Since 2001, the United States has been a nation at war. With deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the globe, thousands of American children are living without mom or dad for months at a time.
As of 2007, the average length of deployment for Army members was 13 months. More than a third were deployed three or more times.
The Army hired nonprofit research organization RAND Arroyo Center to investigate what toll these extended deployments take on the school lives of military children.
RAND researchers analyzed the test scores of more than 44,000 military kids in North Carolina and Washington. Kids had at least one parent in the Army, Army Reserve or Army National Guard deployed between 2002 and 2008.
Researchers also interviewed school administrators, teachers, counselors and other staff at schools serving high percentages of military children.
Anita Chandra, RAND behavioral scientist and co-author of the resulting report, tells TakePart that she was not surprised by the study’s main finding: Military children whose parents face deployments of 19 months or more had significantly lower achievement scores compared to peers with less or no parental deployment.
Chandra was surprised that the total months of parental absence seem to be the problem, not the number of deployments. “It just matters whether Mom or Dad is away,” she explains. “The back and forth doesn’t matter as much as the total months of absence.”
The finding held true across states and academic subjects, and was consistent regardless of the child’s gender, or of the deploying parent’s gender, military rank or seniority.
Kathleen Facon is Chief of the Educational Partnership Branch for the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), which operates military schools on bases.
Facon tells TakePart that the study affirms what the DoDEA already knew. “When a parent is deployed, it adds stress to a child's life. That stress can affect academic performance,” she says. “We take great pride in providing services and support to military families to try to alleviate some of the challenges they face.”
STRESSES AND SUPPORTS
Military-connected children face a host of challenges to their emotional well-being and academic performance. Frequent relocation is a common source of stress. Military kids typically attend six to nine different schools before they graduate. Teachers and counselors tell RAND's Chandra that students seemed resilient during the first few years of the wars, but “it became harder to bounce back and deal with the ongoing stress.”
In some cases, parents at home suffer emotional difficulties that affect their children. Middle and high-school students often take on more household chores and responsibilities, leaving less time to focus in schoolwork. “It's difficult to maintain school engagement with everything else going on,” Chandra explains.
Teachers point out that children also miss class time when deployed parents return home. “Understandably, [the deployed parent] wanted to take trips and reunite with their family,” Chandra says of the R&R block leave associated with military homecomings. “But those absences had significant impacts on the kids academically.”
To help military children, the Army provides online and tutoring support. For instance, all eligible military families have free access to Tutor.com. Chandra believes these resources help fill in gaps that at-home parents might miss due to added stress and responsibilities shouldered during deployments.
Facon adds that the DoDEA provides classroom guidance lessons, small group discussions, individual counseling and after-school deployment groups to students and families.
Department of Defense (DoD) schools on bases are well-equipped to meet the unique needs of their students, but about 80 percent of military families live in civilian communities, and send their children to non-military public schools. These children are most in danger of falling through the cracks.
IT TAKES A COMMUNITY
Chandra tells TakePart that teachers and counselors in schools with a smaller military family presence have a limited understanding of military culture.
“They didn’t know what deployment meant in terms of the types of stresses that it might introduce,” she says. “Sometimes they didn’t even know that a child was military or not until it was too late.”
According to Facon, the DoDEA takes this problem seriously. It developed an Educational Partnership Branch to address the needs of military children who don't attend DoD Schools.
“The partnership awarded grants to military-connected school districts which focus on transforming the responsiveness of educators to children of military families,” says Facon. “The majority of grantees report that the grants allow them to build capacity to ease transitions and promote academic achievement for military students. The grant activities increased awareness of military families' needs.”
DoDEA's Partnership Program also developed a handbook and a set of 16 professional development modules that can be viewed online or as DVDs. Facon estimates that nearly 10,000 handbooks and more than 400 DVD sets have already been distributed.
DVDs and handbooks are great in the hands of motivated educators, but they can't touch the importance of community support for military families, a point taken by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s new Joining Forces initiative launched on April 12.
The campaign urges all Americans to support military families, those men, women and children who year in and year out make sacrifices that the rest of us might take for granted.
Photo: The U.S. Army/Creative Common via Flickr