5 ways teachers can help struggling military kids

My family moved from Ft .Carson, CO to Ft. Stewart, GA last year. After spending four years in Colorado, it was the only home our five-year-old was old enough to know. It was difficult for her to understand. . .  and impossible for my husband and I to explain that she didn’t do anything wrong; that her friends and teachers surely missed her, but Georgia would be our new home now.

After clearly exhibiting emotional stress, her kindergarten teacher showed no mercy. Because it is a school on a military installation, it is a general understanding that these teachers should have the training and expertise to sympathize with these kids about the struggles they deal with and how to help them cope. After making several attempts at finding alternative solutions for the issues she was having in class, it became clear to me that this teacher had no intention of finding a resolution.

Approximately four million students have some sort of relationship to the military. These kids are the main subject of tear-jerking homecoming photos, they know more acronyms than most adults and they stand with pride and a hand over their heart as the national anthem plays. Yet the very people that are helping to mold their minds may not even have a clue which kids of the class are part of a military family, nor do they have any training on how to help one of these children cope with the struggles of the instability and uncertainty military life brings.

Why do the children of our nation’s heroes struggle so much academically? What are we doing for their mental and emotional well-being? The Military Child Education Coalition states that military kids move between six to nine times before they graduate high school. That’s six to nine different school systems, six to nine transfers of transcripts, six to nine first days of a new school.

That’s not to say that the teachers are to blame. . . especially if they have no affiliation to the military prior to teaching. It can be very frustrating to understand and be able to help these children handle the struggles this life brings. How can we help our nation’s teachers understand the military life? How can these teachers help maintain the academic, emotional, and mental well-being of our military’s children?

1. Be aware

Find out who in your class comes from a military family. A child may appear to be acting out for negative attention, when in reality, their father just left for a nine-month deployment. Some kids regress in their speech and academic habits, while others may withdraw from or maybe even find comfort in attaching to an authoritative figure, such as the teacher. That may be something to keep in mind if a substitute teacher is ever needed. These kids just said “see you later” to a very permanent person in their life, which may cause them to feel neglected by anyone else leaving (no matter how short-term it may be).

2. Be patient

The needs of the military will always come first. Unfortunately, that means everything else may get put on the back burner, including any issues with their own child’s education. If a student’s parent cannot reply to your email, don’t take it personally. Planning is a term used fast and loose in the military life. . . and for good reason, too. Schedules are constantly changing and sometimes one or both of the parents may be unreachable for days on end. Your patience is appreciated if we take longer than expected to get back to you.

3. Stay in the know

Although service members and their families may not be able to share specific dates or locations due to Operations Security or “OPSEC” (read more about OPSEC here), most families are happy to answer any questions you may have. It is perfectly acceptable to ask if the service member is preparing for a deployment or any sort of separation. A lot of military families get so used to speaking in acronyms and military jargon that we tend to forget that not everyone may understand that lingo.

Students may act “off” when a parent deploys, redeploys, or is gone for an extended period of time for schooling or training. Preparing yourself for any sort of unusual behavior is welcomed. Ask questions. Knowledge is power. 

4. Be understanding

It’s not just about one parent being gone. It’s having very little communication with that parent and not knowing if the child will ever see them again. It’s a lot for anyone to cope with, let alone young kids. So if a third grader is hitting or screaming or biting, don’t condone the behavior, but certainly be understanding of why it is happening. Everyone reacts differently. These kids just need to know that they have someone they can rely on. 

5. Reach out

Life is  incredibly overwhelming when the service member is gone. If you feel like maybe a spouse has their hands full, offer to help the family. Even if it’s just taking five minutes out of your day to give the parent some adult interaction. Open the door to communication for both the parent and child. Anything helps. It’s a relief just to know we are not alone. 

You will never truly know the tribulations military families face without living it yourself. But a close second is being their advocate. All these families hope for is that you’ll show some compassion. It won’t go unnoticed, and perhaps you’ll gain a friend or, at the very least, some knowledge.

By Katy Porritt