Consultants Offer Support to Off-base Schools

By Elaine Wilson

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2010 – Most military children attend non-Defense Department schools, but military officials are determined not to allow their unique needs to slip through the cracks.

The Office of Military Community and Family Policy has expanded its Military and Family Life Consultant program to encompass non-Defense Department schools. More than 90 percent of military children attend public, private and charter schools, officials said.

“Many schools have guidance counselors and school counselors with behavioral health backgrounds,” said Barbara Thompson, director of the Defense Department’s Office of Family Policy/Children and Youth. “But we’re augmenting and increasing understanding of what a military child is going through; what it’s like to be a child in school with a deployed parent.”

The Military and Family Life Consultant program offers nonmedical counseling support to military members and their families on and off military installations, both stateside and overseas, officials said.

The child and youth behavioral military and family life consultants are a specialized portion of that program. The consultants are trained to apply their skills in addressing youth-related issues such as problem solving, bullying, conflict resolution, self-esteem, coping with deployment and reunion, relationships and separations.

The youth consultants provide services at child development centers, youth programs, Defense Department schools, and most recently, non-Defense Department schools with a large number of students from military families. The off-base school program started last spring at 24 military-connected schools and, as of today, about 120 child and youth behavioral consultants are supporting 151 schools, Thompson said.

“We started slowly at locations with high deployment rates,” she said, “and the feedback was, ‘This was the best thing you could have done for us.'”

Officials first decided to expand the program to counter a marked increase in behavioral issues, Thompson said.

“The child and youth program managers for the services came to us to say they were concerned that they’d seen a spike of challenging behaviors on the installation-based programs,” she said.

Consultants already were working with adults, Thompson said, but officials felt those services could be adapted for children and youth to meet the growing need.

The specialized consultants began working in Department of Defense Education Activity schools and summer camps, youth programs and child development centers.

While effective, “We realized there’s a gap; we can only serve so many children,” Thompson said. “We need to branch out and reach out.”

A child and youth behavioral specialist in Arkansas started the effort by reaching out to schools with large populations of military students. He was invited in and discovered that many teachers weren’t aware they even had military children in their schools when, in fact, many students had parents in the Guard and Reserve, some of whom were deployed.

The program took off from there, Thompson said. Her office began to seek people out from within the community to assist the schools. “We try to find people locally, but if we can’t, we will deploy people to travel there,” she said.

Within the school, the consultants’ role is to work with staff, teachers and parents to set up support groups and offer observations and helpful tips. Thompson called it a “global, psycho-educational approach.”

The program is another step toward addressing the unique challenges military children and their families face, Thompson said.

“[Recent] studies show deployments have an impact on our children,” she said, also citing a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that reveals the impact of deployment on Army spouses’ mental health. “We know when a stay-at-home parent is impacted with mental health issues; it can impact how they’re taking care of their children.

“There’s solid research out there that can really drive what we do, hone what we do,” she continued. “We have anecdotal feedback on how important these assets have been, reinforcing the need to develop preventive programs so issues don’t escalate to a more exacerbated level.”

Thompson said she’s optimistic the child and youth-specialized counselors can make a difference for families. This summer, plans are under way to have them work in various summer camps for military children, including those sponsored by the education activity and the Guard and Reserve.

The feedback so far has been amazing, Thompson said.

“Absolutely everybody loves them,” she said.

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