The study in University of Illinois explores the role of parent involvement on student achievement.
"If we want fathers to be involved in school, we need to focus on men building close, loving relationships with their children in the preschool years. When fathers do this, they're writing a script that says they're involved in their child's life, and their expectation is that they'll go on being involved in that child's life," said Brent McBride, a professor of Human Development.
He focused on affection as an example of early parent involvement.
"That can be as simple as a father winking at his three-year-old child. If you, as a dad, develop an affectionate way of interacting with your preschooler, later when your child comes home and tells you what he's done in school that day, the warm, close relationship you've built will allow him to approach you with trust, and it will allow you to respond to your child's enthusiasm or frustration in a positive way," he said.
He added: "If fathers wait to seek a closer relationship with their child until later in the child's life, the moment has passed."
The study was conducted on 390 children and their families from the Child Development Supplement data set of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics.
When the children were two to five years old, the researchers measured five early parenting behaviors in both parents.
The behavioral characteristics were-parent-child household-centered activities, parent-child child-centered activities (for example, reading to kids), parental limit setting, responsibility (such as making doctor's appointments), and demonstrating affection.
Later, they assessed mothers' and fathers' involvement in school and the children's student achievement.
The study showed that the paths are different for mothers and fathers, and it is believed that parents and teachers should acknowledge that and build on these differences.
For example, although mothers' involvement in school-related activities was positively associated with student achievement, fathers' involvement in such activities had a negative correlation with academic success.
"But this occurs because fathers who have established a pattern of being involved early in a child's life are more likely to step in at school (for example, in formal conferences and interaction with teachers) when their child is struggling in the school setting," he said.
However, he explained that parental roles are not scripted for men as they are for women, and expectations aren't as clear-cut, saying: "As long as a father is providing for his children, he's usually considered a good father."
"And, although we're trying to encourage fathers to become more engaged in parenting than they have been, I don't believe the institutional mechanisms are in place to help that engagement along. Child-care providers and teachers aren't trained to approach fathers to help them become more involved as parents," he said.
He believes the best way to make these changes is to work with child-care providers and educators, so that they broaden their definition of parent to mean more than mothers.