Advocating for military-connected children
Three main ideas and action steps for serving these students
February 5, 2024
The following was written by Andrea K. McClain, Ed.D., a former DoDEA principal, a current California elementary school principal.
Military-connected children are a special group of students whose parents’ military service simultaneously benefits and challenges them. Military kids’ lives are often impacted by three major factors: moving frequently, their parents’ overseas deployments to war zones and post-deployment family reunification issues. Implementing thoughtful school and district policies can help address these challenges. Just knowing more about these three main factors can help educators support students’ needs.
Currently, there are 1.6 million U.S. military-connected children worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Even if you are far away from the nearest military base, you probably have students whose parents are reservists and can deploy to war zones at any time. California has more military service members, both active duty and reservists, than any other state.
Moving frequently
Military-connected children are a highly transient group. On average, they attend six to nine schools before graduating high school, according to data from Military One Source. They may cycle through schools on military installations run by local public school systems, Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools in the U.S. and overseas, private schools in the United States, private international schools; and public schools off base. Not all military-connected students live and attend school on military installations. Schools on military bases serve only a fraction of all military-connected children. Due to personal preference or base housing shortages, many military-connected families live in the nearby towns surrounding military installations. In addition to adjusting to curricular and cultural changes between different states and countries, students also need to develop new friendships with every move. These frequent moves can impact them socially and academically.
Military-connected children face significant academic and emotional challenges when their parents are deployed to overseas combat zones or on a naval ship for months. The deployment cycle includes the pre-deployment phase, the deployment phase and the post-deployment family reunification phase. Each phase can impact students greatly. In the case of a rapid mobilization deployment (vs. a planned deployment), the pre-deployment phase may be a matter of days, not months. For example, thousands of military personnel were deployed just days after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, and many are surely parents.
According to a 2016 study by The RAND Corporation, having a deployed parent is associated with “an 11 percent increase in pediatric visits, a 19 percent increase in behavioral disorders, and an 18 percent increase in stress disorders.” Researchers also found “significant decreases in test scores for children of deployed parents, with longer deployments associated with lower test scores.” Deployment can also impact students’ classroom behavior and peer relationships. The RAND study noted that older children were even more likely than younger ones to have increased behavioral and emotional problems and speculated that their increased comprehension of the dangers of war could explain why.
Post-deployment family reunification phase
The first 90 days after service members return from a deployment are called the post-deployment family reunification phase. This homecoming period can be a time of joy as well as struggle as families reintegrate the military member back into family life. Some homecomings are happier than others. The first 90 days after military personnel return from deployment are correlated with an uptick in domestic violence and child abuse for some families. Some service members return home to financial surprises. Other families struggle with the aftermath of infidelity. Some individuals will return early due to injuries. Some will not return at all due to being Missing in Action (MIA), Killed in Action (KIA) or being taken Prisoner of War (POW).
Military-connected children face significant academic and emotional challenges when their parents are deployed ...
Action steps
When half of my students’ parents at Fort Knox deployed to Afghanistan, I developed and implemented action steps to support their academic and social-emotional needs. I’ve curated this experience into 70 action steps that can help any school support military-connected students K-12. Here are some of them:
  • Track “military-connected child” status in your student database system.
  • Track military-connected students’ test scores, behavior/discipline concerns, health office visits and counseling needs.
  • Have a plan to remediate for key reading and math skills.
  • Create a welcome protocol for newcomers.
  • Use textbook tables of contents to get a quick overview of incoming students’ skills.
  • Expedite the Student Study Team process.
  • Learn about rank, MOS, income and how it impacts your students.
  • Support the “suddenly military” child.
  • Update your attendance policies to excuse absences for special events.
  • Create a “newcomers” section on your school and district websites.
  • Learn about “third culture kids.”
  • Reach out to foreign-born military spouses.
  • Consider a book study outlining the 7 Cs of resilience.
  • Share Exceptional Family Member Program paperwork/protocols at IEP meetings.
  • Build a relationship with the School Liaison Officer.
  • Celebrate the Month of the Military Child in April and “purple up!”
  • Explore the Military Child Education Coalition website, militarychild.org.
  • Learn about the Military Interstate Children’s Compact (MIC3).
  • Find out which of your students are impacted by the deployment cycle.
  • Create counseling groups specifically for students impacted by the deployment cycle.
  • Read Chapter 6 of the RAND study on deployment.
  • Purchase/curate deployment-themed library books and set up a special display.
  • Host a free Tell Me A Story event through the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC).
  • Share information about Operation Purple Camp.
  • Support students after a notification (KIA, MIA, POW).
  • Consider purchasing Kimochis, especially Hero the Dog.
Keep in mind …
Some military-connected students need additional academic and emotional support to thrive. However, many demonstrate tremendous resilience and high levels of academic achievement. You will encounter voracious readers and impressive mathematicians. You will meet social butterflies who can move halfway across the world without missing a beat. They will make new best friends before recess and teach everyone how to count to 10 in Japanese or German by the end of lunch. Not every military-connected child needs extra support. Many make the switch to a new school effortlessly. Resilience, friendliness and leadership can be positive side effects of being a military-connected child. This article addresses areas of need because those require our support. When everything is going well, as it will for many military-connected children, celebrate their resilience and carry on!
Andrea K. McClain, Ed.D., is a Marine “brat” and an educator. She is a former DoDEA principal and a current California elementary school principal. Her first book, “Educating the Military Connected Child: A Professional Development Handbook for Educators and Policy Makers” is available on Amazon and is free on Kindle Unlimited. You can follow her on Instagram @militarykidprincipal and email her at andreakmcclain@gmail.com.