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Partnering with Military Families

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.

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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.

Context Matters

I was recently asked to comment on special education and disability research in the 21st century for a presentation for KUPD, the student special education association at KU, and I’ve elaborated on those comments in this blog.  In thinking through the key issues that those of us interested in special education and disability (researchers, professionals, policy makers, families, and individuals with disabilities) must consider as we continue to move further and further into the 21st century, the idea that “context matters” keeps rattling around in my head.

Context is a complicated concept because it is so all encompassing.  In fact, our recent definition essentially says it is everything that impacts an individual’s life and functioning (Shogren, Luckasson, & Schalock, 2013).  Context includes our personal characteristics (for me, having brown hair, being short, and having a disability, amongst others) and the environments we live, learn, work, and play within (that is, the people in my life, the communities I affiliate with, the educational opportunities I’ve had and continue to have), as well as the interactions between my personal characteristics and environmental experiences and my reactions to these interactions.  For example, for a long period of during my undergraduate education I was highly anxious in any class because of an early negative and very public reaction of a professor to my need for accommodations related to note and test-taking.

Obviously, then, context is highly personal.  But, it impacts the work that any of us are doing at the individual, community, or societal level to impact outcomes for students with disabilities. The anxiety I brought into my undergraduate classes influenced the way that I accessed the information and the degree to which I was successful in my courses, despite most of my professors having no understanding of this, unless they somehow became aware of these contextual factors.  The professor, whose public comments impacted me so significantly, was also  shaped by his context and experiences that impacted his beliefs about disability-related accommodations in his classes.  Context matters on both sides of the table.

But, a valid question is, “so what?” Of course the factors that shape our life and functioning matter.  This is common sense, and something that most people would probably agree with at face value.  The real question is, “What do we do about this?” and perhaps more importantly, “If we try to do something about this, does it have a potential for making an impact?”  Obviously, I would argue “yes,” is has the potential to make an impact if we are systematic and diligent in working to understand the specific ways in which context matters and how we can better assess and use information about context in the design, development, and implementation of supports for individuals with disabilities across the life-span, something I think will, and needs, to characterize 21st century research and practice.

As researchers and as practitioners, I believe, if we are self-reflective, we will acknowledge that we have failed to fully consider contextual factors in much of our work.  We may explore a limited number of factors in a given research design (e.g., the impact of gender or disability label on outcomes), but not the additional interactive effects of teacher or administrator attitudes or peer relationships on a student’s success in the classroom. As practitioners, we struggle to find the time, resources or energy to think beyond our classrooms and to understand broader contextual factors.  Frameworks have existed for decades, however, such as Brofenbrenner’s ecological theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 2005), for organizing the diverse systems that have the potential to influence functioning.  But, we have struggled to implement these frameworks in our work, perhaps because of the added complexity, but perhaps also because there has never been a systematic process to try to figure out how to determine the individual or environmental factors that matter, particularly when what matters may be specific to each individual.  And, practices, such as person-centered planning that do attempt to develop a comprehensive, strengths-based perspective of the individual and their vision for the future work very well in some cases, but not in others, perhaps because of contextual factors that shape the success of the process, including structural factors such as a lack of resources or supports for teachers or families to implement these processes.  However, person-centered planning has also not been characterized by a clear process for identifying specific contextual factors that might influence the visioning process or the planning and implementation of needed supports.

For me, I think moving beyond simple acceptance of the fact that context matters, and seeking ways to develop a greater understanding of the how’s and why’s of contextual influences, is a key direction for 21st century research and practice.  This must start with a clear definition of context, which has not been, until recently, available in the field of disability and special education.   Next, we have to ask ourselves, what elements of context likely matter most in the specific work that we do?  Then, we need to explore how we can define, assess, and account for these factors in research, policy, and practice. Only then can we begin to use this knowledge to design truly person-centered, individualized supports and services that have the potential to lead to the valued outcomes of disability policy.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (Ed.). (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Shogren, K. A., Luckasson, R., & Schalock, R. L. (2013). The definition of context and its application in the field of intellectual disability. Manuscript submitted for publication.


Karrie A. Shogren, Ph.D. has been on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and will be joining the faculty at the University of Kansas in the Fall of 2014.  She received her Ph.D. in special education from the University of Kansas in 2006, and undergraduate and master’s degrees from The Ohio State University and the University of Dayton, respectively, in psychology.  Dr. Shogren’s research focuses on self-determination and systems of support for students with disabilities and she has a specific interest in the multiple, nested contextual factors that impact student outcomes. Dr.Shogren has published over 50 articles in peer-reviewed journals, is the author or co-author of 5 books, and is one of the co-authors of Intellectual Disability: Definition, Classification, and Systems of Support, the 11th Edition of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ seminal definition of intellectual disability (formerly mental retardation). Dr. Shogren has received grant funding from several sources, including the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).  Dr. Shogren was recently appointed co-Editor of Inclusion (with Michael L. Wehmeyer, Ph.D.), a new e-journal published by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and is an Associate Editor for Remedial and Special Education and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

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