Virtually every school district in the United States educates a child whose parent or guardian is serving in the Armed Forces. This May for Military Appreciation Month we asked Timothy Cavell, University of Arkansas, and Renée Spencer, Boston University, to discuss their IES-funded project on school supports for military-connected students.
What motivated your team to study military-connected students?
We got interested in studying military-connected students through our work on youth mentoring. We saw the potential for school-based mentoring to offer a measured response to the needs of military-connected students who are generally resilient but who, at times, need extra support. With funding from IES, we developed a system for delivering school-based mentoring that was anchored by a district-level military student mentoring coordinator who forged home-school-community action teams composed of school staff, military parents, and community leaders. This project heightened our sensitivity to the high mobility that characterizes military-connected families. These students experience 6 to 9 moves during their K-12 years—a mobility rate 3 times that of non-military children. Our current IES project, the Active-Duty Military Families and School Supports (ADMFSS) study, looks beyond mentoring to explore other kinds of supports that might benefit highly mobile military students and parents. We want to know how school supports might foster school connectedness for military students and parents.
What are your preliminary research findings?
We’re still in the early phases of data analysis and working on manuscripts for publication, but we can share a few things we’ve learned so far. Our findings are based on collecting three waves of parent and student data across two separate cohorts of elementary and middle school students (N = 532).
- Personal connections seem to matter most to military connected students and parents. Of the many types of school supports we measured, including things like welcoming practices and social and emotional learning supports, students rated having teachers help new students feel welcome when they first move into the school as most important. Parents rated ongoing communication with the school as most important.
- School supports likely matter. In preliminary analyses of our data, we’re finding associations between measures of school support and academic and psychosocial functioning. Parents who reported receiving school supports they considered important also reported higher quality parent-teacher relationships, stronger perceptions that schools were welcoming of military families, and less parenting stress compared to parents who reported receiving fewer school supports they considered important. Students who reported receiving school supports they considered important reported feeling more connected to school, higher academic efficacy, higher school engagement, and greater family support than students who reported receiving fewer supports they considered important. Although military-connected parents often noted a preference for not being treated differently from civilian families, they do appreciate school supports geared specifically for military-connected students. Some examples include an orientation, open house, or school tour at the beginning of the school year; lunchtime groups specifically for military-connected students; and access to the military family life counselor.
Based on your preliminary research, what advice would you give schools on how to best support military-connected students?
Most military families seem to weather the stresses and strains of multiple moves, but there are times when these families and students need additional support. The majority of military-connected students attend civilian schools where teachers often lack understanding of and appreciation for military family culture. We learned from our work that military-connected parents greatly appreciate when school staff acknowledge the distinct nature of military family life and “see” their family’s sacrifice. Simply recognizing the distinct challenges and sacrifices these families encounter can go a long way, and small accommodations (for example, not penalizing students for being absent on the day an active-duty parent returns from deployment) are highly valued.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of this project for you as a PI?
Without a doubt, it’s the level of appreciation expressed by the families who participated in our study. We were surprised that many felt our study was an effort to see the challenges faced by military-connected students, a group often considered the most invisible within a school. It is meaningful to engage in work that touches the lives of families who make important sacrifices to serve our country.
What are the next steps for your research team?
We just received recommendation for funding from the Department of Defense to develop and conduct an initial evaluation of a digital tool that can be used to support the school transitions of military-connected students in the elementary and middle school grades. This tool will capture information about the transitioning military student that is catalogued in a teacher-friendly e-dossier that parents can share with new teachers before the student arrives in their classroom.
We hope this tool will empower military-connected parents to act with greater agency when their family moves, and their student makes yet another school transition. By sharing this information with the new school, it provides military-connected students with just-in-time support and receiving teachers with just-in-time training about military family life and the needs of this new student.
Renée Spencer is a professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. Her research is rooted in relational perspectives of human development and much of her work focuses on distinguishing factors that facilitate positive and meaningful youth mentoring relationships from those that contribute to mentoring going awry. Dr. Spencer’s research highlights the importance of tailoring mentoring to the specific needs of special populations of youth, such as systems-involved and military-connected youth.
Tim Cavell is a professor in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Arkansas. His research focuses on the role of parents, teachers, and mentors in selective interventions for children who are highly aggressive or chronically bullied. Dr. Cavell also examines school-based strategies to support elementary school students from military families.
This interview blog is part of a larger IES blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) in the education sciences. It was produced by IES program officer Vinita Chhabra (Vinita.Chhabra@ed.gov), parent of military-connected students. For more information about the study, please contact the program officer Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov).