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For Military Kids, Resilience and Challenges

Second Lady Jill Biden and fellow teachers lead the drive to support the educational and social-emotional needs of military children
Second Lady Jill Biden recording an EdCast

There are more than 2 million children in US classrooms whose parents are active-duty military service members, National Guard or reservists, or military veterans. Contending with frequent moves, new schools, and the echoes of deployments and separations, these military-connected kids carry a unique weight — often invisible, often unacknowledged. 

One of the legacies of the Obama Administration is an initiative to spotlight the constellation of needs and strengths these kids have — to build better support at school and in policy arenas, and to spur more research into their social-emotional challenges. The initiative — called Joining Forces — is led by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden.

“The children of active-duty service members move an average of six to nine times during their school years — just during their school years,” says Biden, a lifelong educator and military mother who, as Second Lady of the United States, has continued to teach English twice a week at a community college in northern Virginia. As Biden told the Harvard EdCast in an interview at the White House earlier this month, her advocacy for military children was shaped by her family’s own experiences during her son Beau’s yearlong deployment in Iraq. Her commitment to that work, under the auspices of Joining Forces, has inspired a campaign called Operation Educate the Educators (OEE), which encourages universities and teacher-training programs to develop resources and supports for military children.

“There’s so much that teachers can do to celebrate military children in their classrooms,” Biden says. “I went into one classroom in Fort Riley, and one of the teachers had Google boxes and was using them to talk about Greece. The military children who had been to Greece, who had been stationed there, were telling their classmates about the things they were seeing on those Google boxes. There are so many ways to bring it into the classroom." 

Supporting Military Families
• Get to know each family individually; no “one size fits all”
• Provide consistency and social support for children
• Make sure newly arrived kids can join sports teams and extracurriculars
• Create a welcome team; provide welcome packets of resources, supplies
• Host events for new families and clubs for kids with deployed parents
• Take advantage of military kids’ leadership capabilities
• Find ways to recognize experiences of military families

Encouraging those voices is important, since “most educators — just like most Americans — don’t have personal experience with the military,” says Mary Keller, the longtime leader of the Military Child Education Coalition, a prominent advocacy and resource center for teachers and parents, and one of the sponsors of the OEE campaign. That’s why professional development for educators is critical, she says, along with school-based and district-encouraged efforts to recognize and respond — with creativity and flexibility — to the diversity of experiences that military- and veteran-connected families bring to schools. 

Without focused support and resources, military children face social and emotional challenges, difficulty understanding policies and adjusting to curriculum and school climate, difficulty qualifying for or continuing with special education services, and elevated stress and a risk of depression and anxiety. “But if you ask a child what he or she wants, it’s just, ‘I really want someone to listen to me,’” says Keller. “It’s just that conversation, whether it’s about moving or separation, or if it’s a brother or sister who is serving, or a parent who comes home with a serious injury — stop and listen to that family’s story and be sensitive to whatever it is that that parent or that child needs. It’s not one size fits all.”

Parents and Teachers Together 

“Opening up those lines of communication is important,” says Tom Akerlund, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a National Security Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School this year. Akerlund and his wife have 12-year-old triplets and a seven year old; one of the triplets contends with learning and physical disabilities, and managing his IEP every time they move has been difficult for the family. His wife and children stayed behind in North Carolina for this fellowship year so the kids could have one more year of stability attending the same school — outside Fort Bragg — that they were in last year.

“My wife and I are very proactive in developing relationships with school officials,” Akerlund says. “We’ll email or even text the principal or the teachers when it's necessary, and we stay involved. In many cases, it’s just a matter of communicating with the school administrators and simply laying out the facts unemotionally. ‘How can you help?’ And that’s how we’ve been able to advocate for our children.”

But schools and educators also have to be willing to reach out. Marcy Cooper, a principal at Southern Middle School, near Fort Bragg in North Carolina, says she makes a point of asking school staff and parents about military spouses who may be deployed, and she grants excused absences to students whose parents are coming home on temporary leave. “It’s really important to get to know the individual students and the individual families, because every family is different. When a military family moves in in the middle of the year here, we try very hard to make sure the student gets a tour, and then I usually try and give that student a buddy,  another military family buddy, because what I’ve found is many times these children are very used to moving around. They know what it feels like to be new in a school and so they make good buddies for other new students.”

Assets Military Kids Bring to the Classroom
• Diverse perspectives, global perspectives and knowledge
• New tools for learning
• Resiliency, adaptability, and peer leadership qualities
• Willingness to serve and lead

D. Micah Fesler, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, brought his family along for the year he’s spending at HKS as a National Security Fellow. They settled in Brookline, a town that “isn’t used to having military families,” he says. Fesler’s 8-year-old son has attended three different schools (in Nevada, Virginia, and now Massachusetts); at some, he was placed in gifted-and-talented programs, and it’s been difficult to find consistent supports as they’ve moved. But “every school that we’ve had our children in has had fantastic appreciation for the military, and really what I think is most important is their appreciation for the kids’ sacrifice, which is really a lot more, I believe, than the service member’s sacrifice.”

Continuity is the single biggest challenge military families face when it comes to educating their kids, Fesler says. “We struggle every time we move to make sure the education is the right fit,” he says. “You don’t want to kick the door in, but at the same time, if you’re passive about it — if you just let the system work — you could lose two or three months of time where the teachers are just kind of figuring out, What’s this kid’s status, how is he doing. When you aggregate that over a number of years of moving, you lose a lot of educational time where they’re not being challenged.”

Welcoming Schools

Keller, of the Military Child Education Coalition, says that’s what makes the first few weeks in a new school setting so critical for military kids. “What we know about moving and changing schools is that there’s an urgency there,” she says. “Consistently, our research shows that you’ve got about two weeks when a kid is new to a school to help him fit it. We call it the fragile first two weeks.”

Ron Avi Astor, whose Building Capacity project at the University of Southern California did foundational work on the needs of military-connected kids, focuses even more narrowly: “What is that first day like — and that first week?” he asks. Astor, whose expertise is in school violence, bullying, and healthy school climate, helped to catalog and disseminate the best practices of what he calls welcoming schools — schools where everyone feels they belong, and where special effort is placed on orienting newcomers.

“We struggle every time we move to make sure the education is the right fit. You don’t want to kick the door in, but at the same time, if you’re passive about it — if you just let the system work — you could lose two or three months of time."

Invisibility and lack of awareness, Astor knew, is what fuels bullying, social isolation, and inhospitable school cultures. His welcoming project — which resulted in a series of strategies schools can use to ease transitions — is an antidote to that invisibility, and it provides tools schools can use to help orient other highly mobile student populations, like homeless children, foster children, or immigrants.

When Jill Biden convened a gathering of researchers and university faculty to mark the five-year anniversary of Operation Educate the Educators last spring, they also celebrated significant policy gains, like the enactment of the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which smooths transitions by eliminating conflicting state educational requirements, and the “military-student identifier” provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires states — for the first time — to track outcomes for these students.

That recognition is critical, in an era where the country’s continued military action is taking place off the front pages and increasingly out of view. “It’s important to do all we can to support these families,” says principal Cooper. “At our Veteran’s Day programs, we say “thank you,” and I’d always thank our kids, because they’re giving up something as well, for their parents to take care of us.”

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