Communicating with Teachers & School Districts during Deployments

 

Overview

Welcome to the National Guard Family Program e-learning lesson on communicating with teachers and school districts during deployments. Deployments affect all members of a National Guard family. Children’s emotional and behavioral responses regarding a parent’s deployment may be enacted in the school environment. Children may be more anxious and reserved or angry and aggressive—or they may refuse to go to school entirely. Supportive and empathetic interventions by school staff, when necessary, can ease a number of stressors for families. At the end of this lesson, you will be better equipped to identify strategies for informing teachers and school districts of youth challenges during deployments, recognize the importance of educating school professionals about youth challenges during a deployment, and specify key topics to discuss with school personnel to enhance outcomes for youth.

Informed school personnel can help support a student during deployment.

Children spend a majority of their waking day in a school environment. In certain situations for Guard families (e.g., in the case of a parent’s deployment), youth may hear negative things about war that can add confusion and misunderstanding. By educating school districts and teachers about the unique needs of school-age children, service providers and parents can generate increased sensitivity to issues that arise at school.

This lesson provides tools and information for communicating with schools.

At the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

CHAPTER 1: Children in National Guard Families

Children in National Guard families face unique challenges. When a parent is deployed, children must adapt to a new family dynamic, learn how to deal with the absence, and manage stress.

“As the war in Iraq goes on, it’s certainly taking its toll on families—especially young kids. News radio 850 KOA’s Dan Dillard spent some time with a couple of families this week to hear their stories, and Dan joins us live with more on that.”

“Unless you’re in that situation, you quickly learn it’s hard to imagine. Thirteen-year-old Caleb Han, tears in his eyes, hasn’t seen his dad in eleven months. Do you get used to it?”

“Kind of, after a while. I still miss him a lot. I just talked to him today, but not very often—just about maybe every three or four days.”

“Their mother, Chandra Han, says since her husband left for Iraq, the boys have gotten to hang out with other military kids, and she herself has jumped right into a number of support groups. But still, it can definitely be a struggle at home to maintain some sort of normalcy.”

“Yeah, it has been missing. You kind of get into a new normalcy, I think, just cause it has been that long that they’ve been gone. So we get into new routines, and just when we talk to them, when we email.”

Children in Guard families face challenges non-military kids do not.

Children in military families experience emotional and behavioral difficulties at rates higher than the national average. Over one-third of all school-age military children exhibit signs of anxiety, worrying, and more frequent crying than their peers.

Children in National Guard families face more specific challenges. Guard and Reserve families might never live near a military installation and will, instead, look within their community for educational services, friendship, and support. Children may feel isolated because their peers aren’t necessarily experiencing the same thing. The deployment of a parent is a stressful event for both the child and his/her family. Children whose caregiver is managing the stress well will likely have a better outcome than children whose caregiver is struggling emotionally with the family changes. Some children may have experienced lengthy deployments and multiple deployments, increasing their risk for emotional problems.

Youth face a variety of challenges over the course of the deployment cycle.

During the pre-deployment stage, children may experience feelings of shock, dread, and disbelief. Their deploying parent may be busy with additional training and may not be able to spend the necessary transition time with their child. The child may feel ignored or confused. Young children may mistakenly believe they have done something wrong to push the parent away. Before deployment, older youth may become emotionally withdrawn, apathetic, or exhibit regressive behavior. They may pretend they don’t care that the parent is deploying.

Early in deployment, a child can be overwhelmed, sad, anxious, and clingy, manifesting increased somatic complaints (including stomachaches or headaches) or developing aggressive behavior. Overall, children are likely to experience a loss of stability brought on by the sudden disruption of routines. This feeling may extend to other areas of life; youth may feel that if this sudden change can occur, so can others. They may feel overwhelmed or out of control. Often, deployment is marked by a lack of news and a great distance between a parent and child.

Children’s individual reactions to a deployment can vary greatly. Previous life experiences or experiences with previous deployments can affect their reaction to a current deployment. Reactions will also vary depending on the child’s age, gender, personality, and relationship with his or her caregiver—as well as the reaction and behavior of those at home.

Post-deployment, a family will likely experience initial feelings of euphoria and joy—followed by challenges and readjustments, with family members taking on new roles. The family will need to make many adjustments to reach a “new normal.” Everyone in the family has likely changed, and finding a new sense of stability can be—for some—the most stressful part of the deployment cycle.

School-age children often have acute, immediate responses to stress.

Immediately following a stressful life event such as a parent’s deployment, children may express acute reactions within the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours. In a school setting, these reactions can include:

For most youth, these acute feelings or reactions will subside in time. For some, however, feelings remain strong and can disrupt their lives. If symptoms persist after two to four weeks, a teacher should notify the parent and refer the student to a school counselor. If symptoms become more serious, the counselor can contact the parent and offer a referral to a school psychologist or social worker.

The following symptoms indicate a more serious problem and require a response:

Children vary greatly in how they express their feelings.

It’s important to remember that youth experience stress differently and express it in myriad ways. Stressful reactions can vary by age, maturity, gender, parent-child relationships, and coping skills of the caregiver. Still, according to the U.S. Department of Education research, prolonged stress alters brain chemistry and function, causing students to have difficulty with concentration, memory, behavior, and control of emotions. Proper and timely interventions can help students reach better, healthier outcomes in the face of stressful life events.

CHAPTER 2: Schools and Family Program Staff

As a Family Program staff member, you can provide general information to teachers and school districts. You may, in fact, be giving school personnel their first glimpse into the challenges a child faces when a parent is deployed. By spreading knowledge about deployment issues, you can help ensure that school personnel, in turn, will be more understanding and supportive of their students. Practicing your communication skills can help you deliver effective presentations to school personnel.

Family Program staff can educate school personnel on deployment issues.

A Family Program staff member can, ideally, communicate with school personnel to provide educational material and general information. Family Program staff should seek to involve teachers and staff in students’ personal struggles for two main reasons. First, students model their behaviors after adults. A teacher’s response can significantly affect the outcome of a student’s experience. Second, a teacher’s involvement in and understanding of a child’s situation can help to foster a sense of class cohesiveness and support.

School staff members can benefit from general information on deployment awareness, family issues, and military culture.

Reach out through both firm and soft contacts.

As a Family Program staff member, you must develop a strong presence in order to successfully establish a connection with a school community. This may begin with a phone call, a presentation, or a letter—but it doesn’t end there. A strong relationship is achieved by creating multiple connections within a school district and by nurturing those relationships through communication, cooperation, and collaboration.

A firm contact is a form of communication that requires a response from the end recipient (such as an email, a phone call, or a face-to-face interaction), and is best used when building relationships. A soft contact does not require a response from the end recipient (e.g., a thank-you card or newsletter) and acts as a reminder or educational tool.

Finding the balance between firm and soft contacts will allow you to stay fresh in your audience’s mind without overwhelming them—or you.

To spread your message, present at school board or teachers’ meetings.

Family Program staff can present to a school board or at a teachers’ meeting about prevalent issues affecting a community or commonly affecting children. A simple web search should provide you with contact information for your local public school district and superintendent’s office. By calling this office directly (or looking online), you can gather information about school board agendas and identify the right people to talk to in order to get permission to speak.

These tips can help you prepare and deliver an effective presentation.

When preparing remarks, materials, and slides, keep the following points in mind (adapted from tips offered by the Small Schools Project):

CHAPTER 3: Empowering Parents

While Family Program staff members can provide teachers and schools with educational material on deployment issues, the parent can work closely with the school in a two-way dialogue to help their child manage and cope effectively with feelings that may emerge in the school environment. Parents should reach out to provide more detailed information on their child’s specific behaviors, needs, and progress—but they may need Family Program staff to empower and encourage them to make connections in the school environment.

Encourage parents to maintain regular contact with teachers or counselors.

Research shows that children do better in school when their parents communicate with teachers and become active in the school community. Parents should be encouraged to communicate with school personnel because they are the best source of information and personal insight on their child. Every child handles stressful circumstances differently, and direct communication between school personnel and a parent can make a child’s experience easier.

Parents can build on the outreach efforts that Family Program staff have already initiated by working with the school in a two-way dialogue to help children manage their feelings and behaviors. Parents can let schools know what is going on at home; and if a problem is occurring on school grounds (e.g., bullying), the parent needs to know about it from the school.

Empower parents to promote school involvement.

Sometimes parents may need a “push” to get involved with the school. As a Family Program staff member, you can only advocate so much; however, you can empower parents who may not otherwise feel they have the authority or confidence to get involved.

Here are some techniques that a Family Program staff member can use to empower parents:

Parents can get involved by joining committees, joining school/district planning teams, or volunteering (e.g., as a lunchroom monitor, tutor, library aid, classroom speaker on a topic of interest, concession worker at school events). Parents can also look through school newsletters and visit the school’s website for other opportunities.

Promote frequent parent-teacher communication.

It will be important for the parent to have an open dialogue with school personnel about specific issues related to his/her child. Though some elements of a child’s growth and learning are primarily the school’s responsibility and others are the parents’, there are many areas in which responsibilities overlap. It is in this “gray area” that effective parent-teacher communication becomes important.

The following tips can be passed on to parents to help them build effective communication with teachers:

CHAPTER 4: Strategies for Teachers and Counselors

Research suggests that a positive school environment built upon caring relationships among students, teachers, administrators, and parents, can impact not only academic performance, but also positively influence the emotions and behavior of students. Teachers and guidance counselors can have a powerful effect on students. If they understand what’s going on in a child’s home life, they can be better equipped to support him or her in the classroom.

The classroom can add stability when a child’s home life feels unstable.

The stable routines of the classroom can add predictability when home and family life feels unstable and unpredictable. Teachers and school guidance counselors can offer support to youth by employing various techniques in the classroom and in the school environment.

You can pass these suggestions along to school personnel when you reach out in your role as a Family Program staff member. At the elementary level, teachers can implement the following suggestions and strategies with students:

At the middle and high school levels, teachers can implement these strategies with their students:

Teachers should stay focused on the students and the learning environment.

No matter what a student is experiencing at home, teachers should stay focused on the students and the learning environment. Maintaining classroom routines can help provide a student with much-needed structure. Teachers should try to stick to consistent schedules but find appropriate times to provide support and let students know that they are not alone.

Additionally, teachers should remain objective and not express their personal feelings regarding a student’s situation. They should not, for example, express their personal political feelings about war to a child who has a deployed parent. Teachers should respond calmly and in a caring manner, and always reinforce a student’s safety and security.

Teachers will need to be patient with students. In severe or acute situations, students may need to temporarily reduce their workload or operate under extended timelines. To help students move through a traumatic or stressful situation, teachers can reassure students that feelings of frustration, anger, or sadness are normal. Teachers can expect some angry outbursts, but should remind students to act appropriately—and refer them to a guidance counselor if necessary.

Guidance counselors can be powerful allies to help students manage stress.

School guidance counselors are experienced professionals who often know the appropriate way to handle and manage a student’s stress. They can help students build coping skills. Counselors can also work with students to teach stress-relieving and relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or drawing/journaling. Importantly, guidance counselors can also make referrals to out-of-school counselors and family therapists, if and when needed.

Summary

When a child is experiencing a stressful event at home, school performance and behavior can be affected in a number of ways. When educators are armed with knowledge about a student’s circumstances, they can better equip themselves to support and encourage the student. Family Program staff can play a vital role in helping youth adjust by speaking to school personnel about common deployment challenges. It’s also vital for parents to take responsibility for communicating with teachers about their child’s personal circumstances. Thank you for taking the time to learn about communicating with teachers and school districts during deployments.

Communication can help schools support their students during deployments.

Through open communication with parents and Family Program staff, schools can find the right balance of helping a child maintain stability and structure in the classroom, while also getting support when needed. Modifications and support at school can help ease the anxiety and stress a child may be experiencing at home. Schools are in a position to recommend additional help for the child outside of school. If a child’s symptoms interfere with everyday functioning, it is time for professional help. Early intervention is the most successful.

Check out these resources for more information.