According to Military Officer magazine, there are 2 million children in military families in the United States. Studies conducted by the National Military Family Association, and various articles, have illuminated the many challenges that students from military households encounter as well as the exceptional strengths and methods of coping that these children possess. Complex transitions associated with the military life include parental military deployment, parental combat injury or death, combat-exposed health problems and trauma, and parental reintegration into civilian life following deployment.
As military personnel return from tours of duty, school counselors must be prepared to thoughtfully and effectively address the needs of students of military families. By nature of their position, school counselors are often the first to assess the problems that arise for these students and thus are on the front line to intervene and alleviate difficult circumstances. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief overview of some of the issues and concerns specific to students from military families, to discuss how school counselors can identify both the important risk factors and the unique protective factors these students bring with them to school every day, and to detail how school counselors can provide the necessary supports and interventions to address these concerns.
Separation from a parent is stressful for any child. Children from every branch of the military face the potential of being separated from a parent who is deployed either on routine training or to a combat zone. Either type of deployment can mean that the parent must leave for an extended period of time — anywhere from six months to two years.
Both the child and his or her nondeployed family members experience several stages of deployment, including pre-deployment, deployment, sustainment, pre-reunion and post-deployment. Each family copes differently with each stage. The pre-deployment stage is typified by the family preparing for the departure of the deployed parent. Tension resulting from the rupture of the order and security of the family dynamic is common, as are feelings of shock, disbelief, fear, anger, resentment and anticipation of loss. Families may also strive for a sense of closeness prior to the deployment and might spend time getting certain affairs such as finances and child care in order to sustain the functioning of the home.
The deployment stage occurs once the military parent has left. The remaining family members may experience a drop in support, struggle with new roles and responsibilities, and deal with feelings of loss, abandonment and disorientation.
The sustainment stage lasts from the first month of deployment to the end of the military parent’s time away. By this time, the family has established a new sense of “normal” and identified new sources of support and a sense of control and independence in its daily functioning. This sense of confidence and calm can change upon receiving notification of the military parent’s imminent return.
In the pre-reunion stage, families normally experience anticipation, high expectations and feelings of excitement, worry and fear. They may also experience a burst of energy as they consider preparing the home for the family member’s return.
After the parent returns home, the post-deployment stage lasts anywhere from three to six months. This stage is typified by the family’s struggle to reintegrate the returning family member and to renegotiate roles and responsibilities. This renegotiation might include conflict and realization of the existence of deeper issues to be processed, such as the family’s experiences of the parent’s deployment. Feelings of euphoria, excitement and uncertainty are common. Depending on how long the parent has been gone, it is relatively common for young children not to recognize the returning parent or to distrust the parent for a time. Elementary students may be slow to warm up to the returning family member, express guilt and fear about the separation, or demand extra attention. Adolescents are more likely to express their displeasure through moodiness and the appearance of indifference toward the parent’s return.
Deployment in combat zones
Students whose parents are deployed to active combat zones often fear for the safety of the parent, in addition to dealing with the loss associated with the prolonged separation. Initially, students at the elementary level experience feelings of sadness and depression after the parent’s deployment as well as a major disruption to the family’s daily routine. Middle and high school students process a parental deployment at a higher level of cognition. Because school counselors are licensed professionals specifically trained in the development of children and adolescents, it is essential that they monitor students for emotional and behavioral reactions throughout the different stages of deployment.
Stephen Cozza and Alicia Lieberman have identified some common reactions among students whose parents are deployed to a combat zone. These include:
- Acute responses to separation from the parent
- Fear for the parent’s safety
- Fear for their own personal safety while the parent is deployed
- Feelings of anxiety, depression, loss of control or isolation
- Outbursts of anger
- Short temper
- Difficulty concentrating and with learning in the classroom
- Decline in academic performance
- Rise in health-related issues
- Loss of interest in peers
- Increased absenteeism
- Violent drawings or writings in personal journals, on school binders and in notebooks
Using an ecological model to understand and support students
Students of military families face unique circumstances that may challenge their academic, personal/social and career development. A risk and resilience framework can provide a valuable tool for conceptualizing these multiple ecological factors, helping school counselors to assess key risk factors at the micro, mezzo and macro levels that can interfere with the development of resilience.
This framework can also be a resource for strengthening the ability of students to adapt effectively to multiple challenges. In addition, the framework identifies specific intervention goals that school counselors can implement at each ecological level. The overarching goal is to actually help students thrive by expanding their adaptive resources, thus leading to increased levels of personal resiliency.
The micro level encompasses the student’s individual characteristics and behaviors and the environmental characteristics of the family. Hence, a micro-level assessment identifies intrapersonal risk and resilience factors withinthe student and contextual factors within his or her home.
Student factors: With individual students, academic and disciplinary problems may serve as early signs that the student is adapting poorly to the deployment of a parent or caregiver. Symptoms of depression/anxiety and physical neglect may also manifest themselves. Other negative coping methods might include the use of drugs or alcohol or promiscuous behavior.
School counselors are in a position to make a difference for these students and can creatively design interventions that help build self-esteem, internal locus of control, sense of purpose and a positive view of the student’s personal future.
Specific interventions school counselors can use at the elementary level include:
- Play therapy methods
- Art and drawing activities for expression of emotions
- Personal journaling
- Age-appropriate anger management techniques
- Participation in music, exercise, sports or other extracurricular activities
- Breathing and muscle relaxation exercises
Individual counseling interventions for middle and high school students include:
- Discussing real-life stories of resilience and adversity, as well as individualized coping strategies and self-care
Encouraging relaxation through listening to music and regular exercise
- Encouraging students to set and achieve short-range goals for moving forward
- Promoting the use of poetry and story writing
- Encouraging volunteerism in community or religious institutions
- Limiting the time spent on news media outlets
Family factors:Young families or families experiencing their first deployment may be at particular risk. However, multiple or lengthy deployments present considerable challenges for even the most established families. Families without healthy coping skills to handle high stress levels in the home may experience increased risks for spousal abuse by either partner as well as parental drug and alcohol abuse. Additional risk factors include:
- The deployed parent experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression
- The nondeployed parent experiencing distress or pathology
- Poor attachment levels
- Harsh or inconsistent parental discipline
- Marital conflict and difficulty
- Parental separation or divorce
With the help of protective factors, healthy families are able to maintain safety and stability within the home throughout the stages of deployment. These protective factors include
- The maintenance of a consistent structure and routine within the family
- Parenting practices that include secure attachment and authoritative parenting styles
- Regular communication between spouses or partners
- Flexible gender roles and responsibilities within the family
- Free medical care and legal assistance
If the problems students face originate primarily from the family’s inability to cope effectively with the stressors of deployment, school counselors can design interventions to improve the family’s adaptability and support system.
The most important intervention is the strength of the school counselor’s partnership with the family and working with the student’s family members as a team. School counselors can be a tremendous asset to families by helping with communication between the family and the deployed member through student art and written work; helping parents talk to their children about changes in roles, duties and responsibilities; and helping parents renegotiate routines, limit setting and discipline. Additional interventions include assisting families in learning positive coping and stress management skills; making families aware of military support organizations; identifying or providing support groups for the non-deployed parent or caregiver; and, when necessary, helping the family to make arrangements for professional counseling.
School counselors can also be a vital source of information to the family regarding academic issues such as credits and graduation requirements, testing requirements, academic placement appropriate to abilities, schedules, extracurricular activities, college and career decision-making, and guidance concerning study skills. This type of information is particularly important for families that have recently relocated.
Small-group interventions:According to various studies, small group interventions that encompass a psychoeducational and wellness-based framework are the most effective intervention for K-12 students. A small group setting offers a safe environment for students experiencing similar military lifestyle transitions and parental wartime deployments. Small groups comprising six to eight members allow students to express emotions ranging from anger, anxiety, sadness and loneliness to pride and resilience.
Small groups may be particularly important for sons from military families, who traditionally pride themselves on remaining emotionally strong as “head of the family” while the military parent is deployed. Students have opportunities to express both positive and negative aspects of military life in a group setting, while learning about the different demographic regions and cultures of each service branch that the deployed parents serve. Small counseling groups are highly therapeutic in nature and teach life skills that students will use over the course of a lifetime.
This level includes factors in the student’s immediate social environment, including school and community factors, which interact with each other and with other levels to influence the student’s ability to adapt effectively. At this level, the school counselor assesses primarily the factors within the school and community environments that either inhibit or aid the student in being resilient.
School factors:The bonds students have with their school can provide a sense of structure and routine when everything else feels out of control to them. A primary risk factor to address is the student’s sense of safety at school. Like any other student group, students from military families can become targets for bullies, particularly if other students have anti-military or anti-war feelings. Counselors should work with teachers, administrators and school staff to ensure that everyone considers bullying a top-priority, no-tolerance issue.
Another important factor to assess is the school’s collective understanding and knowledge of military service, combat, relocation and deployment-related issues. Apathetic or unsupportive attitudes and behaviors, whether from teachers or classmates, may largely be fueled by simple ignorance about the subject of military deployments. Important interventions might include a schoolwide awareness campaign and teacher training.
Tips for teachers: It is not uncommon for educators to lack understanding about military family culture. It is essential that teachers and school specialists working with students from military families receive specialized training in the following areas to best meet the emotional needs of students:
1) Identifying student emotions associated with separation, loss and grief due to a parental deployment or chronic stress and change within a family.
2) Developing strategies for effectively supporting students, including active listening and adaptation of academic assignments or homework.
3) Creating a plan of response if a parent is seriously injured or killed during active duty.
4) Planning supports for students who have relocated to the school system, such as reviewing cumulative files and liaising with the previous school.
5) Supporting the student when a deployed parent returns to civilian life.
6) Incorporating military deployment and post-deployment curriculum into a classroom setting.
7) Fostering communication between military families and non-military families, which increases tolerance and sensitivity within the classroom.
School community support: School leaders, parents, students, community leaders and business leaders are stakeholders who consistently strive to build a sense of community within our schools. This idea holds true for students who have parents actively serving our nation in the military. Military families make tremendous sacrifices, often resulting in lengthy separations, multiple deployments, loss of employment and financial uncertainties. Educators who are trained to understand a student’s reaction to these experiences are better able to assist a student developmentally when the child experiences confusing and stressful circumstances. School counselors are in a unique position to take the lead in providing training and information to teachers, staff and administrators around these topics.
Promising practices suggested by Ann Aydlett, Kelley Collins and Angela Kennedy include:
- Staying apprised of unit deployment or unit return via media or military liaison
- Establishing a meet-and-greet evening to which parents of all children enrolled in the school are invited
- Inviting military support organizations to present at PTA meetings
- Conducting meetings to increase military awareness among parents and school leaders
- Planning potluck lunches or dinners for families to build cohesiveness among parents in the school
- Identifying specific groups of military personnel (such as units) and beginning pen pal or support package activities
- Honoring all branches of military service and veterans in a schoolwide program around Veterans Day or Memorial Day
- Creating a large bulletin board in a highly visible spot in the school honoring all factions of the military
- Finally, school counselors should take the lead in working with school administration and personnel to implement a school response plan to a deployed parent’s injury or death.
Community and social support factors:The family’s involvement with social support networks is critical for healthy coping. Isolated families are unlikely to have the emotional, instrumental, tangible and informational support to help them through difficult times. Therefore, the school counselor should treat the family’s general isolation as a critical area for improvement. Key areas of social support include:
- Positive relationships with extended family and friends
- The availability of alternative caregivers
- Connection to community and military support organizations
- Access to mental health and health care services
- Parental and caregiver involvement in the school
- Involvement with faith-based communities
School counselors can use a variety of interventions to strengthen these connections. One example would be to organize a support group for students and their families. In many instances, this may be their only opportunity for meaningful interaction with other military families. We also suggest that school counselors locate and coordinate with their closest military liaison to obtain more information and to plan interventions and programming for the students and families they serve.
This level includes the broader societal factors that influence the construction of the student’s micro- and meso-level contexts. School counselors have many factors to consider at this level, but perhaps the most important to assess and intervene with are policies and laws that affect the availability of military family resources.
Public policy factors:According to the American School Counselor Association’s National Model, school counselors are “to help students focus on academic, personal/social and career development so they achieve success in school and are prepared to lead fulfilling lives as responsible members of society.” Public policies and laws created at the institutional level can either aid or thwart students’ abilities to reach this goal. Accordingly, it is crucial that school counselors embrace the role of advocate as an important aspect of their professional identity.
Examples of initiatives for which school counselors can advocate on behalf of military families and students include:
- School policies to mandate staff training on the subject of deployment-related issues
- Increased funding for public education, including school counseling programs
- Increased funding for social services, including mental health and health care services such as those through the Veterans Association of America and the Department of Veterans Affairs
- More progressive policies to help fund supportive services for military families
Children of military families experience unique challenges as they grow and develop. School counselors are in a prime position to help these students and their families during difficult times, such as when a parent deploys, by taking on roles and responsibilities in a variety of systems. We hope that we have provided school counselors — indeed, all counselors — with helpful suggestions for prevention and intervention activities when working with this population.
We would be remiss, however, if we failed to at least mention other critical aspects of the military child’s experience that we could not discuss thoroughly in this article, including relocation, having a parent with PTSD and the general adaptations children and families make to integrate into the culture of the military. We also have not covered the differences between the branches of the military or the role of the military reserves in any of these issues.
Last, we want to again emphasize that although military families and their children do encounter significant challenges, they also have enormous resiliencies, strengths and assets that enable them to cope with these challenges in healthy, happy ways. We know military families make great sacrifices for our country and believe that counselors have a wonderful opportunity to serve those who serve us as a nation.
“Knowledge Share” articles are based on sessions presented at past ACA Conferences.
Susannah M. Woodis an associate professor at the University of Iowa, where she teaches both doctoral students and students pursuing their master’s in school counseling, with an emphasis in gifted education in partnership with the Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talented Development. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arie T. Greenleaf is an assistant professor in the counselor education program at the University of Arkansas.
Lisa Thompson-Gillespie holds a K-12 professional educator license in Wisconsin and served as the Government Relations Committee chair for the Iowa School Counselors’ Association in 2011-2012.
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