Helping Children Cope with Deployment

School is often a stable, predictable, "safe" place for children when they have periods of upheaval in their lives. We've researched the literature, publications and websites for successful tools that can aid classroom teachers, administrators and school boards in their work with military children who have a deployed parent.

Lesson Plans

Use military deployments as a teaching tool for subjects such as social studies, geography and math. Explaining the challenges of a military deployment to all students strengthens understanding.
Create lesson plans related to activities on MilitaryKidsConnect.org. For instance, during a geography lesson launch the Where Are You Going world map and focus on a country of interest. Journalism or multimedia classes can take advantage of the Getting Connected activity and direct older students to our digital "scrapbooking" page. Or during a class on technology have children navigate MilitaryKidsConnect.org.
Use resources from the web to make lesson plans and activities for your students that concentrate on patriotism, military service and deployment. Free downloads with military themes are available online (search "lesson plans coping deployment"). The state education office in Washington has some useful resources for teachers. Finally, there is a curriculum by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation that includes lesson plans, videos and stories of Medal of Honor recipients for middle and high school students.
Use journal writing as a teaching and a coping tool. Encourage students to use their journal entries as reminders of topics to talk about during conversations with their deployed parent.
Integrate communication ideas into your lesson plans. Allow letter writing to be an alternate writing assignment or teach students how to attach documents (i.e., school newsletters, writing assignments, pictures) to an email so they can keep their parents informed of their activities.
Find out how many students in your class have military connections. If students wish, allow them to share with the class their first-hand experiences from around the world. If they have a deployment parent currently, be cautious not to put them on the spot. Coping with a deployed parent can be a highly emotional and private experience.
Plan a lesson that emphasizes common interests between different kids or teens — whether civilian or military, U.S. or foreign. Use the Where Are You Going activity for students to research commonalities and differences between them and children in different cultures.
Have students create a "time capsule" at the beginning of year or before a parent is deployed. Things to include in the shoebox (or bag) can be a piece of string of their height, a list of their favorites (foods, movies, and friends), a tracing of their hand or foot, etc. Students "hide" the time capsule and open it back up at the end of the year or upon return of the parent to see all the changes that have taken place.
Invite a military parent to speak with your school class or organization, either before deployment or upon their return.
Ask a deploying parent if they would be a "pen pal" for your students. The parent might send postcards, maps, coins, menus or other interesting articles from their foreign duty station. These items will allow your students to track the parent's trip around the world.
Send cards and/or care packages from your class to a deployed parent, their unit or any deployed unit. There are many organizations — just search "military care packages."
Request a parent-teacher conference with the returned caregiver. Even if there are no problems a conference will help a returning parent resume an active role in their child's life and may alert you to any difficulties around the homecoming and readjustment for the child.

Providing Support

Maintain regular routines, especially for students who are stressed or going through transitions. Structure gives children a sense of continuity, stability and safety.
Be aware of important dates that may impact your student (i.e., deployment departure dates, leave dates, homecomings). Try to be flexible with due dates on assignments when these special circumstances arise.
Remember a stressed student, including one coping with a parent's deployment, may have difficulty concentrating, learning new concepts and controlling their emotional reactions — be patient, but stay consistent.
Make an effort to "connect" with military students with a deployed parent. Convey your willingness to talk openly about the deployment if the child wishes. Simply ask them how they are doing or if they need anything.
Educate yourself on what life is like for military kids dealing with deployment. Read the book My Story: Blogs by Four Military Teens by M. Sherman and D. Sherman. Or spend a few moments watching the videos on our website to better understand how a child views their parent's deployment.
Provide factual age appropriate information about a deployment if a student asks questions. If you don't know the answer, work with military liaisons or contacts to find out who can answer their questions.
Normalize common reactions to separation; provide reassurance that feelings of loss, anger, frustration and grief are natural when coping with a deployment.
Reinforce or teach anger management strategies for all students in your classroom.
Watch for signs of stress. Any change in behavior can be a stress reaction, even positive ones! If a noisy, impulsive child is now quietly reserved, talk with the child, ask how they're doing and help them develop a plan if any concerns arise.
For younger ages, don't be surprised if you see themes of guilt, fears, anxiety or aggression in your student's play. Include uniform-type clothing in your dress up center. Discuss with the student or caregiver if you notice any behavior that is cause for concern.
Be neutral in your language about "parents." Many military children have alternate caregivers during a deployment due to single parent homes, dual military families or staying behind to finish the school year. Consider using "caregiver" or "guardian" or "dear family" instead.
Encourage students to be involved in extra-curricular activities. Introduce parents to resources that help pay for after school activities for military kids (search "military kids activities"). Staying busy and active is helpful for children who are coping with their parent's deployment.
Be available to provide tutoring support as needed. Link military students up with the Department of Defense official (and free!) on-line tutoring program.
Be prepared for students wanting to spend more time at school or with their peers upon their parent's return. The readjustment period after the deployed parent's return can be challenging for families. Realize that students may also be coping with temporary changes in their parent's behavior at home. About 1/4 to 1/3 of returning troops report emotional or behavioral concerns.
It's a good idea to let your school counselor and administrators know about a student with a deployed parent. However, be discrete; don't assume everyone knows about this student's situation.
As a teacher, initiate a conversation about the deployment with the remaining at-home parent/caregiver. Communicate any support the school offers (counseling, tutoring, etc.). Be mindful of the difficult circumstances a caregiver is facing while coping with a deployment and offer support or assist in finding services that can be helpful.
Ask the at-home parent or caregiver for stamped pre-addressed envelopes to the deployed parent so you can send art projects, work samples, or school bulletins.

School Counselor, Related Services and Administrator Ideas

Strive to create a military-friendly environment at your school. Celebrate 'Military Child' month in April, 'National Military Appreciation' month in May, or 'Military Family Appreciation' month in November.
Especially in areas of high deployments, plan a school-wide "Red, White and Blue Day" or "Thank Your Military Day" to reinforce the values of patriotism and service for your student body. Invite everyone to wear red, white and blue for a day. Arrange to have an assembly on this day and invite speakers to talk about their military experiences or honor military parents by hosting a luncheon.
Use your school or organization's newsletter, blog or magazine to support troops and reinforce patriotism. Create a column that discusses military life and invite military teens (or school staff with military connections) to participate.
Include deployed parents' email addresses on school distribution lists so they continue to receive newsletters, PTA announcements, sports announcements, etc.
Be sure military-related students and their families are aware of free educational programs such as Tutor.com and Soar at Home. These websites offer homework help and information on academic standards in all states. The American Legion offers a comprehensive list of scholarships available to military youth.
Connect families to other programs and services in our Parent's Resource Guide.
Refer families in need of counseling services to various resources. Military OneSource offers non-medical counseling services (and much more) to service members and their families. Contact your local Veteran's Affairs (VA) facility to find information on family-based programs. Connect military families to the "Families Overcoming Under Stress" (FOCUS) program. This family resiliency training program is available on Navy, Marine Corps and some Army installations, as well as on-line.
All the Services offer programs to parents who have special needs children. Ask your nearby installation or search online for the Service's "Exceptional Family Member Program." Also search "military autism" for organizations and programs that provide financial help to military families with an autistic child. The STOMP program is also available to military families with information and advocacy for families with special needs children.
Provide support groups for your military students. For example, have brown bag or pizza lunches or create after school groups. Organize a "Traveler's Club" for students and staff to share their experiences.
Counseling groups can include watching videos designed for military youth, such as Sesame Workshop's Military Families Near and Far for preschoolers and now school-age students, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics videos for school-age children and teenagers. Links to counseling curricula for military student groups are also available in the Educator's Resource Guide.
Create student-run mentoring programs for new military students. The Student2Student (S2S) program by the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) trains students in middle and high school to assist incoming military youth.
Consider reaching out to nearby schools and districts if you have a small population of students dealing with a family member's deployment. Uniting students who face the same circumstances offers them an additional support network.
Include the school nurse in plans for supporting military students. Children often have somatic complaints as stress reactions and may naturally talk the nurse about their anxiety and worry.
Don't leave out the at home caregiver in your resource allocation. There is a strong connection between children's coping and their caregiver's functioning. Younger parents in particular are more likely to struggle. Offer the caregiver resources to a parent support group, invite them to be a classroom helper or involve them with the Parents Teacher Association (PTA). If this is a Reserve or Guard family, offer to connect them with other reserve parents in neighboring communities.
Suggest that military parents create a portfolio of their child's academic information, to include: vaccinations, attendance records, copy of transcripts, state assessment test results, individual evaluations and individualized education plans for special needs children. Request for a student's homeroom teacher to write about accomplishments and/or struggles for the new school administration. If possible take pictures of textbooks and mark where the student left off in each subject.

Contacts to Establish

Please note that these individuals might be contacted through your local military installation or state offices.
School Liaison Officers (SLO's) All active duty Services, and some of the Reserves, have SLO's that operate out of every installation and from state or regional Reserve and Guard offices.
Child and Youth and School Services (CYS) At the CYS office you can find information on different children's programs available through the installation.
Family Assistance Programs or Centers Programs for families, such as relocation assistance, child care, spouse employment and more are available and helpful to know about when working with military families.
Family Advocacy Programs Most Services offer programs to help intervene in domestic violence and child abuse or neglect cases. Please note that contacting a Family Advocacy Program has no relationship to child abuse reporting mandates.

District-wide Impact

Identifying children who have caregivers in the military can be a challenge for school administrators. On admission forms or enrollment forms consider adding an optional question about military affiliation and/or deployment potential.
Create relationships with your local military installation or reserve component units.
  • Invite a military representative to be on the local School Board.
  • Designate a school official to be the liaison with your local military installation or reserve unit and initiate regular contact.
  • Ask local installations/reserve units to notify your school when they know of an upcoming deployment.
  • Plan activities with local installations or units. Invite service members to serve as mentors or ask them to be guest speakers in a science or math class.
Evaluate how your district's policies might impact highly mobile military families and students.
  • Facilitate the prompt transfer of educational records.
  • Provide special provisions for credit acceptance and substitutions from a transfer school, especially if a student is nearing graduation.
  • Create a policy allowing new, older students to still graduate from their old school and under their old school's graduation requirements.
  • Have flexible admission deadlines to programs or classes for military transfers.
  • Allow students to retain their eligibilities from a previous school (i.e., sports, gifted and talented programs, honor classes, honor societies, clubs, etc.).
  • In districts with highly mobile populations, consider saving "spots" in extracurricular programs for students who may transfer in during the school year. If all slots are filled, be creative in how entering students can still be involved with their chosen sport or activity.
  • Implement flexible attendance policies for students during "good-byes" and "homecomings" with deploying military parent.
  • Allow phone calls during the school day between a student and their deployed parent if time zone differences impede other contact.
Provide in-service trainings for school staff around military culture, deployment cycle and student's common reactions. Online training options are referenced in the Educator Resource Listing. Another option might be to invite the School Liaison Officer of a nearby installation or the state/regional Child and Youth Services Coordinator (for Reserves or National Guard) to speak during staff development days.
Consider joining district and state level efforts to improve transitioning between schools for military students.
  • The Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunities for Military Children was developed by multiple partners, including the Council of State Governments (CSG) and the Department of Defense (DOD), and has been signed into statute in 36 states. The body overseeing the implementation of the Compact is the Military Interstate Children's Compact Commission (MIC3). The Compact seeks to "insure parity in educational opportunities for children of members of our active duty armed forces" specifically in regards to enrollment, eligibility, placement and graduation. In addition to contacting your State Commissioner through the MIC3 website for implementation guidance, school districts and parents can also contact MIC3 directly for help with individual military students' transition issues.
  • The Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) partnered with various schools and the U.S. Army to develop a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) related to easing military student's transition between schools. The agreement is between individual school districts (over 300 school systems signed world-wide) and designed to provide a common structure for information sharing and reciprocal processes. Many of the Agreement's suggested practices are applicable to any district with highly mobile students and can be implemented regardless of any formal agreement.
Consider applying for Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) Educational Partnership Grants to help fund services for military children at your school if your district is near an installation, impacted by frequent deployments or located remotely.

Sources

Military HomeFRONT.(n.d.). Guide for helping children and youth cope with separation. Retrieved April 18, 2011 from http://www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil/12038/Project%20Documents/MilitaryHOMEFRONT/Service%20Providers /Children%20and%20Youth/628043-Helping-Youth-Cope111%5B1%5D.pdf.

Harisson, J. & Vannest, K. (2008). Educators supporting families in times of crisis: military Reserve deployments. Preventing School Failure, 52(4), 17-23.

National Military Family Association.(2010). Military Kids Toolkis. Alexandria, VA; Author.

National Military Family Association.(2010). Military Teens Toolkit. Alexandria, VA; Author.

U.S. Army Child, Youth & School Services and USDA.(2010). Operation Military Kids Ready, Set, Go! Training Manual. Pullman, WA; Author.

Sherman, M. & Glenn, M. (2011). Opportunities for school psychologists working with children of military families. Retrieved June 7, 2011 from http://www.nasponline.org/publications/cq/39/5/ChildrenofMilitary.aspx.

Virginia Joint Military Family Services Board.(2003). Working with military children: a primer for school personnel. Arlington, VA; Author.