SC at war

A new normal: Helping military children adjust

mlucas@thestate.comJune 14, 2012 

It’s 7:30 a.m. in a classroom at Sandlapper Elementary in northeast Columbia and 10-year-old Michael McGill is waiting to talk to his mother in Pakistan.

Michael’s mother, Vontresia, a budget analyst with the U.S. Air Force, has been standing by while a few last-minute hiccups are worked out with their Skype connection.

The before-school Skyping program is part of a communications initiative funded through a Department of Defense educational grant. The program is among the many relatively new – and different – initiatives that Richland 2 and Fort Jackson, the Army’s largest training base, have implemented in recent years to help the children of military families.

These initiatives, once geared toward helping students adjust to the nomadic life of a military family, are now moving more toward the post-9/11 reality that students find themselves facing: often being without a parent for long stretches of time or having a parent who is dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

These days, kids might be taught less about how to be flexible and be surrounded instead with an even stronger support system than before, one that gives them a sense of stability.

“We really try to look at a lot of things,” said Richland 2’s chief planning officer, Fred McDaniel.

With more than 3,000 students in military families from both Fort Jackson and Shaw Air Force Base in nearby Sumter, Richland 2 is working hard to meet the unique needs of military families, McDaniel said.

Social adjustments

Sometimes, it’s the little things.

“We have found the No. 1 thing a child is worried about is who they are going to eat lunch with,” says Sally Patterson, with the Military Child Education Coalition.

The group is a national nonprofit that works to train educators, parents, military personnel and others on how to support the children of military families. As its state coordinator, Patterson works closely with Richland 2 educators and administrators on professional training.

Patterson says the nonprofit has conducted several major studies for the military over the years on the ability of military families and children to transition and be part of a community. One study found that these students attend, on average, six to nine schools over the course of 12 years.

“We looked at extracurricular activities, the transferring of credit and records and, also, the social and emotional impact of transferring kids,” Patterson says. “We found if those needs weren’t met, kids fell apart.”

Richland 2 works to smooth out that process in “lots of ways,” McDaniel says, from extending deadlines so that children moving to the area can get into that all-important extracurricular activity, to ensuring that credits transfer.

‘Dealing with change’

When the coalition first began in 1998, Patterson says, the organization focused mainly on transitional issues, or issues raised by students moving around so much.

“Then 9/11 happened, and the issues became bigger than transitional issues,” she says.

A recent two-day “Living in the New Normal” workshop attended mostly by Richland 2 staff addressed ways of supporting children who are dealing with a sick or injured parent, trauma and loss and cycles of deployment, and it also delved into developing resiliency.

“It’s about dealing with change,” Patterson says. “We’re trying to help them find their natural strengths.”

The free workshops, typically funded through federal grants, use a “train the trainer” approach – educators take what they’ve learned back to the schools to share with others. Officials at Fort Jackson say these programs are invaluable to servicemen and women.

“When soldiers aren’t worried about their children or their children’s education, that takes away that stress, and they can focus on their mission,” says the fort’s Army school liaison officer Keisha McCoy-Wilson.

Area schools also benefit from the collaboration between the base and the schools. McCoy-Wilson says the fort is involved with a number of volunteer projects as part of the Army’s “Adopt a School” program, whether it’s sending battalions to the schools on field days or donating time or supplies.

Back in the classroom at Sandlapper, Michael’s father, Sgt. 1st Class Mandrell McGill, an instructor of Fort Jackson’s pre-commander course, says he thinks the programs are a good thing.

“They’ve helped a lot,” McGill says as he watches Michael talk to his mother. “Especially to see her while they are at school – that means a lot to him.”

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