By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
The study found that children whose parents have deployed for a cumulative 19 months or more had lower school achievement test scores than children whose parents had deployed for a lesser time or not at all.
But cooperative efforts with schools and an increase in behavioral health resources can make inroads into countering this outcome, Amy Richardson, policy researcher for the Rand Corp., said yesterday at the 2010 Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition here.
Richardson offered a sneak peek at the findings of a two-year study on the effects of deployments on military children’s academic success and emotional health during a standing-room-only family forum, the second of four to be held during the annual meeting. She was one of several military and civilian experts to speak on the challenges facing military children and the efforts under way to help them.
Rand Corp. conducted the study from 2002 to 2008 on behalf of the Army, she said, and encompassed a sample of military children, both active and reserve, attending public schools in North Carolina and Washington state.
The impact for children began at the 19-month mark in parents’ total time deployed, Richardson noted, and the cumulative amount of time turned out to be more significant than the number of deployments.
“What’s remarkable,” she noted, “is that this relationship is stable across a number of dimensions.”
Researchers delved into the findings to see if they revealed differences among the children based on number of deployments or state of residence. They also looked for variations based on age, gender and rank or status of the parent, but found similar results for all, Richardson said.
To add another dimension to the study, researchers interviewed behavioral health specialists, teachers, administrators and counselors to gain insight into the unique academic and emotional challenges military children, both active and reserve, face when a parent is deployed.
What they found was something people have been aware of intuitively for some time, Richardson said: many military families are coping well with deployments, while others are struggling.
But the researchers also discovered that schools are thirsty for information. Administrators and teachers want to know which students have a military parent, their deployment status and what resources are available to help them so they can better address students’ behavioral health needs.
“We also found that children are facing some behavioral health challenges that can impact their academic success, and for many of the children [resilience] seemed to be waning,” Richardson said.
Also not surprising, researchers found that children who are struggling with deployments have parents who also are struggling, she noted, underscoring the importance of parental influence.
Looking to the Guard and Reserve, they found some children felt isolated within their schools and lack the type of support active-duty children draw from one another during deployments, Richardson said.
The study revealed a number of roadblocks to combating these issues, she said. The Army has a shortage of providers with training in youth and adolescent health, a situation that is mirrored across the nation. Additionally, some providers have little grounding in military culture and of the challenges families face, she added, and the availability of prevention, screening and early intervention services varies widely across the Army.
Additionally, military and family life consultants — licensed counselors who visit schools — provide important support, but monitoring and evaluation of this program could be improved, Richardson noted.
Richardson outlined a number of recommendations for the Army, noting that progress in many of these areas already has been made since the study began.
Students need additional support with their homework and school work, she said, which can be online, in person, provided through military-sponsored or supported programs, or even through volunteer services.
Richardson also suggested Army leaders create a method to inform schools about which children are military and the status of parental deployment, which could take the shape of a voluntary form handed out at the start of the year or, ideally, information fed directly from the Army to the schools.
School counselors also need better access to information on services that can help Army families. The information is scattered across several websites, and many are difficult for nonmilitary personnel to navigate, she noted. A one-stop resource for teachers and counselors who are supporting military children would be helpful, Richardson suggested.
The Army also should improve the presence of school liaison officers and encourage them to foster a more collaborative effort with school administrators. Since this recommendation was first made, Richardson said, the Army has increased the number of school liaison officers.
To improve the Army’s behavioral health care capacity, Richardson suggested increasing subspecialty pay and other support benefits to draw more specialists, as well as fostering free, community-based mental health care support through grant funding or cooperative efforts.
Telepsychiatry would offer a valuable resource to Guard and Reserve members, she said. The Army already has a pilot program at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Drum, N.Y., to reach remote populations, she added.
On prevention, screening and early intervention services, Richardson called for the “enhanced integration” of behavioral health care into the primary care setting by either collocating both services or building primary care’s capacity to address behavioral health issues.
Finally, Richardson recommended that the Army organize more regional or statewide social events to minimize the social isolation Guard and Reserve servicemembers and their families may experience. A social networking site especially for military youth, with instant messaging and chat rooms, would be another helpful method, she said.
Studies such as this one offer valuable insight into the effects of deployments on military children, Thomas Lamont, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, said during the forum.
More than 524,000 soldiers with children have deployed in support of the war effort, he noted. And as of June 30, 142,000 Army children were dealing with the absence of a deployed parent. Army leaders need to know how these children are coping, and what they can do to better provide academic, social and emotional support so they can thrive, he said.
The Army will continue to seek studies to follow children as they mature to anticipate the long-term effects of deployments and other military stressors, Lamont said.
“We need to know not just how children are doing today, but how they’ll react in years to come,” he said. “We need to understand these things.”