Published Online: April 6, 2011

Study Finds Children's Learning Suffers When Parents Are Deployed

After nearly a decade of U.S. military action in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, extended deployments have become a new norm—and an academic and emotional burden—for military children.

Army children coping with a parent’s long-term deployment—19 months or more—have lower test scores than their peers, including other military children, according to a new study by the RAND Corp.’s Arroyo Center, in Santa Monica, Calif., which conducts research for the military. Yet their problems can fly under the radar of school staff who have not been trained to support them, researchers found.

“Unfortunately, we don’t find [the results] surprising,” said Kathleen Facon, the chief of educational partnerships for the Department of Defense Education Activity, which operates military schools on bases. “One of the greatest difficulties military children will face, regardless of additional stresses of relocation and school transition, is the effect of being apart from one or both parents who have been deployed.”

The RAND researchers studied more than 44,000 students in North Carolina and Washington state who had parents of any rank in the active or reserve Army or Army National Guard who were deployed between 2002 and 2008. They also conducted interviews with staff at 12 schools that served high percentages of military children.

Deployment Deficits

Children of Army parents away on extended military deployment falter in math and language arts performance, according to a new study by the RAND Corp.’s Arroyo Center, which studies the military. Looking at students in North Carolina and Washington state, researchers found that military students’ scores were particularly low, compared to peers, when their parents had been deployed for 19 or more months.

While the standard Army deployment time is 12 months, that was extended to 15 months from early 2007 to August 2008, and researchers found the down time between deployments had shrunk considerably from the Army’s stated goals of two years for active and four years for reserve service members. While emotional good-byes can seem traumatic, researchers found that the cumulative time parents were away mattered more than the number of deployments. As of 2007, more than half of the Army had been deployed at least once, for 13 months on average, the study found, and more than one in three Army members had been deployed three or more times.

Academic Difficulties

Overall, every month a parent is gone seems to hurt a student’s academic achievement a little, researchers found. In Washington, for example, each additional month of deployment was associated with about an average 1.18-point difference in the reading achievement scale score.

High school students did not show significant ill effects from parents’ long deployments. However, the cumulative effect of 19 or more months of absence by a parent led to bigger problems for younger students, particularly for middle school students. In North Carolina, middle school students with parents on these extended deployments had scores .05 of a standard deviation lower in reading and .6 in math than did military students whose parents were deployed less than 19 months or not at all. In Washington their scores were .13 standard deviation lower in reading and .14 lower in math, compared to students with parents on shorter deployments.

For perspective, Washington’s gap was about as big an effect on student achievement as a landmark experiment known as the Tennessee STAR study, found for reducing class sizes to less than 16 students.

“While people think that children find multiple deployments easier, they don’t. They get harder,” reported one Military Family Life consultant, part of a short-term counseling program that supports military families, in the study. “Their parent is on 3rd, 4th, 5th deployment, and they get tired of it. [It] also depends on casualties in [a] parent’s unit. If [children are] hearing of a lot of injuries, casualties, they are obviously more scared.”

The study builds on other recent work showing the strain on military families. A 2010 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the wives of active Army members were at higher risk for a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. That parent stress trickles down to school-age children, according to a 2009 study, which identified one in three elementary-age children of deployed military members as at high risk for social and psychological problems, with the risk greater for children whose remaining parents had high stress.

Moreover, military families, already a highly mobile group, tend to become more so during deployments, the report found. Students may live with a remaining parent, extended family, or friends, and change homes during the course of the year, leading to missed school. Teachers reported anecdotally in the RAND study that children of deployed personnel were more likely to miss school or homework assignments.

School Supports

Department of Defense schools on bases, which educate about 20 percent of children of active-duty military members, include intense supports for children of deployed service members, said Tricia Cassiday, the DoDEA director of pupil personnel services. Many schools include faculty who are on active duty and may be deployed, so “even in areas that are not highly deployed, the school community is a military community and eligible for full support to their particular [military] mission,” Ms. Cassiday said.

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Counselors and administrators prepare students with classes on the challenges of deployment and hold small-group discussions throughout the deployment to talk about specific problems, such as fear and anxiety, changing family roles, and relationship skills, Ms. Cassiday said. The schools also recruit service members returning from deployment to “talk to the kids about the geography, let them see a camel spider, things that will interest them” and help them feel connected to their deployed parents, she said.

By contrast, RAND researchers found regular district school staff, even those close to a military base, frequently are left out of the support loop. Children of deployed reservists are especially likely to be overlooked.

“Teachers and counselors told us that, in many cases, the only way they learn a child’s parent has been deployed is when the child’s grades are dropping, and the parent or guardian informs the school that the mom or dad was deployed,” said Amy Richardson, the lead author of the report and a policy researcher at RAND.

Teachers and counselors reported in the RAND study that students often had to take on more household responsibilities, including chores and sibling care, and they noted that the remaining parent may become distracted from normal school involvement, such as helping the children with homework or responding quickly to dropping grades.

Policymakers have been pushing to develop more supports for military children, particularly those who attend non-DoD schools. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, has made support for such students a centerpiece of her advocacy work, and the Washington-based American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education just signed an agreement with the Military Child Education Coalition to incorporate more preservice training for teachers on how to support military children.

DoDEA also provides professional development staff at non-DoD public schools. The University of Southern California at San Diego and eight school districts in San Diego have partnered under a DoD grant to create more supportive school climates for military children near Camp Pendleton, the Marine base located there. University students in social work who have a military background work with about 40 schools to train teachers and develop counseling and other support programs. This year, California also added a new section to its annual Healthy Kids Survey specifically targeted to schools with high military-child populations.

Vol. 30, Issue 28

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