The Military Child in Your Classroom
April is the Month of the Military Child, which gives the Nation the opportunity to recognize the character, strength, and sacrifices of America's military children, as well as the role they play in the armed forces community. There are currently 1.7 million children and youth under age 18 who have a parent serving in the military and approximately 900,000 who have had one or both parents deployed multiple times.
Military children face many unique challenges compared to their nonmilitary peers, such as adjusting to the absence of the deployed parent, moving and changing schools frequently, and coping with parental injury or death as a result of combat. Nothing disrupts a child’s base of security as much as having a parent deployed overseas and, especially, to a war zone. As a result, the military child deals with additional stressors such as changes in the family dynamic at home and interrupted relationships formed in school and in their neighborhoods as a result of moving. These stressors can negatively affect the child’s behavioral and emotional health, academic performance, and relationships at home and in school—all of which can lead to risky behaviors now and later in life.
A generation of research has identified the highly supportive role schools can play in moderating the impact of parental deployment on academic, social, and health behavior outcomes in youth. Schools and educators can foster a healthy and supportive environment by providing stability and a normal routine for the military child who may be faced with the additional stresses of parental deployment. The familiarity and consistency of the classroom provides a support structure for the military child who may be faced with issues related to emotional well-being and disruption of individual behavior and coping skills.
Helping the Military Child Cope
As an educator, you play a significant role in providing the necessary support for your students. You can provide a positive environment for your students by taking any of the following steps that are adapted from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN):
- Provide frequent praise: Offering frequent positive reinforcement helps students build self-confidence, feel connected, and engage both academically and emotionally.
- Continue normal school routines: Keeping a sense of normality is critical for military children. Since they may be dealing with transitions at home, they will benefit from having consistency at school with class schedules and routine.
- Be aware of possible trauma reminders: Being aware of important dates of parental deployment and even death is very important. These dates may interfere with the child’s ability to think, act, and behave. Keeping in frequent communication with the at-home parent will help you better understand the child’s behavior and help you keep track of upcoming dates.
- Look for changes in behavior: Monitoring the child’s behavior frequently is critical. Look for changes in school performance, relationships with peers and/or staff, and withdrawal. If you notice any of these changes, contact the child’s parent immediately.
- Talk often with the child: Talking with your student and listening openly to his or her concerns and worries about the absent parent can help provide the necessary comfort when it’s needed most. Help the child understand that some amounts of stress are normal, given the circumstances surrounding the deployed parent. You must help the child understand that it is okay to feel sad, anxious, and scared.
Remember: It is crucial to keep in frequent communication with the child’s parent or family about changes in behavior or academic performance. The parent also can keep you aware of any challenges in the home environment that can help you better monitor and provide support for the child.
Classroom activities can provide an outlet for students to engage with others and express themselves. Students can build self-confidence by participating in classroom exercises and receiving positive reinforcement from teachers and peers. The following activity is provided as an example of ways to engage your students.
Purpose: To help children use tools of communication to express themselves and engage with their peers.
- Pens, pencils
- Markers, crayons
- Handouts (enough for each student): Me, My Family, Where I Live
- Letter-writing resources:
- Gather students in a circle. Ask “Do you know someone who lives far away? How do you stay in touch with them?” (Answers will vary but may include phone calls, emails, computer, letters, cards, photos, packages.)
- Ask “Do you or your family know someone who is a soldier? Do you know where they are? What do soldiers do?” (Answers will vary but may include fight, fly planes, go far away.)
- Ask the children who have some connection to a soldier to share with the group how that soldier’s family stays in touch. You may need to use a prompt, such as, “How do they know what the soldier is doing?” (Answers will vary but may include phone calls, emails, computer, letters, photos.)
- Then, tell the students you will help them talk with soldiers using words and pictures. Distribute art supplies and the first handout: Me. Have them draw themselves and different items that tell something about them: a teddy bear, a book, a baseball. Then, have them dictate a sentence or two to describe themselves. Or, help older students write their own picture captions.
- Continue in this way with My Family and Where I Live.
- Use the addresses provided in the letter-writing resources to send the letters to soldiers. Another way to involve military students is to have the class send their letters and drawings to the deployed parent (you can obtain the address from the child’s at-home parent). This will help build self-esteem for the military students and allow them to show their appreciation for their deployed parent.
Going Further for Older Students
You can use the letter-writing activity with older students as well. In addition, literature is a wonderful way to help children understand complex and emotional topics. Here’s a good start for children’s books related to military deployment for children aged 4–8.
McElroy, L. T. (2005). Love, Lizzie: Letters to a Military Mom (D. Paterson, Illus.). Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman.
Bunting, E. (2005). My Red Balloon (K. Life, Illus.). Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
Ehrmantraut, B. (2005). Night Catch (V. Wehrman, Illus.). Lansing, MI: Bubble Gum Press.
Tomp, S. W. (2005). Red, White, and Blue Good-bye (A. Barrow, Illus.). New York: Walker Books.
Pelton, M. L. (2004). When Dad’s at Sea (R.G. Steele, Illus.). Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman.
From the National Association for the Education of Young Children: Literature to Help Children Cope with Family Stressors
About the Government-Designated Month of the Military Child
- The White House Blog, Month of the Military Child (includes video): First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden discuss the role the military child plays in the armed forces community.
- Month of the Military Child, from the U.S. Department of Defense, offers links to resources and programs for military families.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- “Helping Children of Military Families” offers links to agency suggested resources to aid parents, educators, and other caregivers in helping children cope during a parent’s deployment.
Mental Health America
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
- Deployment, Homecomings, Changes, Grief, from the Sesame Workshop, offers suggestions for what to do to help children before and during a parent’s deployment and what to expect when that parent returns home.
- Defining Trauma and Child Traumatic Stress, from NCTSN, describes situations and events that cause severe stress in children.
- Traumatic Grief in Military Children, from NCTSN, provides information for educators to help their students deal with grief and trauma associated with parental deployment.
- Military Children and Families, from NCTSN, provides several online resources for families needing ideas or guidance on issues involving children.
- Military Child Initiative, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships, aims to assist public schools in improving the quality of education for highly mobile and vulnerable young people. It has a special focus on military children and their families.