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Just Let Her Be

By Dr. Monica Simonsen

Shante was a student in my very first class. She was 15 years old and had a mild intellectual disability. She would sulk into my classroom, sit in the back row, and put her head down. I had been so excited about the welcoming and motivating classroom environment I created, the positive reinforcement behavior system in place, and the fun engaging first day lesson. I had no idea what to do with her. I wanted to establish the expectation that everyone should be ready to learn. I wanted to make sure she demonstrated respect. But, I had no idea what to do. I tried kneeling down and talking quietly to her. She glared at me. I tried demanding that she sit up. She glared at me. I tried praising her peers, threatening to call home, and even bribing her. Nothing. I was in my classroom a few days later when I heard a commotion in the hallway. Another teacher popped her head in to tell me that Shante’s mom was barreling down the hallway. I knew by now that this was a common occurrence and that most of my colleagues thought that she enabled her daughter and bullied teachers. Admittedly, I was a little anxious. She marched in and I jumped up to shake her hand. She seemed startled and shook my hand. I asked her if she wanted to sit down and offered her a bottle of water. Again, she was taken aback but accepted.

By the time we began to talk, she seemed less like the bully my colleagues had described and more like a mom. A mom who was frustrated and tired. I asked her how I could help her daughter feel more comfortable. She said (and I’ll never forget these words)- “Just let her be.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Don’t pay her no mind. All that pressure ain’t helping her.”

How could I do this? Not hold her to the expectations I set for all of my students? Not follow through with my behavior plan? How would she complete her work and how would I document progress towards her IEP goals? Still, it was worth a shot.

Within the first week, I noticed her slowly lifting her head when I said something funny. In two weeks, she began to sit up for entire lessons. Eventually, she moved into her assigned seat and suddenly, she was participating. Shante was in my class for a few years. I was also responsible for coordinating work-based experiences for my students. I knew that this would be difficult for Shante. Her mom wasn’t sure Shante could ever work. However, I had gained her trust and we worked together to think about possible job sites.

I knew it was important to find a place and supervisor who might “let her be.” Her mom remembered that her neighbor worked in a nearby school cafeteria.   We worked together to allow Shante to simply observe in the cafeteria during her shift for a few weeks. Before long, she was pitching in and helping. Shante went on to have a number of successful work experiences and graduated with a paid job. We worked hard to make sure that she had a lot of support transitioning to new settings and had the tools in place to support her.

Nothing else about her story was remarkable- except that it could have had a very different trajectory. Mom had a reputation as being abrasive and meddling. Shante had a reputation as being withdrawn, noncompliant, and was labeled a “behavior problem.” Her mom was just a mother who wanted her kid to feel safe and supported. She knew her daughter better than any of the professionals she had been dealing with for 15 years. Shante’s anxiety about new situations manifested in her shutting down. Perhaps her mother wasn’t able to articulate that to the professionals or perhaps they didn’t listen to her.

As educators, we know that families play an integral role in their child’s education. Research increasingly shows that high levels of parent involvement is correlated with student achievement and that family expectations significantly predict post-school outcomes (Simonsen & Neubert, 2013; Carter, Austin & Trainor, 2012). In Shante’s case, mom knew that Shante needed time and space. She was not only able to provide insight into Shante’s needs, but she also provided a job lead. This mother, who had been considered a bully and an enabler, turned out to be a resourceful partner.

I went on to teach hundreds of other students, many of whom with more significant behavior challenges and/or families that seemed difficult to engage, and the lessons I learned from Shante and her mom stayed with me. I am grateful to have learned early on the importance of building a relationship with my students’ families and for looking at the assets and resources each family brings to the transition planning process.

As educators, we often talk about “involving families” and “raising family expectations” but it is critical that we stop and try to view our students, their children, through their lens first. The same parent who has a reputation for not being involved in her daughter’s life because she doesn’t come to IEP meetings might be the youth group leader at church so that her daughter is included. Maybe she can’t take off of work to attend IEP meetings during the school day. How could you accommodate mom’s schedule to make sure she was involved in the IEP process?

The seemingly litigious father may genuinely be scared that his son will fall through the cracks and afraid that no one is looking out for him at school. How could you communicate your commitment to his son’s success?

As special educators (or special educators-to-be!), we understand the concept of individuality. We write individualized goals, positive behavioral support plans, and student contracts. We know that when a student isn’t making progress, we have to change course, and try another way. I challenge you to look at your relationships with students’ families in much the same way. If something isn’t working- try another way. It might not be as simple as offering the mother a seat and a bottle of water (and, if I’m being honest, my relationship with Shante’s mom was much more complicated than that). But, it’s a start.


Dr. Monica Simonsen is the Program Designer for the Secondary Transition online graduate program at the University of Kansas. Dr. Simonsen’s primary research interests are the role of secondary school programming, transition services and family expectations/engagement on the post-school outcomes of youth with disabilities. A particular area of interest is the role of the transition specialist, including their personal, attributes, characteristics and practices. Dr. Simonsen previously worked as a Senior Research Associate at TransCen, Inc., providing technical assistance and research expertise to a variety of state and national transition projects.

In this capacity, Dr. Simonsen worked closely with communities in Maryland to implement a model of seamless transition and improve the post-school outcomes for youth with disabilities.  This involved conducting needs assessments, using the findings to help the communities develop action plans, and helping to coordinate appropriate technical assistance and training activities.

Prior to joining TransCen, Inc., Dr. Simonsen worked as a secondary special educator and transition specialist in Maryland, coordinated a post-secondary program for 18-21 year olds with intellectual disabilities, and completed her doctorate at the University of Maryland.

Discovering Those Hidden in Our Community

By Matthew J. Ramsey, Ph.D.

The summer before my 8th grade year, I was working for my father on the farm. In fact, I’d worked for my father on the farm every summer, but this summer was different because he was paying me a gargantuan sum of $40 per week. This worked out to around $.50 per hour, but it was something. By something I mean $20 in my savings account and enough to buy a CD with some change.   It was 1989. Ice-Ice-Baby wasn’t even a thing yet.

One Monday evening my father came home from a Knights of Columbus meeting to inform me that in three weeks time I would be volunteering as a counselor at a camp for individuals with disabilities. Insert minor freak out!

I had no issues surrounding people with disabilities, but this was a time before inclusion and my experience was limited. My chief anxieties centered on not knowing anyone else that would be at this week-long camp and that I would miss out on income. Dad offered to pay me for the week. This was great but did little to squash the discomfort in being a 13-year old who was going to be in the position to negotiate a whole new social situation.

Three weeks later I was packed and ready to go. There were only a few minutes of awkward milling around before a meeting began. We learned a bit about each other, which made things more comfortable. Many of the counselors were in the same position as I – volunteered by a parent and not exactly sure what to expect. As the rules and procedures began to unfold we became more comfortable with each other.

Every counselor was paired with a single camper. This one-on-one relationship proved effective. I was placed with a young man who was slightly older than myself. He arrived at about noon on Monday and we got along well. Our week was full of activities: crafts, swimming, hiking, religious observation, talent shows, the list goes on. He functioned at a level equal to my own and needed no assistance with hygiene or other personal tasks. This was a huge relief in my 13-year old mind. His limitations were intellectual, but that did not interfere with out ability to interact with each other and the activities of the week.

The cast of characters was amazing. The camp directors were two women from my hometown. One was a classic grump, swilling Pepsis and smoking Virginia Slims. The other was a caring woman whose stern love for all was evident in her interactions. One of the counselors was confined to a wheel chair. In his day job he taught art at a private school in southeast Kansas. Watching him manage his physical limitation while working with a camper whose needs were challenging was amazing. There was a tiny 9-year old who helped with the art program and commanded the groups like a veteran teacher. The husbands of the directors ran the food service with the help of several campers and they made each meal a delight. The campers flocked to the priests and nuns who came to camp each day to offer Mass and hang out.

Campers ranged from hormone crazed teenage girls to elderly gentlemen who had spent most of their lives in an institution. Regardless of age everyone interacted free from typical boundaries. This was my first experience with institutionalized behavior which was so prevalent four campers cleaned the dining hall floor after every meal because mopping had been part of their routine. A few of the men woke up at 5:30 am as they had done for years. Without an early morning schedule, they took to the squeaky swing-set and catcalled to the sleeping lady campers.

The high point of the week was a dance on Thursday night. A king and queen were crowned and the cast of our unrehearsed production danced the night away with moves sweeter than any professional troupe, at least in our minds.

Friday morning meant packing, a final Mass, and cleaning. Saying goodbye to the campers was hard. The gratefulness of their family and caregivers was something I had not expected. Leaving my fellow counselors was even harder. How close we had become in such a short period of time!

I needed no external motivation to sign up for camp the next year or the year after that; in fact I attended that camp for the next seven summers. I also began helping out in a religious education program sponsored by my local parish. Many members of the class had also attended camp. Previous to my camp experience I did not even know these individuals existed in the church community. Many of them were my age. It turns out that two were so close in age our mothers took the same Lamaze classes. In the coming years I would spend more and more time with these folks and they became very important to me.

During my third summer at camp I met Phillip. Initially he was not assigned to me; in fact I had one of the most desirable campers around. Each night we had a staff meeting. I usually sat in the back half listening to the announcements and concerns from other counselors. On the first night that year, a young woman, about the same age I was during my first summer, was nearly in tears regarding her camper. He was nonverbal, mostly nonresponsive, but strong and active, very active. The directors indicated that his parents were concerned that he might not be a good fit at camp and would understand if he could not remain with us for the full week. The young counselor was relieved, the director resigned to call in the morning. As this conversation drifted towards the back of the room it struck me as somehow unfair.   I stood up and delivered a sermon on our need to do everything in our power to keep Phillip at camp. I explained that his parents might need a break from the 24-hour care he required, that is siblings might need time with their parents, that we should be committed to helping all people, and this might be the only week Phillip was away from those who cared for him everyday. Where this came from is beyond me. Why I volunteered to switch placements is even further beyond me, but Phillip was now mine and would remain mine for several summers.

Phillip and I got along fine. He was the most challenging person I’d ever worked with, but I learned the few signs he knew and engaged with him in the ways we seemed to enjoy. He was 12-years old. His physical stature was small for his age, but he was made of solid muscle. He could climb things like a monkey. We could sign and he had some words, which he uttered in a muffled half cry. By the end of the week he had my name down, if you listened really hard and weren’t particular. Sugar and caffeine were to be avoided. Picking up trash was his favorite activity and we spent hours wandering the grounds so he could clean up. He loved the pool, moved through the water easily, and tried to climb on me whenever I made it to the deep end. He didn’t sleep much so we shared a room away from the other campers.   At the end of the week I was exhausted, he was still super energized. In my exhaustion I was satisfied that we had done something worth doing.

It was later that I learned Philip was from my hometown. It wasn’t long before I received a call asking if I’d be willing to babysit. You see his parents had two other children and because of Philip’s needs they had never attended a baseball game or dance recital together because some had to be home with him. I began scheduling time with him once a week. He then started coming to the religious education class as my experience with him allowed him to benefit from the program. This routine went on until I moved away.

My grandparents lived in his neighborhood and I’d drive by his house often when I was back home. I always wanted to stop, but never quite found the courage to do so. Over twenty years after we first met, I saw him standing in the doorway of the house and had to stop. I was home helping to clean out the house after the death of my grandfather and knew I might not find myself in that neighborhood again. It took his mom a bit to remember who I was, but Phillip knew. He immediately said my name in is own way. My heart melted. I won’t admit that a tear or two welled up in my eye as I walked back to the car. Olivia, my daughter, was along and was terribly confused by the whole interaction. I tried to explain my history with Phillip. She thought he sounded funny.

What Olivia and Phillip’s mom didn’t understand was that Phillip is one of the most influential people in my life. To Olivia he is another person with a disability I know and to his mom I was one caregiver in a lifetime of caregivers. From my perspective Phillip gave me a career. All those years ago when our weekly contact came to a close, I moved on to college and majored in special education. Phillip helped me learn not only what those with disabilities need to be included in our communities, but also what support families need to function. The total of these interactions, which I shared with more people than I can possibly remember, both those with and without disabilities, served to show me that there were people hidden in my community who offered rich interaction and experience. Somewhere along the way these experiences became less of a job and more of…I don’t know…a social life?

I try to convey this knowledge to my students who will teach in both general and special education classrooms, but without a Phillip of their own I wonder if those who are preparing to teach individuals with disabilities will have the perspective they really needs to enter the field. I’m never quite sure I have what it takes to show them what individuals and their families require. Luckily I find that most of them do have a Phillip, maybe a brother or a cousin or even an uncle. Their stories come through as we have more classes together. In the same way Phillip was my teacher, so are my current students. We are all here to learn from one-another, we just have to make sure that everyone has a place in our community.


Matthew J. Ramsey is an Associate Professor of Special Education at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He began working with individuals with disabilities at a young age through the Holy Family Camp in Wichita, Kansas. His professional career includes five years as a teacher of students with severe emotional and behavioral disturbances in psychiatric treatment, two years as a principal in a private, special purpose school, and seven years in his current position. He finished his Ph.D. with the help of a generous OSEP fellowship in the spring of 2013. His research interests include the funding of special education programs and the training and supervision provided to paraprofessionals. He lives with his two children, Henry and Olivia, in Atchison, Kansas.

I’m sorry, I didn’t know

By Laurisa Ballew

Today I headed to the grocery store. I took with me one envelope of grocery money, one non-verbal three-year old, a purse full of snacks, and a cup of milk. I even had a list, which let’s face it, is the icing on the cake.

I quickly checked things off the list and, to my surprise and delight, Emmaus was amazingly well-behaved. No whining, no throwing her snacks or pulling her hair, just happy to be out with mama. As I rounded the produce corner, a well-dressed woman in her mid seventies inquired about Emmaus’s age. I smiled and said, “She is three”.  The woman (in an overly sweet voice) clicked at me and said, “Well, it’s about time to get her out of those diapers then, don’t you think?”

My heart sunk to my feet, and it took everything I could do not to cry. It has been a hard few weeks around our house. The reality of having a child with special needs and the permanency of that reality has hit me like a ton of bricks. Lately, it has taken all my strength to get myself up, care for my children, and not just melt into a puddle of tears all day long.  And so today, for me to wake up, do our September budget, get to the bank, make a grocery list, and get to the store was quite an accomplishment.

I quickly smiled at the woman and replied “Oh, she is developmentally delayed, and has an uncontrolled seizure disorder, so she’s just not there yet.” To which she looked horrified and said “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

See, that’s just it. None of us know.

We all walk around assuming that we know what is happening with other people. We form opinions, and convince ourselves we know best and that our opinions are truth. But, we have no idea what is happening in other people’s lives, what their back story is, or if they have had a bad day.

Yet we judge.

We judge the woman in front of us at the grocery store using Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC) checks she pulls out of her designer purse. We judge the grumpy man at subway who gets huffy with the lady making his sandwich. We judge how people parent, how long they breastfeed, and if they don’t breastfeed. We judge if parents spank or if they don’t. We judge what people feed their kids, or how they restrict their kids. We judge peoples’ homes and attitudes. And yet, we don’t truly know.

Just like the woman who thought she could see the whole picture – a child who looked typical and clearly was old enough to be potty trained, yet was still in a diaper. Did she assume I just hadn’t done it? Or was babying her?
She couldn’t see. She didn’t know.
I couldn’t even be mad because I have been this woman. While I haven’t been bold enough to speak my opinions, I have sure thought them.

The permanency of having a child with special needs has hit me hard. Yet, I am so thankful for the sight it has given me. I am learning to fight my opinions, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and to spread love instead of judgment. I just don’t know what people are up against. I don’t know who is thriving and who is barely surviving. Why not try to love those I encounter? I can speak kindness and give people the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the very best they can.

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Laurisa is a mom living in Kansas City- which she affectionately refers to as “the promised land”. She writes about the incredible joy and deep sorrow that comes with parenting. She is the proud mama to two little girls, Emmaus (3) who has a rare genetic disorder and special needs and Shiloh (1) who eats all the food.

What We Don’t Say: The Danger of Silence

By Maggie Beneke

What was not said? Who was silenced? These are the questions that are lingering in my mind after reading Frederick Erickson’s work (1996). His analysis of classroom discourse has me filtering my experiences as I reflect on the value of being explicit and the actual structure of conversations. I continue to think about how silence provides a dangerous opportunity for individuals to form assumptions.

Yesterday, I spent almost two hours re-hashing a series of comments about gender equity that occurred in a doctoral class with two fellow students. We unpacked how we had each formed assumptions based on what was said. During class, the professor prompted us to share our reactions to an article about how parents explain scientific thinking differently to boys and girls (Crowley, Callanan, Tenenbaum, & Allen, 2001). In this fairly unstructured conversation, our class dialogue ping-ponged from national K-12 test data, to equal pay for men and women, to the number of women doing research in STEM, to the efficacy of the research itself. On top of the statistics and research, this is clearly a topic that evokes a lot of feelings for both women and men in our class; we have all had experiences that shape how we understand gender differences. In the follow-up conversation with my two classmates, it became clear that we each had made sense of the comments and their implications in very different ways. For example, I assumed that when the male classmate stated a data point about academic achievement, he was implying that gender equity has been achieved. And honestly, this felt personal and made me angry. After revisiting the topic and asking more probing questions, I realized he was really trying to point out a flaw in the research article. In the moment of class conversation, I drew conclusions based on an inaccurate judgment. Revisiting the conversation made me aware that I had interpreted and formed assumptions because of what wasn’t said.

When we talk about differences and our multiple “ways of being” (race, religion, family structure, etc.), what is and isn’t said seems especially important. Could structure support us as we engage in discourse? For adults, dialogue about difference conjures powerful feelings, encourages us to associate our personal experiences, and can be quite political. While I am not in a position to criticize the professor’s teaching moves, I do wonder how our conversation about gender equity might have looked differently if we had been given more structure. At Tufts, I was trained as a facilitator through the School Reform Initiative. One goal of this organization is to support educators to engage in focused and productive conversations about issues of educational equity through the use of protocols (2013). These protocols help funnel the exchange of ideas and eliminate the “turn shark” phenomena by providing equitable ways of participating. Although the protocols are designed to facilitate conversations about the dilemmas educators face in schools, I think it could be useful to adapt them for conversations about equity in university classrooms. By organizing “talk” to provide space for multiple voices, they give contributors conversation avenues for being explicit. Perhaps these protocols would provide less opportunity for individuals to be silenced and for assumptions to be formed.

Finally, and perhaps tangentially, I think about what it means to be explicit with children in our remarks about differences. Just as with adults, when we aren’t straightforward with children, we leave space for them to form assumptions about the diversity they see. When adults silence the topic of difference, it can marginalize individuals and groups of people. In my classroom, children were very curious about one of our students. Because of his learning differences, many children were forming assumptions about him, including, “He is a baby.”  I decided to invite the student’s father to speak to the class because I believe that children need explicit language and concrete experiences to make sense of and accept differences. The following vignette illustrates this point:

I sit in the meeting area with my first and second grade class and listen. The father of a child in my class with special rights has just read My Friend Isabelle by Eliza Woloson, as a way to open up a conversation with my class about his son’s learning differences. He explains his son’s exceptionality to the class, “Our son has Down Syndrome. He will learn the same things as you, but it might take him longer and sometimes he needs extra help.” I carefully watch to see how the children in my class interpret and respond to the father’s assertion. A first grade girl, raises her hand and states matter-of-factly, “Well my mom said it’s just because he has an extra chromosome. And also, he is really good at shooting hoops!” I make eye contact with one of my graduate teaching assistants. We both raise our eyebrows and smile. This student’s simple sentence affirmed that all of our hard work mattered.

For both children and adults, it is important to talk about differences. Educators have a powerful role in the ways students engage in talk, shaping both the content and structure of these conversations. The actions educators take to support dialogue about differences is critical, because these conversations involve values and beliefs, influencing how individuals see each other. People are not going to always agree and that can feel uncomfortable in these charged arenas of communication. But when we don’t talk about our different perspectives in explicit, focused ways, we are left with silence. And in that silence, we risk forming inaccurate, and potentially harmful, assumptions.


Crowley, K., Callanan, M. A., Tenenbaum, H. R., & Allen, E. (2001). Parents explain more often to boys than to girls during shared scientific thinking. Psychological Science, 12(3), 258-261.

Erickson, F. (1996). Going for the zone: The social and cognitive ecology of teacher-student interaction in classroom conversations. In D. Hicks (Ed.), Discourse, learning, and schooling (pp. 29-62).  United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

School Reform Initiative. (2013). Guiding Principles. Retrieved from: http://www.schoolreforminitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/guiding_principles.pdf


Maggie Beneke is a second year doctoral student at the University of Kansas studying Special Education under advisor Dr. Gregory Cheatham.  Her research interests include critical literacy, culturally reciprocal family-professional partnerships, social justice curriculum for young children, and peer acceptance in inclusive early childhood settings.  Prior to studying at KU, she worked at Tufts University’s laboratory- demonstration school as a Head Teacher and Graduate Student Supervisor in an inclusive, mixed-age classroom. There, she was trained as a facilitator through School Reform Initiative. In the summer of 2013, she taught and consulted with the Expanding Minds Program in Mumbai, developing culturally responsive curriculum to support critical and creative thinking for young children.

Thinking Differently

My original intent for this blog was to pick up on the recent themes of partnership and coaching. My twist was to discuss partnerships with parents whose children are enrolled in early intervention. I intended to discuss how coaching with parents is an intervention that fits well within the construct of partnership, is situated in family systems theory and more precisely, builds upon the work of our beloved Bronfenbrenner.

And then… as has happened often over the last four years… my major advisor, my mentor… Dr. Ann Turnbull said something that took over my thinking and now I have to write about it before I can write about partnerships with parents.

Dr. Turnbull along with some other colleagues and I recently engaged in a discussion about a video from The Center on the Developing Child from Harvard University titled Building Adult Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes: A theory of Change,http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/multimedia/videos/theory_of_change/. The video discusses toxic stress and defines it as the prolonged activation of stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships resulting in developmental delays and later health problems – for a lifetime. Toxic stress is visually illustrated through sketches of a crane piling up one concrete block after another labelled with family risk factors (e.g., poverty, neglect, mental illness). I had been using the video in training early intervention providers because of the very strong message it contains about building adult capabilities. The intention was to support the intervention of coaching within partnerships with families as a capacity building intervention. What I did not focus on was the impact of the term, toxic stress, and the impact of the visual used in the video, despite its overall message.

The first reaction from my mentor was: “I feel that it is a “pile-up” of negatives against families who often are already negatively perceived by the service system. I also think the term toxic stress is very pathological. I think the drawing engages the viewers. “ And that was it. Purposely short, I am sure intended to make me think. So true to form for me, my first reaction was to…. create an argument which justified my use of the video. My argument was that the word was already widely used. If it is out there, we have a duty to discuss the term and help people understand it so they do not use it as a way to judge families. Being a good mentor Dr. Turnbull let me have my perspective, said some kind words back, and left it there. However, it did not end there. It has been eating at me ever since.

So I began to think and reflect and realize that she was right. Not only was she right but I actually held the same belief but I wasn’t paying enough attention to what I was doing. I was not thinking deeply enough about my actions.

I remembered the first time I heard the term, toxic stress, five years ago and how offended I was, not only personally but also on behalf of all families experiencing challenging circumstances. I grew up in a family that experienced every risk factor that is associated with toxic stress and much of the literature on the subject strikes close to home. My first reaction was to view this term as one more way to categorize and judge families, to judge kids and their abilities, perhaps a reason to not expect success. The term threw me back to sitting with my mom in the welfare office and hearing the surprise in the workers voice when she told my mom she had noticed in the newspaper that I had made the A honor roll. Her shock clearly communicated to both my mother and me that she would not expect this type of child from my family.  Now, here I was, showing videos that use this term, toxic stress, and promoting the concept that had so offended me as a child.

Dr. Turnbull is not the only faculty member who made me assess everything I say and everything I do against the set of beliefs I profess to hold and the theories I profess to subscribe to. Professor Rud Turnbull has an uncanny knack to push doc students to dig deep and know what it means to have their practice match their beliefs about persons who experience disability. He challenges us as students to realize that if we truly believe that every person is worthy, and then it must be apparent in the work we leave behind.

Similarly, Dr. Winnie Dunn’s helped me to know myself, my beliefs, the theories I hold as truths; and then to match my words and actions to these and ultimately to carry these into my research and my writing. Dr. Skirtic introduced ideas of civic professionalism urging us to compare these ideals with the practices of our profession and to align our actions with the ideals we hold dear and then to be willing to become the agent of change. Dr. Wehmeyer challenged each of us to articulate the theories with which we align and to match our actions accordingly as we would be called upon to do so as we moved from our PhD programs into the wider world.

“As a doctoral student, you will learn to think in a very different way than you do now” is a phrase I remember being told as a first year doc student. I remember thinking… we shall see. I have spent my career being what I considered a good thinker, a reflective practitioner, and leader. How would this program teach me to think differently? My professors and advisors have changed my thinking and thus, my actions to make a positive impact on my community. At this point, I know it’s good to be uncomfortable, to reflect and understand if my actions are aligned with my beliefs. When they are, I will truly be of service. I leave this program having internalized these values and skills I learned from this wonderful faculty.

To think differently enough to truly be of service. The trick will be to keep this value and skill a part of who I am once I leave the program and not forget the lessons learned at the hands of the masters.



Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child. (2013). Building Adult

Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes: A Theory of Change. Retrieved from


Peggy Kemp, M.S., is a doctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Department of Special Education and Beach Center on Disability, funded through a U.S. Department of Education OSEP Leadership Grant, Families, and Policy under Dr. Ann Turnbull. Peggy also works as technical assistance specialist for the Part C programs in Kansas through the Kansas Inservice Training System, University of Kansas. Peggy’s areas of specialization are early intervention, infant mental health, families, and policy.

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.

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