Military Family Students Face Extra Transition Obstacles Beyond COVID Hurdles

If the typical American student has had to face turmoil in education this year, students who are the children of military parents face it throughout their young lives. More than three-quarters (77 percent) have moved twice or more during grades K-5, four in 10 (42 percent) have moved just as often in grades 6-8. And a quarter have done the same as high schoolers. A recent survey reported that the military family students take between one and three months to adjust to a new school. The hardest grade for adjustment? Ninth.

As a student of a parent in the U.S. Navy, told researchers, "Sure, I have lots of stories of my fun, exotic travels but it all has a price. I have attended four different schools in the past four years and it is not easy. In fact, it’s pretty exhausting. I might seem a little cold, but it's only because I've learned that you never know when you might have to move and suddenly say goodbye to your friends."

Each time the students move, they told researchers, they have to adjust to the new school's requirements, schedules and resources; take a different version of the entry-level exam; maneuver through the "disparity" in school technology; and deal with "a lot of different teaching styles" based on the areas where they live.

On top of those hurdles, frequently, schools require the students to repeat courses they've already taken, face different graduation requirements from state to state and, because of the constant moving, can't always participate in extracurricular activities and "rarely have the opportunity to take enjoyable courses that would pertain to a possible career path."

The survey was undertaken before the COVID-19 shift to online learning by the Military Child Education Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for "quality educational opportunities" for the 1.2 million children whose parents are in military. The project drew responses from 5,100 military-connected students in high school as well as parents of K-12 students, veterans and educators.

Social and emotional supports were particularly important for this group of students. They expressed frustration with a "lack of control in life choices and circumstances; " the need to adjust to and figure out how to work "in an entirely new environment where the social norms may be very different from their previous location"; and hostility from other students due to differences in political ideology, "lack of compassion from school personnel" and having little access to extended family members. The top social-emotional concerns for students were feeling accepted and "fitting in" to a new school culture, making friends and managing stress. Those also ranked in the top three for parents and professionals.

Being unprepared for curriculum differences ranked high among the academic concerns expressed by respondents. That was number one for students and number two for parents and those in "professional" roles, such as teachers, counselors or principals. Addressing variations in state academic standards was also in the top three (number two for students, number one for parents and number three for the professionals).

Section 504 and special education rules and regulations have proven especially challenging to this segment of families. Twenty-four percent of parents said they had a student with "exceptional needs." Among their worries: inconsistency between schools regarding plans and the reduction in services that can happen when a student moves from special education, per the state or district regulation, to a Section 504 plan. As the report explained, "The new school might require testing to confirm the need for services, while services might be reduced in scope from the previous school, and/or staff might be unwilling or unable to provide services stated in the IEP/IAP." If those students are placed in a regular classroom for monitoring and interventions in the least restrictive environment, even temporarily, they said, learning gaps begin to widen.

One area where definite improvements could be made, according to parent respondents, was communication. As school transitions are occurring due to military demands, parents have to hustle. Yet often, they told researchers, phone calls and emails weren't returned; there was a "lack of timeliness in response to records requests"; and websites had outdated information regarding school rules, regulations and schedules.

While the school professionals reported high confidence in assessing transcripts and eligibility of incoming military students, they were "least confident" in specific areas: enrolling early learners (50 percent said they weren't confident), handling the differences between states regarding graduation exit exams (64 percent) and dealing with graduation-waiver requirements for students who have moved in their senior years of high school (67 percent).

The report offered guidance on how schools can meet the needs of military-connected students. A biggie for the students was having a "student-led, campus-based student transition program." Parents suggested designating an on-site staff member to act as a "military liaison" or point of contact. Both groups also suggested that schools provide a web page with information that supports making the transition to the school, having specific activities for military-connected students and providing professional development to staff on how to support military students.

The full report is openly available on the MCEC website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.