District, School, and Community Stakeholder Perspectives on the Experiences of Military-Connected Students
by Kris Tunac De Pedro, Monica C. Esqueda, Julie A. Cederbaum & Ron Avi Astor - 2014
Background/Context: The children of military service members experience numerous military-related stressors (e.g., deployment of a parent), resulting in negative psychological outcomes. About 90% of military-connected students are educated in civilian public schools. A few recent studies in disciplines outside education research suggest that civilian public schools lack awareness of the needs of military-connected students.
Purpose: The purpose of this study is to provide a foundation and context for the development of future research, policy initiatives, and school-based interventions by exploring the perspectives of district, school, and community stakeholders (i.e., school administrators, superintendents, community-based military educators, and education researchers). To this end, this study examined the schooling experiences of military-connected students and their strengths and challenges in civilian public schools and identified school-based strategies that promote emotional, psychological, and academic outcomes among military-connected students.
Participants: The research team targeted participants from diverse professional roles and from different educational contexts serving military-connected students (e.g. school, community, neighborhood, and military contexts). Thirty-one stakeholders who worked closely with military-connected students or military-connected public schools were purposively selected.
Research Design: In this qualitative study, interviews were conducted with participants in the fall of 2010. The interviewer was a former military child and collaborated with the research team to create a semistructured interview protocol. The interviewer asked participants to discuss their perspectives of the unique issues of military-connected students, how military-connected schools have responded to those issues, and their recommendations for future education reform targeting military-connected students.
Findings/Results: The findings revealed the following stakeholder perceptions: (a) military-connected students have unique cultural needs and challenges that necessitate school intervention, (b) some schools utilize homegrown practices to address these needs of military-connected students, (c) stakeholders feel that public schools have responded poorly to the issues and challenges of military-connected students, and (d) stakeholders believe that public schools should be places of stability for military-connected students.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The education stakeholders in this study were well aware of the unique challenges and strengths of military children and homegrown practices developed locally by military-connected schools. They offered recommendations at the school, district, and community levels on how to improve school responsiveness, including a data identification system and continued staff training. Future research should include the perspectives of teachers and students with regard to how military-connected students cope with military life stressors in the classroom. Overall, this study uncovers the issues of a population of students who have a significant presence in over 200 public school districts throughout the United States and provides a foundation for future education reform and research on military-connected students.
BACKGROUND AND OVERVIEW
At present, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) estimates that there are 1.3 million school-age children with a parent or parents serving on active duty (Military K12 partners, n.d.). Of these 1.3 million children, only 86,000 are educated in schools operated by the DoDEA. The vast majority of military children are educated at civilian public school districts (De Pedro et al., 2011; Military K12 partners, n.d.). The bulk of these schools (commonly referred to as military-connected schools), are located on or in the area surrounding a military installation and serve a substantial number of military-connected students. While definitions of military-connected schools vary, the federal government defines a military-connected school, district, or local education agency as one that is impacted by the enrollment of a sizeable proportion of military-connected students. A school district that is classified as military-connected is eligible to receive Impact Aid funds if there are at least 400 military-connected students enrolled in the district or when military-connected students comprise 3% or more of the total student enrollment in the district (Kitmitto et al., 2011). Military-connected students enrolled in these districts experience numerous social and emotional challenges related to stressful military life events; these stressors impact the academic functioning and social experiences of military-connected students in civilian public schools. The overarching purpose of this study is to elucidate the perspectives of the district, school, and community stakeholders who serve military-connected students in or in partnership with military-connected schools. Significant attention was focused on stakeholders perceptions of the challenges that military-connected students experience at school, current school-based strategies utilized to accommodate the needs of military-connected students, and the potential role of schools in helping military-connected students cope with military-specific stressors.
GROWING AWARENESS OF NEEDS WITHIN MILITARY FAMILIES AND RESPONSES
Decades of empirical research have found that military-connected students experience stress and anxiety as a result of military-related life stressors (De Pedro et al., 2011). This work, however, has disproportionally focused on the psychological issues of military-connected students and families. These psychologically oriented studies have examined the stress of left-behind parents (Chandra, Martin, Hawkins, & Richardson, 2010; Flake, Davis, Johnson, & Middleton, 2009), shifts in household roles and responsibilities (Chandra et al., 2010; Huebner, Mancini, Wilcox, Grass, & Grass, 2007; Mmari, Roche, Sudhinaraset, & Blum, 2009), the lack of military-specific social supports for reservist families (Macdermid et al., 2005; Chartrand & Seigel, 2007; Hoshmand & Hoshmand, 2007), and the impact of frequent geographic relocations and school transitions (Bradshaw, Sudhinaraset, Mmari, & Blum, 2010). As a whole, findings from these studies suggest that experiencing a deployment can result in a number of maladaptive social, emotional, and psychological outcomes among military-connected students (De Pedro et al., 2011). Only recently, however, have researchers begun to examine the needs of children in the context of schools.
Of the few studies focused on military-connected students, the majority of them suggest that the external, military-specific stressors often manifest themselves as behavioral and/or academic problems within the school context. Specifically, deployment-related behavioral problems lead to a lack of school engagement and connectedness (Chandra et al., 2010; Mmari et al., 2009). School personnel and home caregivers have reported that military-connected adolescents exhibit increased behavior problems during a deployment (e.g., fighting with other students at school) and perceive school staff as unsupportive or unaware of their unique circumstances (Mmari et al., 2009). School staff and parents also posit that the military-connected students anxiety is likely related to multiple deployment-related stressors (e.g., parental absence, increased responsibilities at home, poor mental health of some nondeployed parents, and difficulty accessing mental health services). They further suggest that these stressors may be contributing to difficulties in academic functioning and school engagement among military-connected students (Chandra et al., 2010). Though there have been a number of practical suggestions put forward by school mental health practitioners and social workers, to date there are no known evidence-based interventions developed for schools.
Researchers have posited that supportive and culturally responsive military and civilian communities are necessary to address the social and emotional needs of military-connected students (Bowen, Mancini, Martin, Ware, & Nelson, 2003; Cozza, Chun, & Polo, 2005; Hosek, Kavanagh, & Miller, 2006). These recommendations include intra- and inter-institutional strategies. For example, social service providers, both on military installations and in schools, and military-focused nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) need to be trained to address the needs of military families, share resources, and develop guidelines to effectively respond to the needs of military-connected students and families during deployment (Cozza et al., 2005). Additionally, service providers at military installations and military-focused nongovernmental organizations need to foster a sense of community among military families and students (Bowen et al., 2003). While these studies have explored community responsiveness, there remains a dearth of empirical data on the role of civilian public school communities in supporting, addressing, and understanding the education needs of military-connected students.
THE ROLE OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN PROMOTING POSITIVE OUTCOMES AMONG MILITARY-CONNECTED STUDENTS
Beyond the school setting, there has been an increased focus on the need for action at the policy level to address the needs of military-connected students. Recent policy initiatives include the allocation of federal research monies and state-level education policies made possible by the support of multiple stakeholder groups and constituencies. In 2008, Congress called upon the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) and U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to address the needs of military-connected students (U.S. DoD, 2008), resulting in a memorandum of understanding between the DoD and DoE that authorized DoDEA to oversee a large military-connected school grant program to assist civilian school districts that serve military-connected students. As part of this partnership program, DoDEA has focused its efforts on the critical role that supportive civilian school environments can play in helping to buffer military-connected students against the stressors of military life (U.S. DoD, 2008). New financial resources and tools (e.g., databases) for education researchers and practitioners have also been made available through both the DoDEA and the DoE to address the needs of military-connected students and schools from an empirical perspective. In August 2010, the DoE elevated research on military-connected students and schools to a position of national prominence (funding priority #9). In January 2011, President Obama directed all federal agencies to make the education of military-connected students a funding priority by improving the quality of the educational experience, reducing the negative impacts of frequent relocations and absences, and encouraging the healthy development of military children (The White House, 2011, p. 2). Finally, at the state-level, advocacy work on the part of military families, organizations, and select DoD officials resulted in the development of an interstate compact to reduce and/or eliminate barriers to educational success for children from military families as they transition between schools and across state lines (Esqueda, Astor, & De Pedro, 2012; Council of State Governments, 2008, pp. 1-2).
Demands from federal and state education agencies that call upon schools to address the needs of military-connected children in schools are well aligned with decades of research on schools and vulnerable student populations. Supportive schools help to buffer children against external risk factors, including family stress, community violence, war, and natural disasters (Astor, Benbenishty, & Estrada, 2009; Comer, 1984; Dryfoos, 1995). Public schools, therefore, can play a critical role in increasing supports for military-connected students who are experiencing a parental separation, coping with a loss, and/or grappling with the multiple facets of a deployment.
A few recent studies have examined how civilian school environments are answering the call to action. The general consensus in these studies is that civilian-run school environments serving large concentrations of military-connected students lack the awareness and responsiveness to create positive schooling experiences for military-connected students. For example, in a study of military-connected middle and high school students in different regions of the United States, Mmari and colleagues (2009) found that anti-war sentiments compelled civilian students to commit acts of violence against military-connected students on school campus grounds. In addition, in civilian-run schools, military-connected adolescents felt alienated, had difficulty making friends, and could not form caring relationships due to a perception that civilian peers and teachers did not understand military life and culture. This lack of awareness can result in hostile school responses to military-connected students absences related to parental deployment (e.g., time needed to say goodbye to a parent). Bradshaw and colleagues (2010) found that during school transitions, military-connected adolescents had difficulty adjusting to new school environments, specifically school and classroom rules, procedures, and academic standards. Together, these studies have suggested that teachers, principals, and other staff in civilian-run schools lack knowledge of military culture and, hence, do not have the support and procedures to address military-specific life events (e.g., deployment and school transitions). This may contribute to academic issues and social challenges with peers (Bradshaw et al., 2010; Chandra et al., 2010).
The purpose of this study is to provide a foundation and context for the development of future research, policy initiatives, and/or school-based interventions by exploring the perspectives of district, school, and community stakeholders, including school social workers (and interns), school administrators (e.g., principals and support staff), district superintendents and staff, community-based military educators (e.g., school liaison officers1), and education researchers who work with and/or provide support for military-connected students and schools. These stakeholders are employed across multiple education contexts (i.e., schools serving military-connected students, military bases, universities, public school districts, and military nongovernmental organizations), thereby capturing a breadth of perspectives. Understanding their perspectives and views on how education settings are interacting with and supporting students from military families is a critical first step toward the development of robust theoretical models and future research/policy initiatives. Additional future goals include: (a) examining the schooling experiences of military-connected students from the perspective of stakeholders working in or with military-connected schools, (b) understanding the strengths and challenges of military-connected students in military-connected schools, and (c) identifying school-based strategies designed to facilitate positive emotional, psychological, and academic outcomes among military-connected students.
A team of five researchers conducted this study. The research team was comprised of the studys principal investigator (a senior-level professor who has conducted several mixed-method research studies on military-connected students, school safety, and school-based interventions), a professor who has conducted empirical investigations with adolescents and has expertise in qualitative methodologies, a doctoral student, a post-doctoral researcher, and one masters-level student, who have all conducted and published prior research on military-connected students. Together, the team utilized a purposeful sampling strategy in which 31 district, school, and community stakeholders involved in public school services or policymaking were selected. Data for this study were collected in the fall of 2010. Semistructured interview protocols were prepared in advance.
Members of the research team purposively selected 31 stakeholders who worked closely with military-connected students or military-connected public schools. Purposeful selection centered on the breadth of perspectives that would be generated not only from participants diverse professional roles, but also from the different contexts in which they serve military-connected students. The research team views the school as ecologically nested within different contexts (e.g., neighborhood, community, and military contexts). In this vein, it was necessary to include the perspectives of stakeholders working in schools, district administration offices, military-focused nongovernmental organizations, and military installations. Enrollment and demographic data for the eight school districts from which participants were selected are provided in Tables 1 and 2. The districts vary in size (number of student enrollments ranged from 1,977 to 30,183) and percentage of military enrollment (2.0%27.3%). As a whole, the demographic makeup of each district highlights the racial and ethnic diversity of the elementary and secondary school students who attend schools located on or near a military installation in Southern California.
Table 1. Enrollment Information of Eight Military-Connected School Districts
Table 2. Demographics by District (%)
The sample includes five district-level stakeholders (i.e., a superintendent, assistant superintendent, or school board member), three principals, one school liaison officer, three licensed clinical social workers/Master of Social Work (MSW) field supervisors, 10 MSW student interns completing their field placements (i.e., student internship for state certification in school social work) in a military-connected school, four education researchers (including a school social worker), and five educators. Twenty-seven participants (87%) reported a direct family affiliation (i.e., had family member in the military, former military child, military spouse, or military veteran) with at least one branch of the military (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard). Teachers and students were not included in the current sample given the research teams desire to understand the critical perspectives of those charged with developing, administering, and sustaining systemwide initiatives and programs that promote systemic change at the school, community, and district levels. This does not devalue the importance of including the voices of teachers and students, but rather kept the scope tightly focused on education policy and practice decision makers and leaders. Separate mixed-method studies are also scheduled to begin this year that focus specifically on the classroom experience and the perspectives of teachers, parents, and students.
Interviews for this study took place over a two-day period during the fall of 2010. Questions in the semistructured interview protocol were developed in consultation with current research and practice literature addressing the social, emotional, and academic needs of military-connected students. As seen in Table 3, beyond basic demographic information, the semistructured interview protocol included questions to elucidate: (a) the experiences and challenges facing military-connected students; (b) the ways public schools have responded to these challenges; (c) current strategies and best practices that their schools are currently using; and (d) recommendations for future school reform that benefits military-connected schools and students. Table 3 indicates that interview questions were based on the guiding research questions of this study: (a) What are the experiences of military-connected students in the school context? (b) What are the challenges and strengths of military-connected students? (c) How have schools so far responded to these challenges? (d) What are schools doing currently for military-connected students?
Table 3. Interview Questions
The research team chose an interviewer who had an undergraduate and masters degrees in psychology and communications. She had extensive experiences interviewing educators and community members in prior studies. The interviewer also grew up in a military family and attended military-connected public schools as a child. In addition to her extensive interviewing experience and knowledge of military family life, the interviewer also participated in a half-day interview training session provided by the principal investigator and other research team members. The principal investigator and research team members worked directly with the interviewer to develop the semistructured interview protocol, when to probe, how to ask follow-up questions, and to what extent she could improvise questions based on her experiences as a former military-connected child and knowledge of the military community. The interviewer was also very engaged with the participants due to her sincere interest in the topic of military-connected children and military-connected schools and her personal mission to make a significant contribution to military-connected families and children. The principal investigator also checked in with the interviewer after every interview to address any issues that may have emerged. There were no serious deviations from the protocol or interviewing schedule.
Each interview was also videotaped so that analyses would be richer and more detailed. The ability to read meaning through facial expressions, body language, and verbal and physical exchanges all enhanced the interpretation and understanding of the interview. At the beginning of each interview, participants were informed that his/her interview would be videotaped and used for research purposes. Written consent was obtained from each participant. Interviews with participants lasted about 2545 minutes. Single interviews were chosen since the aim of this study was to explore the experiences of military-connected students from the perspectives of diverse leaders with differing viewpoints in the school, district, and community.
As seen in Table 4, members of the research team transcribed and coded all interviews. At the initial stage, a deductive approach in which the questions were used to guide the data analysis was used. An inductive approach, however, was then used to identify any new themes that emerged using select techniques from the analytical tradition of grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1994). During the first phase of data analysis, three members of the research team reviewed the script used during the interviews as well as consulted the literature on military-connected children and adolescents. This process allowed the research team to generate initial codes. Next, the research team read each transcript carefully in a process of data immersion. The team members met to discuss their reading of the data and, from this, an initial code list was developed. Again, team members read the transcripts, this time, using the mutually created code list. Upon completion of coding, researchers met to determine which codes needed to be collapsed and/or eliminated (based on redundancy or limited number of times the concept arose across interviews). As seen in Table 4, this process allowed the research team to eliminate codes, and a more detailed and meaningful coding scheme was developed. The final codes were (a) consciousness/awareness, (b) strategies/resources, (c) willingness to act, (d) challenges, (e) strengths, and (f) recommendations. Each of the three team members used this final code to code each of the 31 transcripts.
Table 4. Data Analysis Process
Once all transcripts were reread and coded using the final code list, the researchers met to compare their coding of the transcripts. The interrater agreement for coding was 85%. During the final phase of data analysis, researchers systematically sorted the codes into categories to link codes with themes. Based on this final coding, a total of four themes emerged (see Table 4). Categorizing the codes by theme allowed researchers to support the themes with quotes. No serious differentiation between roles and themes mentioned was detected by participant role.
Four major themes emerged from the data (all findings are reported from the perspective of individual stakeholders). First, the data suggest that military-connected students have multiple and unique cultural needs and challenges. Second, a number of homegrown school practices are currently being utilized to address these needs and challenges. Third, there is a general perception from stakeholders that public schools have responded poorly to the needs of military-connected students. Finally, the data suggest that schools need to provide a stable, welcoming, and supportive environment for military-connected students. No serious differentiation between participant roles and themes were found.
Theme #1: Military-Connected Students Have Unique Challenges and Strengths
As expected, participants in this study described the military-connected student population with unique needs, issues, and challenges that are related to military-specific life events (see Table 5). Military-connected students were described as having unique stressors differing from their nonmilitary-connected peers (e.g., repeated parental separation during multiple deployments, threat of death and/or injury of a parent, and multiple school transitions); often civilian-run schools lack the knowledge and awareness to be supportive and responsive to the social and emotional needs that impact their schooling experiences (e.g., time needed to say goodbye to a parent and flexible academic requirements for military-connected students who attended different schools in multiple states). Of these life events, war, deployment, and relocation emerged as major issues facing military-connected students.
Table 5. Military Childrens Unique Challenges and Needs
Describing his own experiences with military-connected students, the principal of a military-connected school posited that multiple deployments and their associated stressors might be contributing to their adverse emotional responses. He further suggested that perhaps schools could be doing more to respond:
What I have been noticing recently from my roles is that we are having more and more students affected by the multiple deployments, also with . . . parents living on bases, we do see a difference in what we need to do now. We could learn more about how schools should respond when students up having a parent leave or a parent is killed in action or wounded.
In addition to the issue of deployment, participants also identified repeated geographic relocations and multiple school transitions as a major challenge for military-connected students. Military families move repeatedly; military-connected children, therefore, often need to adapt to a new school and community environment quickly. Participants also commented that because of these frequent moves, military-connected students must strike a balance between making friends and adjusting to new academic standards, teachers, and extracurricular demands. Speaking on this issue, one school social worker who previously served in the military and is currently married to active duty, described her decision to homeschool her children (see Table 5 for more participant quotes on this issue):
From my own personal experience, we moved to Georgia from California, where my children were able to start school at 4 years old because their birthdays were in November. However, when I went to Georgia and tried to enroll them in public school, I was told theyd be demoted a year because of when they were born, given that Georgias cutoff is in August, in which case I chose to homeschool because there is no reason why a child should be judged on their birthday or the circumstances and not the individuals ability. And, even though I argued to have them assessed, the funding wouldnt really allow for it. So it was unfortunate, but in the meantime they were able to continue through the homeschool system and were able to continue on the same tracks.
In response to military life challenges, several participants posited that some military-connected students are exhibiting negative behavioral responses. One school principal noted that some of his military-connected students are acting out. He, however, viewed their behavior as a potential cry for help and as a reflection of the students struggle to overcome multiple demands and existing gaps in school support. His view was supported in a separate interview with a school social worker who is also a military spouse and parent. Responding to a question about the challenges military-connected students face and school responses, she reported, Theyre moving multiple times and they have to be the new kid constantly. They have parents that are deployed, and their behavioral issues are not being addressed by teachers and principals.
Perceived stigma surrounding help seeking. Though there was a strong consensus that military-connected children are a student population with unique needs, several stakeholders noted that many military-connected students and families do not want to be singled out or feel as if they are dependent on services and/or the assistance from others. In the words of one community educator (who is currently working for a nonprofit organization that helps military-connected schools),
A lot of military-connected students dont want to feel different, so they feel reluctant to identify themselves. They feel there is a stigma in asking for help. So thats one barrier. Sometimes, the barrier is the lack of understanding. We are really ending a decade in conflict, and these kids have had a rollercoaster ride. We have a very small military, and we are putting [a] big burden on our military and, therefore, [a] big burden on their kids.
Several participants mentioned that the sociocultural norms of military families might, in part, explain their aversion to seeking help. For example, a military-connected school liaison officer with several years of experience working with military-connected families suggested that not wanting to be labeled as weak or incapable of handling situations is a norm shared by many military-connected families who take pride in being able to independently solve problems without outside help (see Table 5 for more quotes):
Sometimes military families, they feel like they have to do it all by themselves because their spouse is gone; thats the only one they can depend on. But providing them with avenues to create a support group, for the kids to create support groups, I think is incredible and, and much needed in the military communities.
Though it was noted that military-connected families are hesitant to seek outside help, participants highlight the close-knit nature of the military community and the intracommunity expectation that members of the group will provide social and emotional support for one another. As one school liaison officer described,
Military families respond to like things. When they have something in common with somebody, they tend to migrate together. So, whether its youre in the same command or youve been to the same duty station or youre from the same state, even from the same region, from the country, when they have a common bond, they tend to be better equipped to support and accept support.
Perceived strengths of military-connected students. Although several participants commented on the negative experiences and challenges of military-connected students, some also acknowledged the unique strengths that military-connected students have developed in response to deployment and mobility. One school principal commented that military-connected students have developed a sense of maturity beyond their age:
They have a higher level of maturity than the local kids who maybe have never been beyond the border of California. These are students who have spent a few years on the East Coast, been back to the West Coast, maybe spent a year in Germany, maybe a year in Okinawa or someplace, and so their idea of the world is a whole lot larger than the ones who have been at Del Mar Fair and maybe up to San Francisco. So, usually theyve seen a lot more and theyve had to accept a lot more responsibility than the other kids. You can think, no this is someone who is well on his or her way to adulthood and part of the reason of that is the experiences and the necessity the kid has had to have to grow up quicker and maybe shoulder some of the responsibility for that parent whos out of the area.
Similarly, a school social worker providing clinical services to military-connected children and adolescents at a military-connected school commented on their resilience:
They do gain some resiliency, coping, very adaptive. I find that they are, a lot of times, a lot easier to relate to other people, you know? Not that others cant relate, but just, they know what others are going through; they can feel it on a different level, but on a level where a lot of kids have never been introduced to moving, or fear, or anything, and just knowing those types of things, I think that they really learn how to be more assertive, public, caring, and everything.
Theme #2: School-Level Homegrown Practices that Support the Unique Needs of Military-Connected Students
Since participants generally perceived military-connected students and their families as sharing unique sociocultural norms, some participants emphasized that educators need to provide support in ways that are specific to their life challenges (see Table 6). One district administrator in a large, urban district developed an after-school program for military-connected students and described his efforts to be culturally sensitive when linking military-connected families to social supports:
Well, you know one thing that we have to do is to be really sensitive to the parents. A lot of military personnel are afraid to receive services. When we talk about military services, we have to be culturally sensitive. We thought in the beginning, should we do the program at the base or should we do the program at the school where its more neutral so that parent doesnt feel that Oh, its mental health services. Is it going to be on my record? You know. And then for them to be at the school and theyre right there, which is part of the school personnel. So its an educational setting, which is not really labeling them that they have issues or anything like that. So its considered like resiliency building and coping.
Table 6. Homegrown Practices
Homegrown practices. As seen in Table 6, participants identified a number of homegrown practices2 developed locally by members of the school community (e.g., teachers, principals, students, and parents) in schools that address the needs of military-connected students. Participants described homegrown practices as positive school responses that worked to make school environments more supportive for military-connected students. They also described these practices as empowering teachers, principals, and other school personnel to meet the needs of students.
A school social worker placed at a civilian-run public school located on a military base stated that teachers at his school have creative ways of helping students cope with separation. Teachers in his school were helping students maintain their bonds with their deployed parent despite geographic barriers and their fears surrounding their parents safety. He commented,
Teachers help out with sending care packages, writing letters, and theyll use the tools that they have in the classrooms and kind of put the focus of effort on OK were going to send these out to the families and keeping them involved, and I think thats really important. Its focusing on the positive aspects of being away from home and maintaining those family relationships and not so much on the negative, the danger, and the other things that are associated with being on deployment.
A few participants noted that their schools designated spaces where military-connected children could gather and share their life experiences. One school social worker said,
So at the elementary school they actually have a military room. A classroom dedicated strictly to the military. And the kids come and they post photos, pictures of members of their family in the military; they can come there during their lunch break and use it as a classroom to socialize with each other.
A school social worker from a district neighboring the social worker quoted above reported that her school also has a similar homegrown practice, a classroom dedicated to military-connected students. These students share their experiences at a Military Hot Wash during lunch periods. She commented,
Since Ive been there as an intern, they actually used to have a military support group that met during lunch, and that was about two years ago. So now that Ive come back, I started that. Its called the Military Hot Wash and I get actually pretty good participation. I get about 18 students per lunch break and we come in and we just do activities. We talk about the issues that are unique to the military students. So both schools actually do have programs to support the military child.
Other participants discussed support for military-connected children organized by educators from outside the school. A district official from a large urban district serving an Air Force base discussed district-sponsored, after-school programs designed for military-connected students. In addition, a school liaison officer from a nearby military installation organized a space designated for military-connected families within a civilian-run school serving military-connected students. Speaking about her efforts, she commented,
We have a Connection Room within the school. And were finding that it is becoming such a great asset to our schools. Parents have a place to go when theyre new. When they need camaraderie or support or a resource, they can go to these rooms and meet people that they have a common bond with. They have a child in the same school [or] theyre both military.
Theme #3: Poor Responsiveness of Public Schools to Challenges of Military Children
Despite the challenges that military-connected students experience and their resulting behavioral responses at school, several participants perceived that little is done in schools to assist military-connected students in transition (see Table 7). A school social work intern commented,
Ive seen on their district website that theyve made efforts to incorporate some support systems. Theres online tutoring. Theres some online programs. But, theres nothing that Ive seen thats really personal. Theres no one on the ground with these students, helping them transition from other military locations, schools, and parents being away on deployment. So theres no real consistency and when youre constantly shaking everything, somethings going to break.
Table 7. Poor Public School Response
In explaining the lack of response, participants reported that schools might not fully understand the impact of a deployment on a military-connected family, particularly the stress of the non-deployed parent who must assume additional responsibilities. A school social work field instructor commented,
We go into conversations with teachers, and just educators and administrators, on different situations and theyre so oblivious to what really goes on. They dont understand that a child that has a dad constantly gone and that does not have the consistency, does not have that constant male and female at home can negatively affect their ability to perform in school.
Need for more school-based supports. Though the participants in this study provided multiple examples of homegrown practices, participants reported that principals, teachers, and other school staff did not have procedures for responding to the social, emotional, and academic needs of military-connected students. Some participants reported that the one significant procedure missing in public schools is the ability to identify military-connected youth. Thus, principals, teachers, and other school staff do not have a precise estimate of the number of military-connected students in a school, district, or local community, which, according to the stakeholders in this study, has been detrimental to a schools ability to respond and allocate resources to address the needs of military-connected youth. One respondent further commented that some schools think they do not have any military-connected students enrolled as result of a lack of identification systems.
But a lot of our district, since theyre so spread out, its really hard for schools to be aware that they have military children. They dont have a way to identify who they are, what their needs are. And, how can we address that? In terms of data from the school districts, when you do enrollment for students, theres really no checkbox for them to kind of know, Oh, Im a military family. So, we have a problem identifying where they are and how we can best support them.
While there is a general perception among participants that some public schools have responded poorly to military-connected youth, overall, participants suggested that the reasons for inaction primarily come from schools having to juggle multiple school reform priorities, making it challenging to address the needs of military-connected students without increased education and/or resources. Despite this, some school principals are willing to act and they feel that public schools can improve on their efforts to support military-connected youth. As one principal commented,
I have a zillion things that I am working on and trainings on military children have pulled me out of my element to think more about military children. I have already seen awareness of military children change with the policies that are coming into place to understand and respond to the needs of military students. This is good because they have many of the same issues going from school to school to school. So, I really look forward to improving the services to those students and families.
Theme #4: Schools Need to Be Stable, Welcoming, and Supportive Places for Military-Connected Students
As seen in Table 8, participants generally perceived that the lives of military-connected students are in constant flux as a result of multiple school transitions between states, repeated deployments, and a lack of social supports in civilian communities. Several participants posited that schools needed to be a place of stability for military-connected youth. Participants generally suggested that schools needed to be more responsive to and supportive of the emotional needs of military-connected families and students who have repeatedly moved between states and must now re-create their lives in new civilian communities (e.g., finding local health care, school enrollment, employment, and military support groups and resources). Schools could potentially play a significant role in helping link military families with various resources and supports. One principal stated,
So, I think its very important to, number one, stabilize their education and their home life, but then also provide additional services, like if its before- or after-school daycare, if its any counseling services, social work services, if a family needs any support. Beyond that, employment; if they move into a new area or if that person leaves and if they are not going to be able to have as much income to keep their home, you know. There are different agencies that could help. So really, stabilizing their schooling and home life, as I have mentioned. Also, making sure we provide them with a variety of services, which we are really working on in both of our elementary and high school districts.
Table 8. Schools Need to Be Stable Places for Military Children
Since military-connected families and students experience life transitions, the stress of deployment, and adjusting to new civilian communities, they may need schools to facilitate stability and consistency in their lives. As a director of a mental health services at a military-connected school district stated,
School needs to be the safety and the consistency. Everything else can be kind of chaotic, stressful, but when the kids come to school they shouldnt be retraumatized; they shouldnt be restressed. It should be somewhere they look forward to going and [feel] connected to.
Stability might be achieved if a school created a school culture that is sensitive to the needs of military-connected students and their families. Pursuant to this goal, teachers, principals, and school support staff would need to develop a collective consciousness about the life experiences of military-connected students and the schools responsibility to act as a community support system. One principal commented,
So, working with the teacher, I think, is the key component. Training and creating a schoolwide culture so they can be more sensitive and really doing that training to bring them into the military culture. I think that is a key component: funding for educational opportunities for the teachers and administrators and also outreach to the parents. I think the parents need a space.
To transform a schools culture or collective consciousness, participants provided numerous recommendations; all require structural changes, including the development of an identification system at the school and district level to identify military-connected youth. Participants viewed such a data system as a precondition for any attempts to change a schools responsiveness. An executive director in charge of school, family, and community partnerships at the school district level stated,
So I think we need to be able to identify these students much earlier and we need to be able to track these youngsters. This would help us provide more supports, to be able to care for their needs more promptly, to be able to diagnose, to get them into the kind of academic situations that would really provide the support. Thats a big goal of ours right now and I think we could do a better job of it.
There was also a widespread perception within this sample that the systematic identification of military-connected youth, even if at the aggregate classroom or school level, would make it easier for schools to facilitate healthy transitions and provide linkages to community-based social support. Some stakeholders further posited that military-connected schools need more financial resources and staff who can act as stable points of contact for transitioning military-connected families. For example, a district administrator from a large public school district serving a small minority of military-connected children commented,
I think thats really crucial to have someone at the school that understands how to do the resource mapping and how to educate them and really kind of teach them skills because being moved around between different schools. Each unified school district has their own curriculum so from one school district to another school district, the curriculum may look very different. There needs to be someone within the system that can help them review all their records and provide a consistent educational opportunity and equal access to recourses and things like that. I see funding and resources and collaboration; having a counselor, a social worker thats in the school district that can kind of provide that.
Finally, participants believed that school-based support for military-connected students needed to include all members of the school community and the surrounding community. As one social worker at a military-connected school commented,
There is a need to link the community to work as a whole. And thats one big thing I keep hearing throughout the whole thing is having the community involved with the children, not just one part, not just the immediate family, but everybody: peers, friends, students, staff, teachers, neighbors, everybody being a part really is going to help the child.
Overall, participants in this study identified multiple challenges among military-connected students across different contextsthe family and the school. Participants also posited that school responsiveness to military-connected students who attend civilian public schools needs improvement. Participants commented that schools have responded poorly to the social, emotional, and academic needs of military-connected youth. However, participants identified numerous homegrown, school practices that have effectively addressed the needs of military-connected students. Recommendations for how military-connected schools should respond to military-connected students in the future were also made.
This study explored the views of multiple stakeholders from military-connected schools, military bases, and community organizations. Findings suggest that these stakeholders are well aware of the unique challenges and strengths of military children and school-based strategies developed by military-connected schools. Stakeholders also provided a number of recommendations regarding how to improve school responsiveness to military-connected students (e.g., a data identification system and more staff training).
STAKEHOLDER PERCEPTIONS OF MILITARY-CONNECTED STUDENTS AND THEIR SCHOOLING EXPERIENCES
Decades of research have examined the impact of military life events such as deployment and repeated geographic relocation on the social, emotional, and psychological outcomes of military-connected children. The current study extends that work by including the perceptions of multiple stakeholders who work in or with military-connected schools. Education researchers have not previously examined the perceptions of stakeholders who work in and with military-connected schools respective to these stressors and how they are manifested among military-connected children within the school context. Stakeholders in this study commented on the unique challenges and strengths of military-connected children. The issue of school transition was mentioned by a number of stakeholders and more studies need to be conducted to better understand how teachers, principals, and other school staff may or may not facilitate effective school transitions for military-connected children.
HOMEGROWN STRATEGIES AND SUPPORTS
Military-connected educators have developed a number of strategies, known as homegrown practices, to address the needs of military-connected students in public schools. The effectiveness of these homegrown practices, however, remains untested. While school-based supports, including military transition rooms and support groups for military-connected students, were mentioned by participants, it is not empirically clear if these supports improve the psychological, social, and emotional outcomes of military-connected students or if they enhance the ability of military-connected students to cope with school-related challenges (e.g., transitions) and military-related stressors (e.g., multiple deployments). These supports, however, have the potential to contribute to more positive schooling experiences for military-connected youth and to the development of a school environment that acts as a protective setting for military-connected students grappling with numerous military-related stressors. Future studies should examine the effectiveness of these homegrown strategies and supports.
The notion that the school can be a place of stability for military-connected students is consistent with the findings of a recent qualitative study on military-connected schools. Chandra and colleagues (2010) found that from the perspectives of teachers, their schools had become a sanctuary for military-connected children with deployed parents. Teachers spent time informally comforting young children as they grappled with the threat of parental death or injury. Their findings suggest that civilian public schools are aware of military-connected childrens needs and are responding with homegrown strategies. While the homegrown practices identified in this study appear to be helpful, it was not clear if these practices were shared with school staff in other military-connected schools and districts. Future research needs to examine whether and how schools are sharing knowledge respective to their efforts to support military-connected students and any challenges that accompany replication.
STAKEHOLDER RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BETTER SCHOOL RESPONSIVENESS
Stakeholder recommendations on how to remedy the schooling experiences of military-connected students were multiple. First, stakeholders perceived a need for school and district data systems to systematically identify military-connected youth. California can serve as an example as the state recently developed a survey tool to identify military-connected students and their needs in the aggregate. In the spring of 2011, data were collected as part of the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) from a representative sample of elementary, middle, and high school students in eight military-connected school districts surrounding multiple military installations. This survey included modules on school climate, risk behavior, psychological, social, and emotional issues (e.g., substance abuse, sexual behavior, bullying, gang involvement, and mental health issues), and demographics (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, and age). A military module, the first of its kind, allowed the state to collect data on students military-connectedness (i.e., whether they are part of a military family) as well as other items related to deployment and school transitions. Stakeholder recommendations for training teachers and other school staff on the unique needs of military-connected students were also obtained. Such training can help school staff become more culturally sensitive and develop culturally relevant instruction and classroom environments for military-connected youth. This recommendation further highlights a gap in pre-service teacher, administrator, and pupil personnel training in schools of education. De Pedro and colleagues (2011) found that there are few, if any, courses, course modules, or training programs about military-connected students for teachers, principals, or other school personnel in schools of education within the United States. Future research and practice on military-connected schools and students can help to address this gap by informing the development of training modules and/or curriculum.
FUTURE RESEARCH ON TEACHERS AND STUDENTS PERSPECTIVES
Future studies should continue to focus on the challenges and strengths of military-connected students and responses within public schools. Moreover, qualitative studies are needed to examine the perspectives of teachers and students in military-connected schools. Teachers are well positioned to provide a unique perspective on the experiences of military-connected students based on their day-to-day interactions with military-connected students in the classroom. Within the classroom, teachers adjust curricular objectives and instructional approaches to students needs and monitor student behavior and outcomes and implement classroom-level interventions. From the perspectives of teachers and students, future studies could explore the day-to-day classroom experiences of military-connected students as they cope with multiple military-related stressors (e.g., multiple deployments and school transitions). These studies could uncover the extent to which school transitions, deployment, and reintegration stressors influence a military-connected students access to the general education curriculum, level and quality of participation in classroom activities, and engagement with peers in the classroom context. Moreover, teacher perspectives could uncover classroom interventions and accommodations and culturally relevant pedagogy strategies that promote the academic achievement and well-being of military-connected students.
Qualitative studies could also help us more fully understand the perspectives of school leaders. In particular, exploratory studies could help generate an understanding of the role of principal leadership in generating awareness of military-connected students as a cultural group, creating supportive school climates, and creating effective procedures and policies that accommodate military life events and culture. In turn, qualitative studies could also illustrate how competing education reform priorities (i.e., academic interventions and the demands of standardized testing) are barriers to the development and implementation of school-based interventions specifically for military-connected students.
Exploratory studies centered on students in military-connected schools would also offer a rich description of schooling experiences in public school and responses to military-specific life events. Specifically, studies that incorporate students perspectives could elicit an understanding of the extent to which military-connected students feel connected to civilian peers, and how teachers support (or dont support) them during difficult military-life experiences (e.g., deployment). This information could be used to inform how teachers, principals, and school staff adapt evidence-based practices for military-connected students facing deployment, reintegration, and other military stressors. In addition, rich information on the viewpoints of military-connected students and their experiences of civilian-run public schools could be used to assess if there are cultural gaps that exist between the civilian-run school environment and military-connected students and families.
Overall, generating this knowledge on military-connected students and schools could prompt future education policies addressing military-connected students, school transitions, and civilian public school responsiveness. Specifically, this information could spur interest in future education policies that incorporate military-connected students as a distinct demographic group in academic data collection. Such a massive reform in education policy could allow for future monitoring of military-connected students social, emotional, and academic outcomes over time.
SIGNIFICANCE OF STUDY
In general, this study uncovers the unique life issues, challenges, and strengths of military-connected students. Military-connected students are an emerging population of students who comprise a significant presence in over 200 public school districts throughout the United States. A decade after the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, federal policymakers and educators in military-connected schools and civilian communities have begun to recognize the effects of deployment, reintegration stress, veteran post-trauma issues, and frequent school transitions on the academic functioning and social and emotional health and well-being of military-connected students. Daily experiences with parental separation, the fear of a parents death or injury, constantly shifting household roles and responsibilities, the stress of a left-behind parent and/or caregiver, challenges surrounding reintegration into civilian communities, and veterans post-trauma issues are life events that negatively impact a military-connected students emotional and psychological outcomes and academic functioning. It is surprising that education researchers have, to date, largely ignored the schooling experiences of military-connected students.
The development of homegrown practices is a promising sign that teachers, principals, and other school staff are creating supportive and responsive schools for military-connected students. However, the findings of this study underscore the absence of military-connected students in education reform, policy, and school-based interventions. As this study illustrates, persistent barriers in multiple education contexts, such as the lack of identification systems, exist. The lack of a coordinated response from schools, districts, communities, and in policy warrants the attention of education reformers and policymakers. In the school, district, and policy contexts, supportive school environments for military-connected students can be developed through systematic identification systems, as well as training for principals, teachers, and other school staff on the impact of military life events on military-connected students. Military-connected students can also be included in current federal education reform and policy and evidence-based interventions. After 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is long overdue that education policymakers, reformers, and researchers create coordinated responses in multiple education contexts (i.e., school, district, community, and policy) to create responsive and supportive school environments for military-connected students.
1. School liaison officers educate and work in partnership with local schools to . . . enhance the education experience[s] of military-connected youth. School liaison officers also provide military commanders with the support necessary to coordinate and advise [the] parents of school-aged [military-connected] children on educational issues and needs and to assist in solving education-related problems (Military K-12 partners, n.d.).
2. This study defines homegrown practices as strategies and/or programs developed locally by members of the school community (e.g., teachers, principals, students, and parents). Homegrown practices have not necessarily been tested for their effectiveness, and thus, cannot be considered evidence-based practices.
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