Who are Military-Connected Students?
The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (2018) defines military-connected students as “youth with a parent who is a member of the armed forces and is on active duty.” Families on the Home Front (2016) defines a military-connected student as “a child, adolescent, or student with a close family member (parent, step-parent, sibling, step-sibling, cousin) or friend serving in any branch of the United States Armed Forces and any status Active Duty, Reserve, or National Guard.”
As of April 2023, Patricia Montes Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Military Community and Family Policy, stated there were 1,602,261 military children, youth, and teens serving alongside military service members. Children of military members may have one or both parents in the military. They may live on or near a large military base or they may come from geographically isolated commands. Military families move, on average, every two to three years and military children may change schools six to nine times between kindergarten and high school graduation. (U.S. Department of Defense, 2023). There are military connected students in every school district in the United States (Families on the Home Front, 2016).Military families are a diverse population with diverse needs. They come in many forms that include categories familiar to civilian life (two-parent, single-parent, etc.) as well as forms unique to the military (dual-service families in which both parents are service members). The needs of military families, and hence the needs of military-connected students, change over time as they move through personal and military service transitions (Clever & Segal, 2013).
Why Should Military-Connected Students Be Given Special Consideration?
All of us awaken each day to stresses and strains that simply go along with daily life. Developmental and physical changes, peer relationships, family interactions, school transitions are considered normative stressors that occur as part of normal development. Military-connected students may experience even greater concerns, worries, and levels of stress as they consider the effect of military conflict on world events and the impact of their own lives (Sherbert, 2011; Oates, 2002). Frequent moves and relocation, juxtaposition of family structures, and changing schools are typical challenges for these students. But when a student is faced with the deployment of a family member to a war zone or area of military conflict, non-normative stressors occur above and beyond those associated with normal development (Sherbert 2011; Huebner, Mancini, Wilcox, Grass, & Grass, 2007; Huebner & Mancini, 2005).
What is ‘deployment’? The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) defines deployment as “the name given to the movement of an individual or military unit within the United States or to an overseas location to accomplish a task or mission. The mission may be as routine as providing additional training or as dangerous as a war” (p.3). NCTSN describes deployment as having three phases: pre-deployment in which the service member prepares to mobilize, deployment when the service member becomes geographically separated from the family, and post-deployment in which the service member returns home and is reunited with the family. When military-connected students function within the deployment cycle, they often cope with the concept of ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss is defined as a loss that is vague, unclear, and indeterminate (Boss, 2007; Huebner, et al, 2007). When military families are facing deployment, each phase is replete with uncertainty. When the pre-deployment phase begins, even though the family member may be still residing with the family, they may be away from home many more hours each day as special training sessions to prepare for mobilization are required. Even when they are at home, they may be distracted or on edge. Even though they are still present, in one sense they may have already begun to leave. Once the deployment actually occurs, the greatest ambiguity at an emotional level may be evidenced by thoughts of safety and harm. The student knows their family member may be in harm’s way but will not likely know how close to the conflict or danger their loved one is. A military-connected student may or may not have regular contact with their family member and this adds another non-normative stressor to their daily lives. In the post-deployment phase, the family member returns home, and the family is reunited. While this is a time of celebration, a period of readjustment ensues. Military-connected students still may experience ambiguous loss depending on the emotional and physical condition of their loved one. If the military service member is changed in some way, the student may experience yet another sense of loss (Sherbert, 2011; Huebner, et al, 2007).Even when the family of a military-connected student is not currently in some phase of deployment, coping with the uncertainties of military life can be daunting. The impact of the non-normative stressors of the lived experiences of military life can be both positive and negative. Military connected students often develop resiliency and a breadth of life experiences unique to military life. Moving to a new geographic location can be both stressful and exciting. Students may have the opportunity to experience different languages and cultures. However, there are potential logistical challenges associated with moving to a new school. Because of differences in timing and format among school districts across the nation, when they arrive at a new school, military-connected students may find some subject lessons repetitive, or they may miss other content lessons entirely. Delays in transferring school records, sometimes taking weeks or months, may mean that students aren’t placed in their appropriate classes or support services (Clever & Segal, 2013). As these families navigate the challenges of relocation, there are things educators can do to support military-connected students as they acclimate to new situations.
Effective Instructional Strategies to Support Military-Connected Students
There are many instructional strategies educators can employ to support all students that are especially helpful for military-connected students and their families as they navigate transitions and challenges. In the classroom educators should
- Establish routines that are consistent and expectations that are clear. Provide visual schedules to assist students as they navigate through their day. Offer reminders to the whole class rather than singling out students new to the class. Be sure to explain terms, activities, or traditions that are specific to your school or district.
- Look for academic gaps and help students begin to bridge them. Use preassessments and formative assessments to gain insight into students’ content knowledge. Establish mentoring partnerships between students who have previous experience with the material and those who are encountering it for the first time or need a bit of a refresher (Fiechtner, 2020).
- Learning activities that allow students to utilize literacy practices can help students improve their reading and writing skills as they process normative and non-normative stressors associated with their unique circumstances. Literacy practices may include
- Keeping a journal, writing for a few minutes every day. Students may respond to prompts to spark their thinking or may write about whatever comes to mind.
- Engage in art activities. Creating art is a form of literacy. Painting, drawing, sketching, writing song lyrics, or composing music can offer students an opportunity to creatively express feelings about their circumstances.
- Writing poetry or stories offers students a space to process thoughts and examine experiences by putting them on paper or recording them to a digital file (Sherbert, 2011).
Effective Interpersonal Strategies to Support Military-Connected Students
It is significantly important that educators build early relationships with military-connected students who are part of the learning environment. While some students may be eager to share about their lived experiences regarding military life, others may not want to be singled out or identified as military-connected. Helping students feel welcome can begin simply with a one-to-one conversation with each individual. Conversations can begin with a sincere statement that the educator is happy the student has joined the class. Follow up statements or questions could include Please let me know how I can help you get settled in our classroom/school. If there is something you are worried about, please let me know and we can talk through your concerns. Is there anything you’d like to share with the class at this time, or would you like to wait a few days until you feel more settled?
- In focusing on relationships, give new students opportunities to share their unique experiences with you or their classmates. In conversations, take time to learn about where students have been and what experiences they hope to have in this new location. Also give other students a chance to share what is special about this school or about living in this community.
- Consider seating arrangements that allow military-connected students to make new acquaintances without having to initiate encounters with established peer groups (Fiechtner, 2020)
- Offer students materials and space to write cards or letters to a deployed family member. Allowing students materials, time, and space to compose written messages either on paper or digitally can give them time to process their thoughts and decide what they want to communicate with their loved one.
- Create opportunities for students to participate in small group discussions. These moments of connection can benefit all students as they learn to ask questions, listen to peers, and communicate their own ideas.
- Find out if there are support groups within the school setting that might be of interest or help to your students (Sherbert, 2011).
Below is a table of resource links and brief descriptions.
6 Ways Educators Can Support Students of Military Families
Tools educators may already have in place to transform learning for military-connected students
3 Ways to Support Military Kids in the Classroom
Military kids tend to be resilient, but moving around a lot is still tough. These strategies can smooth their transition to a new school.
Advocating for Military Children
A resource guide for educators and community partners, child and youth program
Fast Facts about Military Connected Youth – Professional Development for Teachers and Staff
Definitions, facts, and other resources
Military Child Education Coalition
Digital resources for students, parents, education professionals, and influencers
5 Unique Facts about Military Children and Their Families
Visual and audio descriptions of military children
Military Child Well-Being Toolkit
Resources for supporting the well-being of military-connected (and all) students
Resources compiled by Kansas State University’s College of Education to support military-connected students, including a list of picture books, middle grade and young adult books, and other resources
Educators and schools can support military-connected students and their families through thoughtful communication and consideration of their unique lived experiences. The following video Staying Strong: How Schools Build Resilience in Military Families offers additional strategies and insights for helping the students and families of our military service members.
6 Ways Educators Can Support Students of Military Families. NJ Alternate Route Rutgers University. (2021, November 22). Retrieved April 26, 2023, from https://njalternateroute.rutgers.edu/blog/6-ways-educators-can-support-students-military-families
Boss, P. (2007). Ambiguous loss theory: Challenges for scholars and practitioners. Family Relations. 56, 105-111.
Clever, M., & Segal, D. R. (2013). The demographics of military children and families. The Future of Children, 23(2), 13-39.
Families on the Home Front. (2016, March 4). About. FOTHF. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://familiesonthehomefront.com/fast-facts-about-military-connected-youth-professional-development-for-teachers-and-staff/
Fiechtner, J. C. (2020, March 6). 3 ways to support military kids in the classroom. Edutopia. Retrieved April 26, 2023, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/3-ways-support-military-kids-classroom/
Huebner, A. J.; Mancini, J. A.; Wilcox, R. M.; Grass, S. $. & Grass, G. A. (2007). Parental deployment and youth in military families: Exploring uncertainty and ambiguous loss. Family Relations. 56(2). 112-122.
Huebner, A. J. & Mancini, J. A. (2005). Adjustments among adolescents in military families when a parent is deployed: Final report to the Military Family Research Institute and Department of Defense Quality of Life Office. http://cfs.purdue.edu/mfri (retrieved September 28, 2008).
Month of the military child 2023 – taking care of our military children. U.S. Department of Defense. (n.d.). Retrieved April 26, 2023, from https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3349616/month-of-the-military-child-2023-taking-care-of-our-military-children/#:~:text=%22This%20April%2C%20we%20honor%20the,Military%20Community%20and%20Family%20Policy
National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). (2008). Educators guide to the military child during deployment sponsored by the Educational Opportunities Directorate of the Department of Defense and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Retrieved April 26, 2023, from https://www.heroeswelcome.alabama.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Educator-Guide-to-Deployment.pdf
Oates, M. D. (2002). Meeting the needs of adolescents with a family member recently deployed for military duty. TCA Journal. 30(2), 68-75.
Sherbert, V. (2011). "Well, besides the fact that deployment kinda stinks...”: Adolescent voices in literacy during military deployment [Doctoral Dissertation] Retrieved from K-State Research Exchange http://hdl.handle.net/2097/12455 .
Supporting Military-Connected Students: Secondary Super Strategies. (n.d.). Retrieved April 26, 2023, from https://icsps.illinoisstate.edu/images/pdfs/CTE/Special_Populations_Resources/Super_Strategies/Military_Connected_Students_2nd_Proof.pdf