Opportunities for School Psychologists Working With Children of Military Families
By Michelle D. Sherman & Marshall Andrew Glenn
Today’s military families are a diverse, resilient group of brave Americans, and our country owes them a tremendous debt of gratitude. To date, over 2 million service members have been deployed in support of the Global War on Terrorism, many for multiple tours. For the first time in our country’s history, there are more military dependents (spouses/children) than service members. In fact, there are over 2 million children who have one or both parents in the military, and about half of these young people attend U.S. public schools.
While school psychologists have followed general relocation guidelines as set forth in Best Practices in Assisting Relocating Families (Medway, 2002), children of military families face a variety of unique challenges as a consequence of their parents’ service in the armed forces.
With each move to another state, these students encounter such challenges as getting prompt transfer of educational records, accepting transfer of existing credits, retaining athletic eligibility, remaining eligible for gifted and talented programs, and meeting their special needs on an Individualized Education Program or Section 504 Accommodation Plan (U.S. Senate, 2005). Imagine the frustration a high school senior must feel meeting graduation requirements in one state, only to move to another and having to do additional work to fulfill different requirements. School psychologists are in a key position to identify, understand, and support military youth. This article will overview demographic information on today’s military families, the research on how parental deployment affects youth, specific tips for how school psychologists can support these young people, and resources available to these children and families. We hope that these statistics and practical suggestions will motivate and empower school psychologists to remember that military kids truly do “serve” our country, deserve our appreciation, and may need some extra support along the way. Over half of today’s service members are married, and their children span the entire developmental spectrum.Approximately 40% are from ages 0–5, 33% are school age (6–11), and 25% are teenagers (12–18). Some specific family constellations may pose increased risk for difficulties with deployments, including dual military families (6.9% of the military population), single active duty parents (5.4%), and families with special healthcare needs (7.3%).
Approximately half of the troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are from the National Guard or Reserves. These families tend to have older children, more established careers, less access to the wealth of family supports available to active-duty families on military installations, and, historically, less preparation for deployment to a war zone. Some research has documented that rates of postdeployment psychological distress among National Guard/Reservists are higher than those of active duty personnel. Thus, this is truly a heterogeneous group of families who are sacrificing a great deal to serve our country.
The military culture inherently possesses many strengths that are conducive to healthy family life, and school psychologists can draw upon and bolster these qualities when working with families. For example, the military is often a cohesive community environment, and they share a sense of duty and mission. The military places a great value on respect for authority, predictable routines and schedules, and strong commitment to the unit and teamwork; all of these qualities are similarly aspects of healthy family functioning.
A large percentage of our deployed troops are resilient. Even after facing multiple deployments, separations from families, exposure to distressing situations and/ or combat, most of them do not develop long-term mental health problems (Hoge et al., 2004). However, some short-term readjustment reactions are common, such as insomnia, irritability, and concentration difficulties (Shea, Vujanovic, Mansfield, Sevin, & Liu, 2010).
Estimates vary considerably about the prevalence of mental health difficulties, but Milliken, Auchterlonie, and Hoge (2007) reported that about 28% of active duty and 36% of National Guard/Reserve troops screened positive for PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation, interpersonal conflict, or aggressive ideation 3 to 6 months after returning from deployment in Iraq. Increased substance use (Jacobson et al., 2008), difficulties with the sequelae of traumatic brain injury (Okie, 2005), increased rates of divorce (Sayer et al., 2010), decreased marital satisfaction and quality (Allen, Rhodes, Stanley, & Markman, 2010), and increased parenting difficulties (Gewitz, Polusny, DeGarmo, Khaylis, & Erbes, 2010) are also issues commonly cited as unique and concurrent difficulties in the aftermath of deployment. It is incumbent upon school psychologists to be aware of these significant challenges faced by military parents and be sensitized to the possible consequences for parenting and child functioning.
Research on the Impact of Parental Deployment on Youth
Being a “military kid” is a unique experience, one commonly not well understood by the civilian community. For example, the National Military Family association estimates that the average military child moves an average of six to nine times from kindergarten to high school. The transitions to new schools, neighborhoods, friends, sports teams, and so forth can pose real challenges for these young people. However, these children are often quite worldly, as they may be exposed to new cultures/communities and have rich opportunities for growth.
Military life today during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is unique and potentially challenging for our families; in fact, some have even termed parental deployment to a war zone as “catastrophic” for families (Peebles-Kleiger & Kleiger, 1994). The norm of multiple deployments with short periods in between can be especially challenging. However, like their parents, military children as a whole are resilient, strong young people, and the large majority of them fare well, even with multiple deployments.
Large percentages of military children report that they worry about their military parent and at-home parent during deployment. For example, one mature 17-year-old said:
It’s hard to have fun when at that same moment he might be in the middle of a battle. I could be laughing and singing and right at that moment, he could be getting shot or bombed, or maybe he’s hurt or scared. Why should I have fun when he’s not? (Ellis, 2010).
Almost 60% of military children attending summer camp in one study said that getting to know their military parent upon homecoming was difficult (Chandra, Burns, Tanielian, Jaycox, & Scott, 2008).
Parental deployment (particularly long deployment) has been found to be related to decreases in academic achievement of youth in Department of Defense schools; further, some longitudinal research has found that these negative academic effects may persist for several years (Engel, Gallagher, & Lyle, 2010). Children of deployed parents also show elevated rates of emotional difficulties, with research documenting difficulties among preschoolers (Chartrand, Frank, White, & Shope, 2008), school-age youth (Flake, Davis, Johnson, & Middleton, 2009), and teenagers (Chandra et al., 2010). Issues that appear to be related to child functioning include length of parent’s deployment and at-home caregiver mental health, both during deployment and following homecoming (e.g., Lester et al., 2010).
In light of these difficulties, it is not surprising that utilization of mental health services among military youth has risen dramatically. A Pentagon report released in 2009 revealed that military youth sought outpatient mental health care two million times in 2008, double the number in 2003; inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations among military children have increased 50% in the same time period. Similarly, Gorman, Eide and Hisle-Gorman (2010) found that mental/behavioral health visits among 3- to 8-year-old children increased by 11% during parental deployment; notably, behavioral disorders increased by 19% and stress disorders by 18%.
Finally, when considering the experience of military youth, school psychologists need to be aware of the documented increased risk of child abuse (neglect and physical abuse) in these military families. Notably, the research has found that the perpetrator of the abuse tend to be the at-home caregivers; they are likely overwhelmed by the stressors of single parenting and running the household alone (Rentz et al., 2006; Gibbs, Martin, Kupper, & Johnson, 2007). Assessment of children’s safety and supporting highly stressed parents are key tasks for school personnel.
What School Psychologists Can Do
In an effort to address the unique educational challenges encountered by military students, within the context of the mission of the National Association of School Psychologists Model for Comprehensive and Integrated School Psychological Services (National Association of School Psychologists, 2010), the following suggestions are provided, accompanied by specific resources to facilitate implementation.
Provide system-wide supports. School psychologists have been recognized for their role in contributing to effective organizational change and strategic planning (Knoff, 2002). To that end, they can provide valuable information about and participate in the implementation of current partnerships between school districts and the U.S. Army to address the issues students face in transitioning from school to school.
Inform superintendents about the partnership between school districts and the U.S. Army through the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) by the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC). Military students face formidable obstacles because of frequent relocations. School districts can now participate and sign a partnership with the U.S. Army through an MOA (Keller, 2001), which presents policies to mitigate the obstacles these students encounter. As of September 10, 2010, only 420 school districts have signed the MOA as participants. School psychologists can educate their local school superintendents and school boards about this valuable partnership. Moreover, this partnership can benefit all students facing issues of high mobility. The entire document is available on the MCEC website (www.militarychild.org).
Provide inservice training on the five emotional stages of deployment. School psychologists can provide inservice training to school personnel and parents on how children are affected by the military deployment cycle, including age-specific reactions and resources to bolster resilience and mitigate the effects. Pincus, House, Christenson, and Adler (2007) identified the following five stages of deployment: predeployment, deployment, sustainment, redeployment, and postdeployment. Each stage presents unique challenges for the military family to face and overcome. School psychologists can educate teachers and military families about these stages in an effort to help them understand what to expect and provide supports to address the challenges at each stage of the cycle.
Empower teachers with information and classroom strategies. School psychologists can educate school personnel about the military family/child experience. Several excellent resources exist to help teachers understand their military students and to provide military-relevant classroom experiences. Examples of resources and strategies include:
“Tackling Tough Topics: An Educator’s Guide to Working with Military Families” (www.k12.wa.us/OperationMilitaryKids/pubdocs/ToughTopicsBooklet.pdf) was developed by the State of Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and addresses important topics, such as talking to children about violence, terrorism and war; supporting military children during deployment; homecoming and reunion; helping children cope with stress; impact on grief and loss; and fostering resilience in children.
“The Educator’s Guide to the Military Child During Deployment” (http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/os/homefront/homefront.pdf) provides teachers excellent classroom interventions including the following: provide structure, maintain objectivity, reinforce safety and security, be patient and reduce student work load as needed, listen, be sensitive to language and cultural needs, acknowledge and accept feelings, and reinforce anger management.
The Military Child Education Coalition provides a range of training opportunities designed to increase expertise in working with military youth. Their professional course catalog (http://www.militarychild.org/files/pdfs/CourseCatalogFINAL.pdf) describes an array of training institutes offered across the country for classroom teachers, counselors, special education teachers, and parents.
Harrison and Vannest (2008) have developed classroom activities that integrate deployment themes into curricula for numerous subject areas, including math, reading, art, language arts, history, social skills, and technology.
Give students opportunities to give back. Involve them with programs that directly support deployed service members by sending care packages, letters, and cards. Many organizations facilitate groups creating such packages, including service organizations, Families United (www.familiesunitedmission.com), and the Adopt a Platoon program (www.adoptaplatoon.org).
Including military children in extracurricular activities can help both children and their families better cope with deployment. The program, Our Military Kids (www.ourmilitarykids.org), supports families of the National Guard and all wounded warriors of all branches of the military by providing grants of $500 for extracurricular activities for children ages 3 to 18.
Educate military families about available free tutoring. Students of military families who would otherwise rely on their parents for help with their homework now have free online tutoring available to them at www.tutor.com/military. Support is provided by certified teachers, college professors, or graduate students for grades K–12. Each tutor undergoes a criminal background investigation. Tutoring is provided 24 hours a day in either English or Spanish. Student Online Achievement Resources (www.soarathome.com), sponsored by the Military Impacted Schools Association, is available worldwide for parents of military students so they can participate in their children’s education by reviewing resource materials and monitoring online performance on assessments aligned to state standards. Children needing help are directed to tutorials as needed for improvement.
Inform school personnel about specialty services for military youth, such as applied behavioral analysis (ABA) for autism spectrum disorder. According to “Act Today! for Military Families” (www.acttodayformilitaryfamilies.org), 1 out of 88 military children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and fewer than 10% of these children receive ABA as a treatment. “Act Today!” helps parents defray the costs of ABA treatment, intensive behavior therapy, and summer camp for socialization opportunities.
Provide mental health supports and identify community resources. With greater awareness of the challenges often faced by military youth, school psychologists can more easily identify and provide mental health services to these children. No standard curriculum or set of interventions have been developed to date, but school psychologists can draw from their clinical repertoire in addressing common issues of sadness, anxiety, insomnia, worry, and inattention. A variety of programs have emerged (e.g., Rush and Akos ’s counseling program to support military youth across the cycle of deployment), but none have empirical evidence to date.
It is important for school psychologists to identify bibliotherapy created specifically for military youth. For example, Sherman and Sherman’s books, which are written specifically for military youth (Finding My Way: A Teen’s Guide to Living With a Parent Who Has Experienced Trauma  and My Story: Blogs by Four Military Teens ) can be useful in individual counseling and can be the basis for a military youth support group.
School psychologists can also familiarize themselves with community resources for military children and their families, such as the Give an Hour Program (www.giveanhour.org) and Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists (SOFAR; www.sofarusa.org), both of which provide a range of free mental health services. These organizations are always looking for mental health professionals to donate their time. Similarly, school psychologists are encouraged to contact the local military bases/installations and VA healthcare facilities (hospital, community based clinics, Vet Centers; www.va.gov) to explore their family-based resources.
Additional Resources for Working With Military Youth/Families
Numerous programs have been created and resources developed to support military youth; school personnel would benefit from familiarizing themselves with these national, state, and community resources. Some national programs are consistent across military installations and states, but most are quite specific to the community, so generalizations are difficult.
Military One Source (www.militaryonesource.com) – A 24/7 clearinghouse of many resources for military members, spouses, and families.
Military Child Education Coalition (www.militarychild.org) – A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, worldwide organization, it focuses on ensuring quality educational opportunities for all military children affected by mobility, family separation, and transition. It has a plethora of outstanding programs for educators, military students, and communities.
Operation Military Kid (www.operationmilitarykids.org) – A national program of the U.S. Army whose goal is to connect military youth dealing with parental deployment with local resources. Programs include summer camps, Hero Packs, Speak Out for Military Kids, etc.
National Military Families Association (www.militaryfamily.org) – A program that advocates for military families politically, offers free Operation Purple Camps for youth, and has scholarships for military spouses. Has an excellent document created by military teens titled, “We serve, too. A Toolkit about Military Teens.”
Our Military Kids (www.ourmilitarykids.org) – This program provides tangible support to children of deployed National Guard/Reserve personnel and to the children of the severely injured service members through grants for sports, fine arts, and tutoring.
“Dads at a Distance,” “Moms over Miles,” and “Grandparenting from a Distance” – (www.daads.com) Offered by the National Long Distance Relationship Building Institute, these programs strive to maintain and strengthen relationships with children and grandchildren while military personnel are absent from home. Sample activities include “20 Activities” and weekly e-mail reminders.
Resources for Military Children and Youth
Seeds of Hope Books (www.SeedsofHopeBooks.com) – Interactive, award-winning books for teenagers addressing issues of deployment, trauma, and PTSD; their impact on teens; and healthy coping strategies for military kids.
Talk, Listen, Connect: Deployments, Homecomings, Changes, Grief (www.sesameworkshop.org/initiatives/emotion/tlc) – Free Sesame Street DVDs for families with youth ages 2–5. Also available through Military One Source.
Resources for Military Parents
Veteran Parenting Toolkits (www.ouhsc.edu/VetParenting) – These are a series of five age-based, free, online parenting toolkits for veterans/partners, addressing how to reconnect with your children after deployment.
School Quest (www.schoolquest.org) Created by the Military Child Education Coalition, this helpful site contains information about schools across the country; it can also be a secure storage site for students’ educational, extracurricular, award, volunteer, and work information.
Courage to Care, Courage to Talk About War Injuries (www.couragetotalk.org) – This site provides practical tips on how to talk to children of different ages about war injuries.
Parents’ Guide for Talking to Their Children About War (http://www.nccev.org/docs/children_war.pdf) – Created by the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, this site offers suggestions for coping with the stress of deployment.
School psychologists can play an important role in the comprehensive delivery of school psychological services in their districts for students and families of deployed soldiers. While this article indicates that many resources are available, a significant challenge is the lack of research supporting the efficacy of any specific program/treatment for military youth. Although satisfaction data and anecdotal feedback may be positive, there is a dearth of rigorous evaluation of any military youth program at this time. Similarly, there is no consensus or “gold standard” on the appropriate model or ways to support children/families across the deployment cycle, and many well-intentioned sites develop their own programs to meet local needs. It is imperative that we advance the science by developing and testing programs for these children.
In this section, we briefly featured a few of the many excellent resources that school psychologists may find useful in working with military youth. However, we urge you to explore your local resources to promote collaboration and to avoid duplication of efforts.
Allen, E. S., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. (2010). Hitting home: Relationships between recent deployment, posttraumatic stress symptoms, and marital functioning for Army couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(3), 280–288. doi:10.1037/ a0019405
Chandra, A., Burns, R., Tanielian, T., Jaycox, L., & Scott, M. (2008). Understanding the impact of deployment on children and families. Findings from a pilot study of Operation Purple Camp participants. Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation.
Chandra, A., Lara-Cinisomo, S., Jaycox, L. H., Tanielian, T., Burns, R. M., Ruder, T., et al. (2010). Children on the homefront: The experience of children from military families. Pediatrics, 125, 16–25. doi:10.1542/peds.2009-1180
Chartrand, M. M., Frank, D. A., White, L. F., & Shope, T. R. (2008). Effect of parents’ wartime deployment on the behavior of young children in military families. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 162, 1009–1014. doi:10.1001/archpedi.162.11.1009
Ellis, D. (2010). Off to war: Voices of soldiers’ children.Toronto, Canada: Groundwood Books.
Engel, R. C., Gallagher, L. B. & Lyle, D. S. (2010). Military deployments and children’s academic achievement: Evidence from Department of Defense Education Activity Schools. Economics of Education Review, 29(1), 73–82. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2008.12.003
Flake, E. M., Davis, B. E., Johnson, P. L., & Middleton, L. S. (2009). The psychosocial effects of deployment on military children. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 30, 271–278. doi:10.1097/DBP.0b013e3181aac6e4
Gewirtz, A. H., Polusny, M. A., DeGarmo, D. S., Khaylis, A., & Erbes, C. R. (2010). Posttraumatic stress symptoms among National Guard soldiers deployed to Iraq: Associations with parenting behaviors and couple adjustment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78, 599–610. doi:10.1037/a0020571
Gibbs, D. A., Martin, S. L., Kupper, L. L., & Johnson, R. E. (2007). Child maltreatment in enlisted soldiers’ families during combat-related deployments. <br>, 298, 528–535. doi:10.1001/ jama.298.5.528
Gorman, G. H., Eide, M., & Hisle-Gorman, E. (2010). Wartime military deployment and increased pediatric mental and behavioral health complaints. Pediatrics, 126(6). Retrieved from www.pediatrics.org. doi: 10.1542/ peds.2009-2856
Harrison, J., & Vannest, K. (2008). Educators supporting families in times of crisis: Military reserve deployments. Preventing School Failure, 52(4). Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database. doi:10.3200/PSFL.52.4.17-24
Hoge, C. W., Castro, C. A., Messer, S. C., McGurk, D., Cotting, D. I., & Koffman, R. L. (2004). Combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, mental health problems, and barriers to care. New England Journal of Medicine, 351, 13–22. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa040603
Jacobson, I. G., Ryan, M. A. K., Hooper, T. L., Smith, T. C., Amoroso, P. J., Boyko, E. J., et al. (2008). Alcohol use and alcohol-related problems before and after military combat deployment. Journal of American Medical Association, 300, 663–675. doi:10.1001/jama.300.6.663
Keller, M. M. (2001). United States Army Secondary Education Transition Study: Memorandum of Agreement (pp. A1–A3). Harker Heights, Texas: Military Child Education Coalition.
Knoff, H. M. (2002). Best practices in facilitating school reform, organizational change, and strategic planning. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology IV (pp. 235–252). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Lester, P., Peterson, K., Reeves, J., Knauss, L., Glover, D., Mogil, C., et al. (2010). The long war and parental combat deployment: Effects on military children and at-home spouses. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 49, 310–320. doi:10.1097 /00004583-201004000-00006
Medway, F. (2002). Best practices in assisting relocating families. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology IV (pp. 1461–1471). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Milliken, C. S., Auchterlonie, J. L., & Hoge, C. W. (2007). Longitudinal assessment of mental health problems among active and reserve component soldiers returning from the Iraq war. Journal of the American Medical Association, 298, 2141–2148. doi:10.1001/ jama.298.18.2141
National Association of School Psychologists. (2010). Model for comprehensive and integrated school psychological services. School Psychology Review, 39(2), 320–333.
Okie, S. (2005). Traumatic brain injury in the war zone. New England Journal of Medicine, 352(20), 2043–2046. doi:10.1056/ NEJMp058102
Peebles-Kleiger, M. J., & Kleiger, J. H. (1994). Re-integration stress for Desert Storm families: Wartime deployments and family trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 7, 173–194. doi:10.1002/jts.2490070203
Pincus, S. H., House, R., Christenson, J., & Adler, L. E. (2007). The emotional cycle of deployment: A military family perspective. Retrieved from http://www.hooah4health.com/deploy ment/familymatters/emotionalcycle.htm
Rentz, E., Martin, S. L., Gibbs, D. A., Clinton- Sherrod, M., Hardison, J., & Marshall, S. W. (2006). Family violence in the military: A review of the literature. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 7(2), 93–108. doi:10.1177/1524838005285916
Rush, C., & Akos, P. (2007). Supporting children and adolescents with deployed caregivers: A structured group approach for school counselors. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 32(2), 113–125. doi:10.1080/01933920701227034
Sayer, N. A., Noorbaloochi, S., Frazier, P., Carlson, K. F., Gravely, A., & Murdoch, M. (2010). Reintegration problems and treatment preferences among recent veterans: New directions for trauma research. Psychiatric Services, 61, 589–597. doi:10.1176/appi.ps.61.6.589
Shea, M. T., Vujanovic, A. K., Mansfield, A. K., Sevin, E., & Liu, F. (2010). Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and functional impairment among OEF and OIF National Guard and Reserve veterans. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 23, 100–107. doi:10.1002/jts.20497
Sherman, M. D., & Sherman, D. M. (2005). Finding my way: A teen’s guide to living with a parent who has experienced trauma. Edina, MN: Beavers’ Pond Press.
Sherman, M. D., & Sherman, D. M. (2009). My story: Blogs by four military teens. Edina, MN: Beavers’ Pond Press.
U.S. Senate. (2005). The needs of military families: How are states and the pentagon responding, especially for guard and reservists? (S. HRG. 108-820). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Michelle D. Sherman, PhD, is a professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and is director of the Family Mental Health Program at the Oklahoma City, VA, Medical Center, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
Marshall Andrew Glenn, PhD, NCSP, is an assistant professor in the applied behavioral studies program at the Petree College of Arts and Sciences, Oklahoma City University.