Military-Connected Youth in Your School and Community
By Dominique James | June 2020
As the 2017-18 school year began across the U.S., school administrators, counselors and teachers welcomed returning and new smiling faces into their school buildings. Some of these faces are of our nation’s pint-sized heroes: military kids. There are nearly 2 million military-connected children in the United States; 1.2 million are school-aged. Of these, only about 80,000 attend Department of Defense schools on a military installation, meaning that the vast majority of these students attend schools in the communities in which they live. Administrators, school counselors and teachers have the responsibility of welcoming military-connected students in their schools, understanding the unique social/emotional and academic challenges they face, mitigating those challenges, and celebrating their experiences as a military-connected youth. Here are some best practices for districts and schools.
Create a military-connected identifier. To support them, you must first know who they are.
Establish military student clubs or peer support groups. Military kids can move anywhere from every year to every four years, and this can result in a loss of a social safety nets and peer relationships. Connecting these students with other military youth can help to ease their school transition and assist them with establishing new relationships.
Provide academic support. On average, military-connected students attend six to nine schools during their educational career. Imagine the numerous school and classroom routines a military child has had to learn! To make the challenge greater, curriculum standards vary across state and international borders. Remedial or enrichment activities may help support these students’ academic needs. Consider the geography and varied cultural/global awareness your military student may have and allow them to assist or share during history lessons.
Promote school connectedness. Veteran’s Day in November and Month of the Military Child in April are perfect opportunities to celebrate military students and their families. Short school-wide assemblies can be planned for Veteran’s Day. Invite military-connected parents to participate in the ceremony. Consider alternative activities such as creating a display of patriotic themed books in your school library or have students write thank-you letters to local veterans. During April, designate a “Purple Up!” day in which everyone wears purple to celebrate military youth. For career awareness events, include careers in the military and encourage military parents to participate.
Conduct deployment and reintegration small group counseling. Having a parent away on a business trip is common for students. But having that parent gone for months at a time is not. Learn age-specific concerns throughout the deployment cycle. These may include possible increased roles and responsibilities for an older child (and loss of independence during reintegration), changes in discipline, changes in school performance (e.g., the deployed parent helped with homework), increased somatic symptoms (i.e., appetite changes, sleep disturbances), anxiety, unrealistic expectations during reintegration, and reintegration with a wounded service member, to name a few.
Be flexible in school policies, if possible. One of your military-connected students may have been a cheerleading captain, football quarterback, or held a position in the student council, but due to a move during the school year, that student missed the tryout or campaign period at your school. If your school and/or district policy can allow this, consider leaving slots open or creating them as needed for military student. The same holds true for specialty programs at the secondary level.
Connect with local resources. As schools support military students and their families, having points of contact on the nearby military installation(s) is helpful. School liaison officers (SLO) can help parents navigate school concerns. Other resources include the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP), Family Advocacy Program (FAP), Family Readiness Group (FRG), and Child & Youth Services (CYS).
While military-connected youth can face unique challenges, keep in mind that not all military-connected students have been exposed to a school transition or deployment. Be careful not to think that military children have “problems.” They experience many of the same issues that civilian families do; however, their challenges are magnified. Support, assist and celebrate military children in an inclusive rather than exclusive manner. As you support and assist all students this school year, consider how lucky you are to have military-connected students as part of your school community. They can be very emotionally mature, patriotic, and service-oriented individuals who typically have more political and global awareness than their peers. We can support our men and women in uniform by supporting their little heroes at home – after all, military kids serve, too.
Dominique James, Ed.D., is a published children's book author, military spouse, educator and advocate for military students. She is owner of Dandelion Kids LLC whose mission is to support military students as they bloom where planted. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.