supervisors and staff members in the outreach and coaching clusters, and forms developed by the SIRF team to solicit reflections from fathers and staff members on program service experiences. Data from nFORM were supplemented by the “SIRFboard,” which the study team created to allow staff members to record data specific to the implementation of each cluster.

A mixed-methods implementation study collected qualitative and quantitative data from program staff members and fathers associated with each program, across all the rapid learning cycles. These data sources address questions about what it took to implement the approaches and how staff members and fathers experienced them.


Results from SIRF suggest recommendations on how to improve participation in fatherhood programs and on how to operate rapid learning cycles.

  • In both the outreach and peer mentoring clusters, the more successful approach was less burdensome for fathers. This suggests that future initiatives should strive to implement strategies that consider fathers’ preferences and do not add additional burdens. This take-away should be interpreted with caution, however, since the results were not seen in all cycles or across all programs. In addition, in the outreach cluster, improvements in initial workshop attendance had little effect on retention, suggesting that programs might want to combine these changes with other efforts to keep fathers attending workshops until the end of the program.
  • When using learning cycles in research, providing intensive training to staff members in participating programs and using longer cycles may improve implementation and learning. In SIRF, staff members in participating programs were not immediately comfortable with the new approaches they were being asked to implement and the information they were being asked to collect to assess what was happening during the cycles. As a result, the first cycle often operated as a de facto pilot period. This suggests using more intensive training than was possible in SIRF or extending the period during which cycles operate to allow staff members to be more comfortable with what they must do.

Document Details

Publication Type
May 2023

Michalopoulos, Charles, Emily Marano, Becca Heilman, Michelle S. Manno, Patrizia Mancini, and Scott Cody. 2023. Using Learning Cycles to Strengthen Fatherhood Programs: Final Report on the Strengthening the Implementation of Responsible Fatherhood Programs (SIRF) Study. OPRE Report 2023-060. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.