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Schools provide safety nets for children of military families

By Mary Richards | Posted - Mar 21st, 2013 @ 7:51am

SALT LAKE CITY — A decade of deployment for Utah servicemen means families pay a price. When parents are in the military, guard or reserves, their children are affected, too.

Utah's schools can be a safety net, if they know what to do.

A normally quiet child suddenly starts acting out in class. An enthusiastic learner's grades slip. Or a teen becomes withdrawn at school. Their teachers and friends may not know that their mom or dad has been deployed.

Kathy Allred knows what it's like. She is a military wife of 26 years. Her husband is in Afghanistan right now. They moved 19 times when their eight children were growing up.

"I used to say to my husband, you have the assignment and I have the hardship," she said.

Allred said children of active duty military may move in the middle of a school year and have to try to make new friends. Children of the guard and reserves may stay in one place, but their lives are also disrupted when a parent is deployed.

Children in Military Families
While some active duty military families are stationed in overseas locations, the majority live on or near a military installation in the U.S.
  • Approximately 60% of children of military families are school age
  • Nearly 80% of them attend public schools throughout the nation.
  • There are 625,000 children of National Guard and 705,000 children of Reserve members. The majority of them also attend public schools.

Rory Matson, a school psychologist, has seen it happen at Midvale Elementary.

"On the whole, anxiety and changes in routine make it a little stressful," he said.

Matson said not every child reacts the same way. Many may not show any signs at school, but teachers and school counselors need to know what's going on.

"The biggest thing is that the family dynamic is altered in a big way," Matson said.

"The main problem is identifying, who is a military family? Where are the children of those deployed people?" Allred said.

She now serves as the Utah PTA Military Family Appointee. She helps schools throughout Utah with these issues, as there are more than 13,000 children in Utah with a military family member.

She said the military has liaison officers to help and inform schools, and teachers can learn about each child or teen's family life at the beginning of school or through an individual spotlight.

"Identifying is the main thing," Allred said, "and then recognizing them as serving as well as their parent."

The best thing you can do for a military teen or child is to know who they are.

–Kathy Allred

Recognition can be done through assemblies, patriotic days -- the class can all wear camouflage or red, white and blue. Or they can do service projects - like writing letters or gathering care packages that the child or teen can send to a parent overseas. These can make the child feel comfort, security and support.

Matson said just the act of going to school every day can provide a lot of reassurance for a child of a deployed parent.

"School's almost half of the kid's life. There's a lot of power there," he said.

He also recommended extra communication between the family and the teacher during this time, and for the family to keep as many routines and traditions going at home as possible, too.

Allred said besides identifying and recognizing military children, the other important thing is to be there for them.

"The best thing you can do for a military teen or child, is to know who they are, and be there to support them when they need someone to talk to," she said.

The National Military Family Association listed tips for reaching out to military youth:

  • Poll the teens in your group to see how many of them have a military connection. Even if they don't have a parent serving, many teens have brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandparents serving.

  • Familiarize yourself with military life. Learn the differences between active duty and reserve component service. Look at the uniqueness of each service branch.

  • Read blogs and books with firsthand accounts about military life. Note the diversity of experiences along with the common challenges and rewards of military life.

  • Download a copy of the National Military Family Association's Military Child Bill of Rights at BillofRights and use it as guide to support military teens you know.

  • Schools can assign literature that examines military life and features teenage characters. Talk about the books with a class or group. Ask military youth to share what is the same or different in their lives from what they read.

  • Educate your group about reaching out to the "new kid." Military teens are often told to make new friends, but the community must reciprocate to make the connection happen.

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