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Virginia Journal of Education


Struggles on the Home Front

Children in military families can be hit hard by deployments or homecomings. How educators can help.



by Meg Gruber

In nearly 25 years of teaching in Norfolk, the last 13 at Camp Allen Elementary School, Ruth Prattis has dealt with countless students whose parents either ship out for military service or return home after a deployment. Either situation is a potential stressor for both student and teacher, and an issue with which a growing number of Virginia educators are becoming familiar.

“When parents leave,” says Prattis, a member of the Education Association of Norfolk, “particularly right after they leave, you often see changes in children. They may be more sensitive emotionally, cry easily, or act out more frequently. Right before parents are due to return, children can become very excited and even more distracted.”

At Camp Allen, which is right next to a U.S. Marine installation, staff members try to help students and their families in a variety of ways. “Parents may give an individual teacher a heads-up that a father or mother is about to be deployed, or is due to return home, and let us know that we may see a change in a child,” says Prattis. “Just being aware is very helpful.”

The school’s counselor also holds “deployment groups,” which give students a chance to talk about their concerns in an environment outside the classroom. “If they participate in those groups,” says Prattis, “they’re often able to focus better in class.”

In addition, Camp Allen’s principal holds regular “parent-principal chats,” to help parents with a broad range of issues, including the effects of military service on their children. “How well children handle the changes has everything to do with how well the parents handle the changes,” says Prattis.

Most people expect those changes to be difficult when a family member leaves, but the situation can turn out to be equally stressful when a family member returns after a lengthy absence. Homecomings, while greatly anticipated, also bring major readjustments to the life of a child. For example, the eldest child can suddenly be relegated back to a child status from a position of authority after picking up some duties of a deployed parent. Many young people find this loss of status confusing and difficult, as does the returning parent, who is often dealing with his or her own readjustment to civilian life, perhaps with recent psychological and physical trauma.

The good news for educators is that there are resources that can help. The U.S. Army, for example, has been instrumental in recognizing the need to collaborate with public schools to meet the needs of the military child. About 10 years ago, it conducted the Army Secondary Education Transition Study, which led to a series of Army Education Summits. These summits broadened from a focus on high school students to students at all levels, including special needs children.

Sesame Workshop (http://archive.sesameworkshop.org/tlc/) has been developing materials to assist military families, including a program called "Talk, Listen and Connect," which offers videos and pamphlets to help children and their parents with deployments, homecomings and other changes. Sesame Workshop’s newest project is called "Coming Home: Military Families Cope with Change."
 
Here are some other helpful resources:

• The Military Child Education Coalition (www.militarychild.org) offers professional development for educators in the areas of transition, special education, “Living in the New Normal” and supporting children whose parents are in the National Guard and reserves.

• Operation Military Kids (www.operationmilitarykids.org) provides "Ready, Set, Go" training to help educators and others help with the issues that children of armed forces members face.

• The Military Impacted Schools Association (www.militaryimpactedschoolsassociation.org) offers an educator’s guide to deployment issues. Click on the “deployment” tab on the website.

Gruber, a member of the Prince William Education Association and an earth science teacher at Forest Park High School, is the VEA’s Vice President.

 


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