A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Helping Military Kids Feel at Ease in the Classroom

By Pam McKeta on May 6, 2016


Addie’s face still lights up when she remembers the day.

It was early morning when the third-grader and her mom walked into the school gym for her running club. As the girls gathered for warm ups, their coach paused to say that someone special was going to stretch alongside them. That’s when Addie looked at the screen her teacher had set up and saw a person she hadn’t hugged in a long time.

There smiling broadly was her dad, who was deployed with the military overseas. The coach had arranged for Addie’s father to appear that morning, long distance via Skype, to join the girls for warm-up exercises.

“I was really happy to see my dad,” says Addie. “I felt really thankful for the coach doing that for us.”

 

Even a small gesture of support by a tuned-in teacher or other school personnel can positively impact a student’s emotional well-being and academic progress.

“When we think about school readiness, we think about preparing children to enter schools. But how do we get our schools ready for our children?” asks Mark R. Ginsberg, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. “This is of particular concern when we consider military children and their families.”

Virginia has more active duty personnel than any other state besides California and Texas, so chances are good that a school includes the children of Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force service members. In fact, more than 80 percent of military-connected children nationwide enroll in public or private schools and not schools located on military bases.

“Collectively, teachers have a tremendous impact on the lives of children in the community,” says Ginsberg. “Here in Northern Virginia, where so many students are from military families, one in three teachers is a Mason graduate.”

Ginsberg notes that finding a way to prepare teachers to welcome and support military-connected students is a focus for the college. Last year, through the leadership of Professor Jennifer Drake-Patrick, military and education groups came together on Mason’s campus to advise faculty members.

It was decided that the best way to infuse the content into Mason’s existing teacher education courses would be through an online module. “Supporting Our Military-Connected Children in School Settings: Moving Them from Risk to Resilience,” developed by Drake-Patrick, was piloted for the first time in the fall 2015 semester.

The self-paced module, which takes approximately 90 minutes to complete, describes how aspects of the military lifestyle can impact the social, emotional, and educational needs of military-connected children. Especially compelling are the embedded video interviews produced specifically for the project by GMU-TV.

The videos feature students and educators whose candid, personal comments bring issues to life. In one video, the fact that military-connected students re-locate an average of six to nine times is vividly illustrated by sisters Katie and Connor. They talk about the impact of their family’s frequent moves, noting they are never at the same point academically as their classmates when they start at a new school.

Even so, schoolwork isn’t the biggest challenge. “The hardest part is leaving people,” says Katie in the video. “Each time, you lose a little part of what you had before.”

For the sisters, their close family bond and the unexpected kindness of teachers helps. Connor recalls how one teacher, seeing her struggle, pulled her aside to say she was there for Connor, ready to talk any time.

“Children serve along with their parents,” says Renee Bostick, a principal in Arlington (Virginia) Public Schools and board member of the Military Child Education Coalition. “The key is to let the children know they can do this and that you’re there to support them.”

In general, military families are flexible and adaptable, says Drake-Patrick, who is a military spouse with three school-aged children. “They are used to managing multiple stressors and the children are often very resilient.” Many factors contribute to this resilience, including a close-knit military community, deep sense of social responsibility, and stable family incomes.

“But the stressors are significant, and feelings of loss, anxiety, and lack of control can impact academic performance,” says Drake-Patrick. Students anticipating another move, for example, may be less motivated to complete assignments. Others may be coping with a family member’s lengthy overseas deployment. “In so many ways, students bring into the classroom much more than just their academic selves.”

Providing clear takeaways for aspiring and current teachers has always been a key goal. The module includes some straightforward suggestions, such as setting up a buddy program for new students or reaching out to a school liaison at a nearby military installation. Others have more systemic implications, such as ensuring students with special needs receive continuity in education services.

In another video, a teacher named Donna describes strategies she’s employed over 30 years of working with elementary school students. For instance, a young boy struggling with his father’s deployment would give her a secret “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” each morning, which she’d acknowledge, as a sign of how he was doing that day.

“I know it’s not easy for the children of families who serve,” says Donna. “I try to listen and be there for the students. I never stop listening to them, to know what’s in their hearts.”

Mason education professor Betsy Levine Brown was one of the faculty members who included the module in her fall classes. She said it “bridges some of the theoretical conversations we have regarding context issues that future educators face in the classroom.” These larger issues may include family engagement, ecological systemic influences, implicit biases, child development, and trauma.

“In our debriefing conversations, we emphasize how teacher candidates can apply the information when working with children from military backgrounds and, more broadly, how educators need to consider supporting children and families.”

Surprisingly, a service member’s deployment overseas is not the most stressful period for military families.

“Research shows that the most challenging phase is actually reintegration, when a service member is reunited with the family,” says Drake-Patrick. The impact on the family is further complicated if the service member suffers from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To inform educators of these and other issues, the online module features a video interview with Mason psychology professor Keith Renshaw, whose research focuses on PTSD. He notes that a traumatic physical or PTSD injury can be especially difficult for family relationships, and the impact on children can be long lasting.

For Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, the module is just the start. Addressing the challenges faced by military-connected children, their families, and schools is a part of Mason’s fundraising priorities within its Faster Farther campaign. To guide this work, the college has developed a blueprint for how it can serve as a hub for resources nationwide and a knowledge base for further research.

The potential impact is significant because the number of military-connected children within the U.S. Armed Forces is nearly four million. “We want to make our research and ‘lessons learned’ available to universities and school districts nationwide that are also committed to advising teachers on how to support the children of those who serve,” says Ginsberg.

 


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