Operation Healthy Kids: Building a School Community Infrastructure that Supports Military-Connected Youth and Families
by Ashley Krombach (she/her), Senior Program Manager of Social-Emotional Health
Action for Healthy Kids celebrates our nation’s tiniest heroes in honor of the Month of the Military Child. Children of military families must learn to navigate the complex and layered challenges related to military life and culture. They typically face higher rates of trauma and other psychological and/or stress-related challenges for children stemming from parental separation, disruption of relationships with peers, reintegration into new schools and communities, and serious injury and/or loss of a parent, caregiver and/or family member.[i] These challenges often do not happen in isolation and the compounding stress can have a significant impact on children’s mental health and well-being.
This month in particular, we honor the children who pave the way to a brighter tomorrow through their strength, bravery, and resilience. As district, school, and community leaders dedicated to advocating for the whole child health, we can play a role in building a foundation that ensures children of military families feel safe, seen, and supported.
Provide safe and supportive learning environments through policy and practice.
Of the nation’s 1.2 million military-connected students, only seven percent attend Department of Defense (DoDEA) schools worldwide, with most attending civilian schools, and a small number attend private schools or are home-schooled.[ii] While parent and caregiver satisfaction surveys conducted by the DoDEA show that DoDEA schools are adequately equipped and attuned to the unique academic, social, emotional and community supports needed in response to military-life-related stressors, civilian schools are often not fully aware of the needs and challenges, and sometimes even the presence, of these students and families. Decades of research demonstrate that safe and supportive learning environments where children have the space to learn, create, explore, and grow are at the core of health and well-being. For military-connected youth, this means having access to an environment that understands the unique experiences and challenges associated with military life and is equipped to serve as a connector to community resources and support. Some ways to do this include:
- Build the capacity of district and school staff by expanding professional development training to include training sessions that explore the unique challenges and experiences of military-connected youth and families and identify opportunities to enhance classroom practices that support these students.
- Ensure that your local school wellness policy addresses school-wide approaches to preventing and addressing bullying and harassment; promoting the engagement of all students by honoring lived experience; the utilization of restorative practices in place of exclusionary disciplinary practices; and offering opportunities for ongoing, sustained family engagement throughout the school year representative of military-connected families.
- Establish a strong understanding of the resources and services available to military-connected families. Get to know the role of a school liaison officer (SLO), and offer families support in accessing and navigating these resources.
Leverage family-school partnerships to strengthen nurturing relationships that bridge the military-civilian divide.
While military-connected youth and families face unique challenges, they also share similar experiences and challenges as civilian families[iii]. From hardships and navigating life’s stressors to celebrating the joys of new beginnings – fundamentally, they want the same thing: a healthy, happy life with those they love. Despite more than 70% of military families living in civilian communities, the military-civilian divide continues to grow due to a lack of understanding and awareness of military life and culture among the general population.[iv] Family-school partnerships can play a role in bringing families and school staff together to foster increased awareness and nurturing relationships built on empathy and trust. some ways to do this include:
- Ensure that military-connected families are engaged in school health teams and create space for them to share their perspectives and advocate for opportunities for school health improvements more attuned to high-mobility student populations.
- Host family and community events centered around learning from one another’s lived experiences through storytelling activities, team building, or group volunteering and service-based projects.
- Model the application of social awareness and sharing perspectives for children through healthy lines of communication. Open a dialogue to strengthen understanding, dispel myths, and discover ways to better support one another – including the creation of space for children and families to use their voice, ask questions, and share perspectives.
Action for Healthy Kids is proud to have partners like CSX who help to make this work possible. Since 2013, CSX Transportation and AFHK have reached more than 700,000 students across 1,228 schools through 1,650 projects – working together to ensure that every child is healthy in body and mind. In 2020, we expanded our partnership to support CSX’s Signature Community Investment Program, Pride in Service, to strengthen situational and caregiver-related factors that play a role in fostering resilience and address the interrelated social, emotional, and physical health and well-being of military-connected youth and families. Learn more about CSX’s Pride in Service platform.
Stay tuned for a new collection of tip sheets, resources, and activity guides designed to support our nation’s heroes in fostering strengthened resiliency through the promotion and practice of social-emotional learning at school and at home – launching at the start of Every Kid Healthy Week.
- Learning modules for school personnel for supporting military-connected youth (Penn State Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness)
- Resource library for educators, community leaders, and caregivers (Military Child Education Coalition)
- Resource center for veterans and military families (Blue Star Families)
- The Role of School Liaison Officers (SLO) (Military One Source)
- Parent and Caregiver Guide to Advocacy & Education (National Military Family Association)
- We Serve Too Toolkit (National Military Family Association)
[i] Military and Veteran Families. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/populations-at-risk/military-and-veteran-families
[ii] De Pedro, K. T., Atuel, H., Malchi, K., Esqueda, M. C., Benbenishty, R., & Astor, R. A. Responding to the Needs of Military Students and Military-connected Schools: Perceptions and Actions of School Administrators. Children & Schools, 36(1), e18–e25. https://doi.org/10.1093/cs/cdt047
[iii] Tasher, A. What Military Families Want Civilian Families to Know. Operation Homefront. https://operationhomefront.org/what-military-families-want-civilian-families-to-know/
[iv] National Military Family Association. Finding Common Ground: A Toolkit for Communities Serving. https://militaryfamily.org/wp-content/uploads/Finding_Common_Ground__A_Toolkit_for_Communities_Serving.pdf