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Researchers focus on children in military families

As members of Congress debate proposals for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, they have an opportunity to improve public school experiences for the children of men and women who are serving the United States, according to a new article from researchers at USC, San Diego State University and Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Appearing in the December edition of Review of Educational Research, “The Children of Military Service Members: Challenges, Supports and Future Educational Research” is believed to be the first literature review on the education of military children to appear in a major educational research journal.

The comprehensive review of studies conducted since the Vietnam War recommends that schools take a more intentional approach to easing some of the burdens military children face during times of war, such as multiple deployments of a parent, frequent school changes and a lack of awareness among civilian educators about military culture.

The review was part of the “Building Capacity to Create Highly Supportive Military-Connected School Districts,” a four-year consortium involving the USC School of Social Work and eight Southern California military-connected school districts.

“It is not well known that more than 2 million students have had parents serve since the start of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan and that nearly 1.2 million military children currently are enrolled in U.S. public schools,” said the study’s first author, Kris De Pedro, a Ph.D. candidate at the USC Rossier School of Education.

Only 86,000 students attend Department of Defense schools. The majority attend public schools.

“I hope this article begins a discussion among policymakers, researchers and school reformers, eventually leading to culturally responsive schools for the children of military service members,” De Pedro said.

In a time of war, stress on military families naturally intensifies, leading to increases in negative outcomes for some families, the study found. During peacetime, students from military families may be functioning similarly or better than civilian families on different outcomes.

“What this says is that while we are at war, we see far more problems emerging in a select group of military families that are under tremendous and continuous stress,” said Ron Astor, a co-author, principal investigator of the consortium partnership and professor at the USC School of Social Work and USC Rossier. “When we are not at war, the vast majority of military families don’t have outcomes that are any different from other families and, in some respect, seem to be doing better than society as a whole.”

The authors urged schools to take an active role in understanding the pressures on military families – especially during wartime – and implement policies that support children through transitions, deployments and reunions with parents returning from war.

The creation of peer-welcoming programs, the use of the military school liaison officers, providing services and support during deployments and re-entry, and tutoring during transition periods are examples of interventions that can be used to make schools more responsive to the needs of military children, said Rami Benbenishty, a co-author and professor of social work at Bar-Ilan University.

The review recommends that military children be recognized as a demographic group so that appropriate services and supports can be provided for schools that have the highest needs.

Making mental health services available without stigma and linking families to local resources also is important. Training university students who will interact with the public at large to work in a culturally sensitive way with students’ military families would be a way to address this need, researchers said. And schools that already have developed effective ways to work with military families should share best practices with school districts that have less expertise.

The authors conducted an extensive review of research from four distinct bodies of literature – mental health, child maltreatment, research on National Guard and Reserve families, and impact of life events, such as deployment, reintegration or combat-related trauma.

Past research on military families and children has looked at military families at one point in time and has led to mixed views of how military children compare to their civilian peers in terms of psychological, behavioral and academic well-being. While some studies have pointed to more negative outcomes among military families, others have found little difference. Most of the prior studies did not factor into their analyses how engagement in war or peacetime service had an impact on military family outcomes.

The review concluded that the war-linked context likely was the driving reason why prior studies came to mixed reviews over time. Previous research focused more on out-of-school issues, such as child maltreatment, mental health problems or drug and alcohol abuse and less on academic and other school-related issues for students with parents in the military.

The article recommends that more research be done “on the contextual factors influencing military-specific risk issues, family and community supports, and the social, emotional, and psychological development of military children.”

Jose Estrada of San Diego State University and Gabrielle Dejoie Smith and Monica Christina Esqueda of USC were the other authors.

The partnership consortium between USC and the eight districts is supported by a grant from the Department of Defense Educational Activity.

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