As an educator, I’ve worked with students in grades ranging from pre-K through high school. For the better part of two decades, I’ve also been a military spouse, and I’m the parent of three teenagers. Since my oldest child started school in 2007, my children have been enrolled in eight school districts throughout the U.S. and in Germany.
Military kids tend to be flexible and resilient and bring a wealth of experiences to their classrooms, but moving around a lot does create challenges. My kids have attended some schools that did a brilliant job meeting their needs, but we have also found schools with very little understanding of the challenges that military kids face.
Below are three strategies that I’ve found help military children succeed and thrive. The best part about them is that they support all students in a classroom. Students with learning differences and English language learners will benefit from clear expectations and targeted academic supports, and new students from any background will settle in more easily if conscious efforts are made to integrate them into the classroom community.
Supporting Military Kids in the Classroom
1. Make routines obvious and expectations clear: Military kids have often attended many schools, all of which have been run differently. They need help to understand how things work at your school. What seems intuitive to long-time students can be baffling to someone who just arrived.
For example, for most of the school year in Alaska, elementary school policy requires students to come to school every day dressed in full winter gear, then change out of it and into their school shoes at the start of the day. For Alaskan kids, this seems obvious, but for a military child who just arrived from Hawaii, it certainly isn’t. Teachers in Alaska helped new students by posting pictures of children dressed for inside and for outside, walking new students through the routine, and providing physical support for younger students while they got the hang of things.
Making expectations clear serves the same purpose. School norms, culture, and rules can vary widely—some schools expect students to be silent as they move between classes, others tolerate conversation and maybe even a little rowdiness. In some cafeterias, students sit wherever they please; in others, there is assigned seating. When you share these details with military students as soon as they arrive, you help them know how to join in at your school. New kids have to ask so many questions already—sparing them one or two can ease some of the stress and anxiety of those awkward first days.
Things to try:
- Explain terms that may be specific to your school or district (like names for standardized tests or school activities and traditions).
- Provide age-appropriate visual schedules students can use to navigate through their day.
- Offer reminders to the whole class instead of singling out new students.
2. Look for academic gaps and help students find ways to close them: Curriculum is generally designed to be sequential, with each year’s coursework building on the previous year’s. When students change districts frequently, they may miss important academic content. Even courses with the same name may cover different content in different districts.
One of my sons had always been an academic high achiever—he easily finished Algebra I with an A in our previous district. But in our new district this year, he spent the first quarter failing Geometry—the course after Algebra I in both districts—because he had not yet been exposed to skills he was now expected to know. Although he caught up after the first six weeks, it was a demoralizing start to the school year.
Teachers can help new students by watching closely for these gaps and providing extra scaffolding for students who have them. Pairing new students with established students who are comfortable with the material can support students academically as well as socially. Personally inviting military students to join you for extra instruction is also a good strategy, as these students are often very independent and may not seek it out. This provides you a great opportunity to get to know these students, bolster their confidence, and offer reassurance that their struggles are related to exposure instead of ability.
On the flip side, some military students may have already covered some of your content in other schools, or learned it in different ways, which creates a great opportunity to let them shine. Inviting them to support their classmates and share their knowledge can enhance the classroom environment for everyone.
Things to try:
- Share information about your school and district’s academic support resources, and outside resources for military students that you’re aware of. For example, Tutor.com offers free services to active-duty families.
- Use pre-assessments when possible to gain insight into students’ content knowledge.
- Offer students who have previous experience with your material the opportunity to mentor their peers.
3. Focus on relationships: Being a new kid is tough, but military kids know that the best part of moving to a new place is new friendships. These kids are often friendly, social, and adept at stepping into new settings. They are wired to connect with you and their new peers.
Teachers can capitalize on this attitude by taking conscious steps to build relationships with military students. Give them opportunities to share where they’ve been and what they learned there. Many military kids have had amazing adventures—living abroad, completing monumental road trips, and experiencing the diverse communities of our nation and our world.
Because they’re looking with fresh eyes, what may seem mundane to a local is memorable for them—Mardi Gras in Louisiana, feet of snow in upstate New York, mountain vistas in Colorado. When we moved from South Dakota to Alabama, my elementary-aged children were mesmerized by warm rain—they had never experienced such magic before. Teachers have a great opportunity to connect with students by sharing these kinds of special joys, too.
Things to try:
- Give new students opportunities to share unique experiences with you and their classmates.
- Take time to learn about where students have been and what their hopes are for their new location, and share what’s special about where you live.
- Consider seating charts that allow military students to get to know new people without having to interject themselves into established peer groups.