Marine Corps Base Quantico, VA --
As students returned to school after a long summer break, there is a student population, kindergarten through 12th grade, that may be coping with issues educators aren’t completely equipped to handle.
While most children can find it difficult starting a new school year, it can be tougher for students in military families, as they often manage multiple issues including frequent moves, a parent’s deployment, and combat-related injuries. In some cases these military children may even face the loss of their parent.
In 2015 the Department of Defense (DoD) estimated there were more than 1.7 million military kids worldwide with 70 percent of those children attending public schools.
Also, within this percentage, the data found that the average military child had moved at least six to nine times between kindergarten and high school—three times the average of non-military families.
According to Dr. Kelly Blasko, psychologist and Military Kids Connect (MKC) representative, this lack of stability in military families causes concern among educators and only increases when issues such as deployment and combat injury are factored in.
To support military kids Blasko has helped build an online community for military children ages 6–17 years old that provides access to age-appropriate resources to support children dealing with the unique psychological challenges of military life.
MKC offers informative activities, fun games, helpful videos and an online community which can build and reinforce understanding, resilience and coping skills in military children and their peers.
The need for understanding has increased since 9/11, when deployments among active duty and reserve troops increased and with it the number of children who had a parent deployed. It is estimated that 2 million children have had a parent or caregiver deployed with a little less than half of them deploying multiple times.
“It could also be found middle through high school age students have only known war and often won’t remember a time when their parent was at home more than they were deployed,” Blasko said. “Deployment has always been a way of life for many service members and their families, but service-wide combat deployments into war zones have added a whole new level of stress for current generations of students.”
According to Blasko, educators often attest to finding out about a deployment after they contact the parent about a student’s academic or behavioral issues at school. Most parents choose not to inform the school about deployments for a variety of reasons, mostly due to the personal nature of the information.
However, Blasko believes the more military-friendly a school environment is perceived, the more likely a parent will feel comfortable disclosing crucial information.
Aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Keely Ricks and Christopher Lamb, Marine Corps Base Quantico education liaisons, help Marine and Navy families through their change in duty station by finding schools in which their children can academically and socially thrive.
According to Ricks, who oversees Prince William and Stafford County Schools, a child will be at less risk if the child can effectively get engaged with their school and community.
Ricks found children who do not participate in social activities within their first month of school become more susceptible to failing grades, social deficiency and increased risk of depression.
However, one way Ricks believes administrators can help these children integrate into the system is by becoming familiar with the military culture and lifestyle.
The online kids’ connection program offers educators information, providing free video training, printable lesson plans and information surrounding vernacular and service structure to help teachers understand what it takes to support military children at home and school.
It is also recommended educators in schools located close to military bases take advantage of some of the highly beneficial in-service trainings on military installations that offer courses.
Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) has an Educational Partnership Program which provides information for educators working with military children in public schools. The DoDEA website (www.dodea.edu/partnership/) even offers inexpensive continuing education credits for teachers and administrators seeking specializations to add on to their university degrees.
“It is important to note that deployment is a way of life for some families because the whole family is impacted when their service member goes off to war,” Blasko said. “Everyone worries about their military parent during deployment and for some kids the thought of the unthinkable or the reality of the unthinkable—combat injury or death—can lead to many problems surrounding a child’s education and social growth.”
Blasko said some students cope well with deployments as most military children are resilient and have been exposed to different cultures and lifestyles and often have more tolerant attitudes toward individuals outside the military lifestyle. These children are very aware of military command being involved in their family’s life and are accustomed to routines and schedules and often have a strong sense of teamwork.
“Across all the branches, common ideals and values are taught, trained and reinforced to service members. Many of these beliefs are found in military families and kids — ideals such as loyalty, integrity, honor, duty and service,” Blasko said.
But some children, if not many, still struggle with the changes a deploymentrequires and then coping with the potential that this may be the last time they see or a hug a loved one on the day they are deployed.
“The death of a loved one is the toughest of life’s challenges,” Blasko said. “When students go through long periods of deployments the students’ ability to regulate or handle their emotions may fluctuate. They may get moody, irritable, lash out or withdraw. They may be easily frustrated and show emotional meltdowns to minor incidents that they easily handled previously.”
Younger students in particular may act out and often complain of being ill and having trouble concentrating in school. For educators it is important to be mindful that any age student may not be sleeping or eating well and may have low energy levels because they are coping with factors of stress.
School- aged children will acutely feel the loss of their parent’s absence. They will be aware of the special occasions and milestones their caregiver is missing and may react with sadness, anger and resentment.
However, many teens will often have adult-like reactions to the news of deployment, especially for those who are asked to take on more responsibility at home. For some teens this has been normal their entire life, but the added factor of deployment increases the weight of responsibility.
Where teenage students often readily agree to step up and take on a variety of new responsibilities during the deployment, oftentimes their grades fluctuate as the teen adjusts to these additional responsibilities and new routines.
According to Blasko, it is not uncommon for teens to mask this struggle of pressure, sadness, sense of loss or resentment with a nonchalant attitude or withdrawal from school and family activities. In some cases teens become more argumentative and disengaged.
“Many teenagers become increasingly independent and self-confident, excelling in the additional roles and duties given to them due to their parent’s absence,” Blasko said. “In some circumstances teenagers often feel protective of their at-home caregiver and will not be comfortable sharing their own worries or concerns at home. As in response to any stress, expect students to regress. They will retreat back into old behaviors that you thought they had long outgrown.”
Blasko believes one of the most helpful features MKC offers is the Tough Topics and online forums in which military children are able to post what they are going through and watch videos of children who have been through the same thing.
But, one of the most important things for educators to realize is building a meaningful relationship with military students takes patience.
According to Blasko, educators may find the MKC Typical Student Behaviors section helpful in understanding children’s common emotional and behavioral reactions to the phases of deployment.
On the MKC website the phases are broken down into pre-deployment, deployment and post-deployment.
“Deployment does not stop when the parent comes home” Ricks said. “As service members try and find normality at home, so do the children and just because a parent is home does not mean that everything will go back to normal.”
According to Blasko children will be stressed with the changes that the returning parent will bring with them. In some cases these challenges come with Post Traumatic Stress, Mild Traumatic Brain Injury and loss of mobility.
“Integrating a parent back into the family routine has been cited as one of the toughest challenges for children to cope with when it comes to a parent’s deployment,” Blasko said. “Students may once again be asked to take on additional responsibilities or a new lifestyle to accommodate their parent coming back.”
Where younger children will be excited their parent is returning it may also be possible they might not recognize the parent dependent on the age. These children can also become easily confused by the changing dynamic at home and may act out at school in pursuit of extra attention.
Whereas teenagers will be very aware of changes in the returning parent—emotionally and physically—they will worry about the impact those changes will have on the life of the family as a whole.
It is also possible for teenage students to act indifferent to their parent’s return in an attempt not to get attached to their parent out of fear or reluctance of another deployment. Some teenagers may be reluctant to give up the normality that was established while their parent was away such as freedoms and additional responsibilities.
But, for most teenagers they worry about not meeting expectations of the returning parent such as holding the family together or obtaining good grades.
As a brand new school year has started and military kids enter the busy hallways trying to navigate where their classrooms are or who they will sit next to at lunch, their lives may be moving in slow motion trying to keep up with the world around them.