The research initiative, Brain Scientist Dad (BSD) program, was awarded a $500,000 grant from Episcopal Health Foundation (EHF) to assess a father’s role in the early childhood development of the brain. Co-director for the program, Melissa Valerio, PhD, associate professor in Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health will lead the effort in partnership with the University of Texas Health Science Center Tyler, and the NET Health District, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program which will help address health disparities in children up to three years old.
This program was designed in partnership with a community advisory board to address gaps previously identified by the partners in father engagement, and to improve understanding of a father’s role in early brain development of their children. BSD intends to obtain an increased knowledge of brain health development in these critical early years by serving 125 males between the ages of 18-35 years of age, who are residents of Tyler, Texas currently expecting or have a child under 3 years of age.
“The engagement and participation of dads is critical. We will continue to develop strategies to engage them in the BSD program to not only improve the development of their children, but improve their involvement as a parent,” said Valerio, who also serves as the associate dean of faculty affairs, development and diversity at UTHealth School of Public Health. “At the organization level we will promote engagement of dads in prenatal and early childhood care,” she said.
The BSD will increase fathers’ understanding of and engagement in prenatal to 0-3 years development, as well as the capacity of community organizations to integrate fathers in early childhood practices, promoting optimization of infant brain development and health.
Over a 24-month term, the program will collaborate with the University of Texas Health Science Center Tyler, and The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (commonly referred to as WIC), by developing outreach techniques through church congregations, barbershops, and community serving organizations. The BSD will increase awareness of brain health development in the community to better support dads in their roles. Continuing education for health care providers, social workers, and community health workers will also be offered to ensure support for Dad’s at community clinics.
Using a community-academic approach working with the local Father Advisory Council, dads in the community will be able to serve as peers and engage others in the diffusion of brain health development strategies. “Given our partnership with the Community Advisory Board we are able to reach and use specific strategies that are most appropriate for the community,” said Valerio.
Valerio and partners hope to coordinate, disseminate and evaluate the BSD reach, appropriateness, and ongoing engagement to assess changes in fathers and children for a six-month period.
EHF has committed $5.8 million in grant dollars to support community-based organizations across Texas that are helping parents and caregivers boost healthy brain development for the youngest Texans. EHF’s investment is based on brain science showing that a child’s first three years offer a once-in-a-lifetime chance to not only build a strong brain but decrease the chance of developing serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression later in life.