Military families face many of the everyday challenges that civilian families experience. Hectic careers collide with child rearing, family time, rest, recreation, and community involvement. The stress of deployment and frequent moves compound those everyday challenges. Military families’ children can face learning challenges that come from inconsistencies in education standards across states and the complications of dual military family careers. Families can also encounter the strains of recovery from physical injuries, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder due to combat. While all these experiences can bolster children’s resilience and comfort with change, along the way, parents and children need support.
One Family’s Deployment Story
A family friend and his wife were a dual military career family and only fifteen months after they married he was deployed to Iraq. When he left the comfort of home his first son was nearly two months old. During the deployment phase, their young family experienced many of the major stresses of life. They celebrated the birth of a child, mourned the loss of both grandfathers, and purchased of a new home. Then, Hurricane Katrina damaged the new home, and the new mother lost her job. Although they received support from family and friends, it was a difficult time for their family even after my friend’s deployment overseas had ended.
The Impact of Deployment
This family experienced the effects of war that we civilians read about. There were bouts of depression, anxiety, withdrawal symptoms and behavioral concerns. Imagine the emotional strains of helping a child work through violent outbursts taken out on siblings or family pets. Consider daily life with adults dealing with emotional distress. A depressed parent might stop eating or lose interest in communicating, even with his or her children. Consider the toll on family life when parents’ anxieties prevent them from being in crowds, make them fearful of loud noises, and result in nightmares. Coping mechanisms can take many forms. Children may stop expressing their emotions or even talking; parents may lose themselves in video games, hobbies, and other obsessive behaviors.
Many military families have similar stories about the effects of deployment on their families. If these are typical military family stories, then picture the stress a military family may encounter when the children in the family have special needs and abilities. Consider fitting multiple hospital trips into already packed days. Moving schools means learning how to navigate special education services in yet another state. Each move may mean additional evaluations. Some military families contend with the fear of losing rank or a promotion due to their requests for frequent leaves.
Managing Day-to-Day Life
In addition to sharing hardships, other friends have revealed their strategies for managing day-to-day life. Families were eager to describe how they helped their children cope with deployment. Their lists included reading children’s books, video recordings that the deployed parent made before leaving, video recordings of the deployed parent reading bedtime stories, and Skype phone calls. One parent disclosed that her daughter has extreme anxiety when she sees an army uniform. Uniforms are a signal that her mother is leaving for extended periods. To prevent the anxiety, the mother changes clothes when she gets on base. Other mothers talked about just pushing through until the end of a deployment. They rely on their tenacity to manage the family’s stresses and complete their missions at home while waiting for their spouses to return.
Needs of Military Families
The military has some resources available to help with these needs. However, some families do not access available military resources. Instead, they rely on family. Others cite the stigma associated with accessing military support services. Still others worry about being passed over for promotion. As I listen to the stories, I am amazed at each family’s coping strategies, resilience, and strength. Military families need educators to walk beside them on their journeys, connect them with resources, and direct them toward appropriate programs that meet their unique family needs.
Today, lengthy and multiple deployments pose many challenges for U.S. military children, families, educators, and community members (Park, 2011). Out of the 1.2 million school-aged military children, only 86,000 attend Department of Defense military schools (Park, 2011). That means that public schools are educating over a million children of military families. Local schools need information about military families. Teachers and other practitioners who work daily with children need to understand more about the practices that would support the social-emotional, mental health, and academic needs of military children.
Early childhood research is particularly important because approximately half a million military children are under the age of five. This is a critical age for child development. “Failure of the school community and family to identify and help military children cope with emotional needs in the school setting can lead to conflict and risk of poor educational outcomes” (Fitzsimmons & Krause-Parello, 2009). Early educators may need additional professional development in order to be comfortable in supporting families through all phases of deployment. My passion is to research the preparation of early childhood educators to support military families in a culturally responsive and strength based manner.
One Family’s Post-Deployment Needs
Eight years after deployment my friend has two sons and a daughter all under the age of eight. One son is entering second grade, the other started kindergarten this year, and his youngest daughter just learned to walk. As the first month of school begins today my friend’s wife is transitioning into the single parent role because my friend is away for a month long military training. Tonight one son was struggling to finish his homework (2+hours), one son couldn’t stop talking about school, and their baby girl interrupted our call with a cry for Daddy several times. As the cell phone disconnected, I wondered if the teachers knew they were a military family. Had they had training to work with military families? Do the boys’ teachers understand the importance of emotional literacy development and social emotional support? What would my friend’s wife need most in the next month from the boys’ teachers?
Top Ten Insights for Teachers Working with Military Families
10. Have “Great Expectations,” they will strive to meet them.
9. Use their strengths to support them in achieving their fullest potential.
8. Provide some extra encouragement and motivation.
7. Help them understand every child is at a different level and accept who they are no matter the type of disability they may or may not have.
6. Give them multiple activities to express their knowledge other than written assignments.
5. Take time to get to know each child’s unique gifts and needs.
4. Ask a military service member for insights into the military culture.
3. Ask the family about their goals for their children and family.
2. Value and encourage the family’s participation in school activities.
1. View the family with a “strength based” lens and guide them in using those strengths to accomplish great things together.
Why Should We Partner with Military Families?
With every challenge, each military family taps new strengths and generates unique ideas for overcoming those obstacles. Imagine how military families could help educators become more culturally responsive in their work with military children and families. Imagine if we focused on the military families’ strengths to help the family: improve family and child outcomes, build resilience, and achieve their long term goals with a sense of fulfillment (Bennett, Deluca, & Bruns, 1997; Bennett, Lee, & Lueke, 1998; Trivette, Dunst, Boyd, & Hamby, 1996; McWilliam, Toci, & Harbin, 1998; Soodak et al., 2002). Imagine if we knew what educators needed in order to better serve military families. By engaging in conversations with each other we can learn how to better work together. As one military general stated, “This is a matter of national security. Soldiers should not have to worry about the education and mental health of their children while serving on the battlefront.”
Bennett, T., Deluca, D., & Bruns, D. (1997). Putting inclusion into practice: Perspectives of teachers and parents. Exceptional Children, 64(1), 115-131.
Bennett, T., Lee, H., & Lueke, B. (1998). Expectations and concerns: What mothers and fathers say about inclusion. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 33(2), 108-122.
Fitzsimons, V. M., & Krause-Parello, C. A. (2009). Military children: When parents are deployed overseas. The Journal of School Nursing, 25(1), 40-47.
Park, N. (2011). Military children and families: Strengths and challenges during peace and war. American Psychologist, 66(1), 65.
Soodak, L. C., Erwin, E. J., Winton, P., Brotherson, M. J., Turnbull, A. P., Hanson, M. J., & Brault, L. M. (2002). Implementing inclusive early childhood education: A call for professional empowerment. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 22(2), 91-102.
Trivette, C. M., Dunst, C. J., Boyd, K., & Hamby, D. W. (1996). Family-oriented program models, helpgiving practices, and parental control appraisals. Exceptional Children.
Audra Classen, MS.Ed., is a doctoral candidate in the Early Childhood Unified program at the University of Kansas and works as a Graduate Research Assistant on an IES curriculum development project, CSS+, as well as a Graduate Teaching Assistant completing student teacher supervisor for pre-service educators. Audra was a practicing ECSE teacher for years in Kansas working primarily in district early childhood special education classrooms with 3 to 5 year old children. Her interests and expertise lies in supporting young children’s emotional literacy development, developing social emotional curriculum and interventions, teaching practitioners to utilize emotional literacy assessment techniques, and developing culturally responsive services for military families and their young children. She desires to continue to prepare early educators, general educators, and para educators to differentiate and individualize supports for children of all abilities.