Helping Families With School-age Children When Parents Are Deployed
Development and School Age Children
Elementary school children are very involved in family life, but they also have more activities outside the home than younger children. They have friends at school, sports, and after school and church activities. They need support and approval from the adults in their lives even when they do not show it, but want the approval and attention of peers as well.
Children of this age are starting to have a realistic view of themselves and the world. Between five and seven their thinking becomes more logical. They understand that bad things can and do happen.
Teachers need to work hard to help children see themselves as capable learners.
Teachers need to plan and provide activities that allow the child to compare their work to their own previous work and not to that of other children. A highly competitive classroom does not support the development of self-esteem in the majority of children.
Teachers and caregivers can actively help develop the peer relationships necessary to the enjoyment of school and life. They should coach children who have difficulty with peer relationships and plan activities that encourage and support positive peer interaction.
Before the Parent Leaves
Talk with the children in your group. Ask them about the deployment and what their parent will be doing. Find out from the child what interests them about the deployment. It may be the different jobs the deployed parents will perform, or the places they will go, or how they will communicate with their deployed parents. These interests can be incorporated into your course of study or into special activities available to the children.
The children may be willing to help other deployed families. Are they interested in helping younger children whose parents are away and need someone to play with them, or could they play with a baby while the home parent cooks. This is a wonderful time to get children focused on helping others.
Talk to the parent and child about how they will communicate while the parent is away. You can facilitate this by providing time, space, and materials.
While the Military Parent is Away
Incorporate the interests of the children into your planned activities. Writing letters to deployed parents can support parent-child relations and teach grammar and writing skills. Consider a class newsletter, the "Deployed Parents' News," to report class happenings to all their families and to send to their deployed parents. Can you provide children access to computers for writing letters or newsletters?
You might plan activities about bravery of military personnel and families in times of war. There are excellent resources and books for children about these events in the history of the United States. Listen to the children while choosing which areas to pursue.
There are also opportunities for creating a caring community of learners as the whole group focuses on the needs of families where parents are deployed. Children can find ways to help and this will allow them to feel useful rather than helpless.
Help the child stay in touch with the deployed parent. The children can give you ideas about what they need in order to stay in touch. You can help access the materials and provide time for activities.
Children may have negative feelings about deployment. Provide them with a secure and caring environment. It is okay to have negative feelings, it is not okay to act them out. Reassure the child that the parent knows their job and will be working hard to do the job and to stay safe.
When the Parent Returns
The teacher should be sensitive to the child at this time of joyful reunion. After the parent's return, the teacher can meet with the child and ask about planning a special activity for the returning parent. Invite the returning parent to come be the guest at lunch or snack, or come for a special treat. The class could make the special snack to share with the parent. Be sure to check with the parent before planning such an activity. For those parents not able to come, an alternative might be cards made by the class. The child can deliver these to their parent.
Children may have to test behavior limits as they adjust to changes the return home brings. The child may have idolized the parent while they were absent or idealized the relationship. A real parent is not a fantasy parent who is always perfect and always available and understanding. The teacher may have to help the child sort out their feelings. School age children also need time for symbolic play or creative activities to work out these feelings.
A child who is misbehaving might be signaling that things are returning to normal or that there is a problem. Use your knowledge of child development and the individual child to guide you. Help the parent see that misbehavior can be interpreted .