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In Our Classrooms: Supporting Children of Military Families

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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Many of the estimated 30,000 American teens who have a parent serving in Iraq or Afghanistan are facing their own quiet battles at home and at school.

Two teens who have been through the experience suspect that girls may face special risks -- including depression, academic challenges, and even self-harm -- when a parent heads to war. Now, they're stepping up to make sure other military daughters get the support they need. I caught up with them recently to find out what we can learn from their ambitious effort.

The Team

Kaylei Deakin was an eighth-grader when her dad was deployed to Afghanistan with the Army National Guard. Classmates made fun of her when she started wearing his camouflage jacket and hat to school, but that didn't stop her. "It was a comfort thing," says Kaylei, who's now a senior at Elk Grove High School near Sacramento, California.

Moranda Hern (pictured left) and Kaylei Deakin.

Credit: Moranda Hern

As her dad's deployment stretched on for 15 months, her family life went into a downward spiral. Her mom grew withdrawn, and ordinary rituals like family dinners fell by the wayside. Kaylei took on more and more responsibility for her two younger sisters. "I felt like I had to keep the household together," Kaylei says. "It was like I stepped into my dad's role."

Moranda Hern, a homeschooled teen from Clovis, California, watched her friends "basically disappear from my life" when her dad shipped off to Afghanistan with the Air National Guard in 2007. "They didn't know how to act around me," she says, "so they just left me alone. I had no one to talk to." An only child, Moranda says her self-esteem tanked along with her interest in school. She lost weight and, at one point, covered up every mirror in her house. "It was a big shock. I'd always been this confident alpha girl," she says.

Both girls assumed they were the only ones in the world having such a hard time coping. But their isolation ended when they happened to meet -- and instantly bond -- at an event sponsored by the National Guard. Now, they've teamed up to start what they hope will grow into a national movement.

The Dream

Hern and Deakin have launched an organization called the Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs. The name is a play on the popular book and movie title, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but with a twist: BDU stands for battle dress uniform -- a term every military kid will instantly recognize.

Eventually, they hope to have an active chapter in every state. "We want military girls everywhere to be empowered, inspired, and have the support of the Sisterhood," Moranda explains. That way, she adds, "no girl will ever have to go through what we went through."

To get things rolling, they are organizing a statewide conference in Clovis, Hern's California hometown, from March 12-14. They expect 200 girls from across the state to take part in the free weekend of "support and empowerment," Moranda says, and go home fired up about serving their own communities.

Lessons from the Sisterhood

Talking with these two is an eye-opening experience. They have managed to earn support from high-ranking military officers, including Brig. Gen. Mary Kight of the California National Guard, and have shared their compelling story everywhere from YouTube to major news outlets to youth organizations like Do Something. Their upcoming conference will be the first of its kind anywhere, and promises to generate a bigger conversation about the issues facing military families.

How can educators bring this conversation into the classroom? Moranda and Kaylei offer a few suggestions:

Don't ignore military kids. Do you know which students have a parent serving overseas? "Teachers and classmates may not have a clue," Moranda says, especially if the parent is serving with the National Guard and the family lives far from a military base. When Kaylei's dad went to Afghanistan, for instance, she knew of only one other student at her school in the same situation, "and he never talked about it."

When she got to high school, Kaylei started an after-school club for fellow military kids to help them overcome the isolation. Moranda suggests having a frank conversation about how peers can support their classmates. "Don't pull away when a friend's parent deploys," she says. "They need you to stick around."

Make class a safe haven. Classroom discussions of war can hit kids hard, especially if they have a parent in harm's way. Kaylei says classmates used to pepper her with questions she didn't want to answer. "They'd say things like, 'Does your dad shoot people?' Some of the things kids say can really hurt, but teachers may not realize how it's affecting you." Moranda felt uncomfortable when one teacher brought his anti-war politics into class. "When kids come to school, it should be a safe haven," she says. "You don't need someone's political views shoved down your throat."

Encourage and empower young leaders. Kaylei and Moranda have both developed their leadership chops through this challenging experience. Kaylei says she has learned "techniques for getting people to listen, without yelling or screaming. I've realized how strong of an individual I can be." Moranda has figured out how to stay calm when presenting her ideas -- including what she describes as "a very girly PowerPoint"-- to a room full of poker-faced generals.

And both girls have embraced service as an antidote to the isolation they once faced. "Nobody feels more empowered than when helping other people," Moranda says. The secret to effective community service, Kaylei adds, is "putting your full heart and effort into what you're doing."

To learn more about opportunities to get your students involved with the Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs, visit their Web site. And please tell us about your experiences with teaching military children. How do you help them navigate the challenges?

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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

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teacherintheroom's picture

I am not only a teacher but a military spouse and parent as well. So this blog really hits home.

My husband (Army National Guard) was deployed to Iraq for 15 mos just as my daughter turned 13. (Puberty and deployment are not a good mix by the way.) Our family had the advantage of the fact that I teach where my daughter attends school. So I was able to provide her teachers with insights into her struggles and they were able to do the same for me. I found a tremendous amount of support in not only my collegues but also from my students and their parents as well. As we prepare for another deployment this spring, I have already had offers from many of my parents for anything from carpooling to lawnmowing. It is a great comfort.

But our school is unique. It is a small local private school and our school community is very close knit.

My husband, who is a public school teacher did not have similar support from his school community. In fact, we have found through talking with other public school teachers and other military families that there is a decidedly anti-military sentiment that is pervasive in academia. Unless it involves anti-war political discussion, discussion about anything military is discouraged and in some schools prohibited from the classroom.
I believe that this sentiment is what is most damaging to students.

In a conversation with one soldier in my husband's unit, he related a story where when his 8 year old told his classmates that his father was going off to war, one classmate's response was "Well, your father is going to die.". The teacher rather than addressing the needs of the student, chose to focus on the reality of death as a result of war. Needless to say, this child was devastated.

Statistically speaking, children with parents in the military are more likely to suffer from depression, behavior problems and academic struggels. They are more likely to engage in self destructive behaviors and become withdrawn. Schools need to be senstive to the needs of military children and provide staff with resources and education to help them recognize potential problems with these kids.

From my own experiences, one particular challenge is dealing with the questions that come from other non military students. Things like "has your dad ever killed anyone?" is a a frequent question that can create a variety of negative situations in the classroom. One way I have found to avoid these types of situations is to educate the class in appropriate behavior toward kids with parents at war.

Schools can help their military students and families by being aware. Administration can flag student files that require special accomodations, have learning disabilities or need reduced lunch. There is no reason why students with military parents could not have their files flagged in some way to bring the potential needs of a student to the attention of their teachers.

Also, teachers and administration need to be educated on the special needs of our military kids. Professional development meetings could include guest speakers from local military youth support programs. There are also age appropriate videos.

Our school has several other military families that are preparing for deployment. We have made the effort to bring those students together, regardless of age or grade so they can support each other. I have given our preschool teacher a dvd done by Sesame Street called "Talk,Listen,Connect.These are designed to help younger kids work through the issues of deployment.

Schools can designate either a staff member with a military backround or affiliation or who is trained to deal with military kids special needs to be a "go to" person for their school. When administration enrolls a military family, the staff members should be notified and introduced to the student and their family as a resource for them. In our school, I am that person. Sometimes all you have to do is listen to the student (and sometimes the parent) talk about their feelings or frustrations. It doesn't sound like much, but it really does help.

One important factor for teachers to remember is to think before you speak. In the same way that you would not share your religious beliefs with your students, keep your political views to yourself as well. Particularly any that relate to war. Regardless of your position, expressing your views to your students may inadvertently alienate a student who is having difficulty with their parents participation in the military.

Instead, educate yourself on the struggles that your students may have. Encourage them to share their concerns with you or a designated staff member. If you observe a change in behavior or performance, consider that it may be a result of what is going on in their young lives, not just a discipline problem.

Encourage students and their families to participate in military support groups. The army calls them Family Readiness Groups but other branches have similar programs. The leaders of these groups may be able to give you resources to help in the classroom.
There are many resouces available for teachers of military kids. The key is to be aware of who these kids are and to educate yourself proactively.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Thanks for sharing your experience. As a teacher, parent, and member of a military family, you have unique perspective on this issue.
And as you point out, teachers play an important role when it comes to modeling respect and empathy.
I'm curious how others handle the tricky business of discussing politics in the classroom. With the right facilitation, this could be an opportunity to model civil discourse.
Look forward to hearing others' suggestions and advice.

grodriguez's picture

Hello there!

WHat an inspiring story! What bravery on behalf of Moranda & Kaylei!! Congrats to them both on their efforts to have unity amongst theur peers.
I think that it is a great idea for more people to get involved. A parents deployment can sometimes go unheard of. A very delicate situation for a student whom not only has to handle what her feelings are bringing on, but also that of the parent left at home...- wow!
I think this can be such a great "foot forward" in trying to help with all aspects of having our students feel support all around them.
My brother was deployed for 15 months, leaving at home my 8 years old nephew, and 1 year old niece. I felt their pain...I don't know what is worse....being 8 and 1...and not "knowing" if daddy will ever be back (not because they knew he was deployed, but only because now he's wasn't there to have dinner then tuck them in).
Did they really understand where he was? I don;t know if we can ever know what the feelings really were, besides the obvious of crying for him, and wanting to hug him SO bad.
I think Sisterhood of the Taveling BDU's is such a positive outlet for these kids - I really do...but I am curious...what about some of the students who feel this exact way, but their parent is in prison? As teachers do we not acknowledge those situations because they are influenced negatively? - just curious.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Your last question is a tough one. I'm curious how teachers might respond: How do you reach out to kids who have an incarcerated parent?
One program I'm familiar with is for girls whose mothers are serving time, called Girl Scouts Beyond Bars. ( Not sure the status of the program, but it was doing some powerful work a few years back. Anyone have an update? Other resources?

Michelle's picture

Kudos to Kaylei and Moranda! I hope their weekend was a huge success! Thought folks might find some BOOKS written for military teens to be helpful, including:

"Finding My Way: A Teen's Guide to Living with a Parent Who Has Experienced Trauma"
Examines the teenager's experience of having a parent who has endured trauma-ranging from military combat to domestic violence to 9/11 to natural disasters.

"My Story: Blogs by Four Military Teens"
A series of blogs which gives a voice to the teen experience before, during and after parental deployment to Iraq/Afghanistan

Read all about them here:

Troubled Youth's picture

Military schools are licensed training places for adolescents who want to make their career in Military field. Training programs are recommended under the guidance of professional Military officials and instructors. Teen Military academies support irresponsible and unmotivated teenagers in achieving highest potential in each field of life. The only thing is that military institutes don't accept the troubled teens confronting with emotional, mental or psychological disorders. In the highly disciplined and strict environment kids learn valuable life skills and moral values.

Tashia's picture

As a "military brat" I really appreciate what these girls are doing because I grew up with a dad who was constantly deployed overseas. It was difficult because his work was confidential and we could not know what he was doing or if he was safe. I applaud what these girls are doing because I know that military families need all the support they can get. I was fortunate enough to have many people surrounding me who could encourage me and be there for me when times were tough, but I know that not everyone is as fortunate.

I have great respect for you and the position that you have in your school for those who just need a listening ear. I know what it is like to have a father who is gone. I know that it is crucial to have someone you can confide in and trust. I would like to thank you for being that person to so many kids in your school. Often, it is the small things that make such a difference...I remember the frustration and hurt that I harbored against the Navy even as a kid, simply because I did not understand and could not figure out how to voice my confusion. Having someone to talk to and empathize with is the best way you can help us "military brats". Keep up the good work :-)

SisterhoodBDUs's picture
Founder of The Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs

The Sisterhood of the Traveing BDUs just launched a new and improved website. The new site has blogs, resources, but most importantly, a forum for the military girls to connect with one another. Please let the military girls, families know about the new and improve website. Join us and spread the word!

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