How Schools Can Better Support Military Children and Families

Opinion | Mental Health

How Schools Can Better Support Military Children and Families

By Jessica Saum     Jun 26, 2024

How Schools Can Better Support Military Children and Families

While summer is the busiest time of year for military families to transition to their next duty station, throughout the school year, they move from state to state, and sometimes even across the world.

Even after 16 years of being married to the military, my family learned that my husband would be moving in an unaccompanied permanent change of station for a year overseas. I was naïve about the challenges my family would face; I remember thinking that we had completed multiple four to seven-month deployments before and that this could not be much worse. I have a career in education, and our children are active in extracurricular activities. We have a supportive friend and church community, and we chose to see this as an opportunity to minimize our family’s moving and for our professional growth opportunities. My husband and I agreed that this was a good thing for our family and now, two years after he returned after being away for 14 months, I still believe it was.

We said our family would be fine, and in all honesty, we are, but to ignore the toll the time apart took on our family, and specifically my children, would be a disservice to the struggles and burdens military families across our nation face daily.

In recent years, our schools have become increasingly aware of the unique needs of military children, whose parents deploy and sometimes spend months and years away from home, moving six to nine times on average in their K-12 education. Our educational systems have begun taking steps to improve how they serve this community, including committing to celebrating the Month of Military Child each April and recognizing military children for their resilience and independence.

While steps have been taken to improve access to resources and outcomes for this group of students, there are still gaps in services to ensure their academic and social success. As educators, it is imperative that we acknowledge the challenges this life can bring and our role in supporting military children and families.

The Barriers Military Children Face

The challenges families experience in military life can be a source of psychological stress, especially for children. It is often overlooked how children in military families experience high rates of mental health issues, trauma and other related problems. Children of our military members face multiple deployments as well as frequent moves, and the fear of trauma, such as a parent being injured or dying, is a reality for these families.

Studies have shown that one-third of children with a deployed parent are considered at “high risk” for psychosocial issues, and with the negative impact of deployment on children, the mental health of the remaining parent and the uncertainty of reintegration. Furthermore, a 2010 study of 640,000 children between ages three and eight found that there is an 11 percent increase in mental and behavioral health issues for military children when their parents are deployed. Additionally, it found that there was a 19 percent increase in behavioral disorders and an 18 percent increase in stress disorders during deployments. Those rates were higher in older children and children whose deployed parent was male.

Based on these statistics, it is fair to say that the mental health of military children is not being addressed enough. While students do have access to free mental health resources from Military One Source and Military and Family Life Counselors (MFLC) who support service members, their families and survivors, the gaps in access to quality and consistent mental and behavioral health support for children remains a serious issue.

A study by the Naval Postgraduate School showed that despite the fact that military families have government insurance that covers mental health treatment, up to 35 percent lacked adequate access to psychiatric care. Awareness of this issue was amplified when the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey reported that 51 percent of active-duty family respondents with children felt as though they were able to access high-quality mental health care for their children. However, this is simply not enough.

While policymakers must advocate that resources are readily available for military children in health care systems, through military installations and through community services to provide them with the support that they need, there must be an increase in support for training our schools and teachers to recognize these issues and connect students to support.

What Schools and Educators Can Do

Schools and educators find themselves in a unique position to be a source of support, a safe and stable space where children can find consistency and a place where adults can be equipped to identify needs and connect to needed resources.

In seeking to improve outcomes for military children, their families must have guaranteed opportunities for continuity in routines and rituals, ways to connect with the community and participation in extracurricular activities. A strong partnership with informed educators who make certain students have what they need to be successful is a critical step to improving educational success and emotional well-being for military children.

Educators are perfectly situated to help military students in transition adapt to new school settings by clearly communicating classroom and school expectations and understanding norms that are not always easily understood. These inconsistencies in what is expected across schools and states lead to military children struggling with learning gaps or repetition, which can cause a disruption in consistent academic progress. Children are also facing changes with new or different teaching methods, expectations in classroom and school culture, and even unfamiliar technology and online learning processes.

Educators have the power to cultivate a supportive and welcoming classroom environment where students feel safe sharing their feelings with one another, which is critical to supporting students during transitions. Educators can provide experiences that foster empathy by asking the class to write letters to deployed service members or veterans, including military members in the learning, providing opportunities to speak to the students about a military career or answering questions about what deployment is like.

Educators can also make sure that students are placed in the appropriate courses and are being academically challenged while facilitating continuity of related services such as therapy or special education services, if they are eligible. In the instances where military students move mid-year, schools can ensure that students are placed in the right classrooms for the support they need from special education services to advanced placement courses. Educators should familiarize themselves with the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission and the resources available to the students they teach.

Beyond the classroom, schools and districts can pursue Purple Star School status by receiving training from their state military council and state chairman or chairwoman. These programs are in partnership with state departments of education, and training is free and readily available. Other resources and organizations that provide support to schools include the Military Child Education Coalition.

While there are remedies to address the challenges students face, there is certainly not an easy answer or solution that will work for all military children and their families. As military families across the world gear up for another move and prepare for a new school year in a new state, our schools and educators must prepare to acknowledge how military children play a significant role in their schools and communities and take the time to recognize the unique needs these students have.

Military children’s futures are bright, and they are often inspired by the examples of their parents’ selfless service. Educators committed to providing a supportive environment must ensure these students meet their potential and excel academically and socially in our schools and communities.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up