When the New School Beckons: Military Families in Transition


When the New School Beckons: Military Families in Transition

by: Kathleen P. O’Beirne

Every year, many students move with their families to new communities. Some moves are to allow one or both parents to pursue a new job opportunity, or unfortunately, a move may be the result of a job layoff or divorce. Children in military families move more frequently than their civilian peers. In addition to their mobility, these children may be faced with multiple deployments of one or more parents. More National Guard and Reserve members are being called up, and many military parents are receiving back-to-back combat assignments. It is crucial for educators and school families to understand and talk about these dynamics so they can act as partners in supporting children in military families.

The first step in supporting mobile military students is understanding the normal reactions to a move. While the process can go smoothly, there can be especially trying times as well, depending on the age and developmental stage of the child. Teens tend to have an especially tough time leaving their peers; on the other hand, late elementary school students may love the adventure. Knowing the basic stages of a move can help educators and school families understand the emotions often felt by transferring students and their families—and can help them find ways to ease the transitions.

Stages of transition

Stage 1: Anticipation and notification of a move 
Most military families know approximately when a new assignment is due to occur. The longer the forewarning, the easier it is for families to plan ahead. For high school students, advance warning may enable them to take classes that may not be offered at their new school. In many cases, their current school will allow them to take certain courses they might not ordinarily have been allowed to take.

Once the orders actually come, parents should be sure to alert their children’s schools at least several weeks before the move is scheduled to occur to allow the schools enough time to compile a thorough cumulative folder for each student and provide exit counseling. Key during this period is for the transferring students to hear from their teachers and peers how they have made a difference. Research on military families shows that the exit time is even more critical than the first days at the new school. The quality of the landing is largely determined by the quality of the launch.

A transferring student’s parents and current school counselor should communicate with the new school to share information about the student’s special needs and achievements and to ensure proper placement. If the family has been active in PTA, the PTA president at the family’s current school should offer to alert the PTA president at the new school of the family’s impending arrival. The PTA at the new school will be able to ease the family’s transition by helping the family get acquainted with the school, the community, and other PTA families.

Stage 2: The actual move
The actual move is a period of high tension in most families. Parents who make an honest attempt to listen to their children’s concerns can help their children cope by recognizing their sacrifices and courage. Parents also can help their children understand the duty and commitment of their military parent(s) that makes the move necessary.

Many military-connected high schools now have the Military Child Education Coalition’s (MCEC’s) counseling referral system, which connects families and students with counselors so they can discuss upcoming moves and their ramifications. (The MCEC website [www.militarychild.org] lists participating schools.)

Despite the widespread use of e-mail to send documents, military families should hand-carry copies of official school documents to ensure that there are no delays in enrollment.

Stage 3: House-hunting 
If military quarters will not be assigned, the family may have to search for its own housing. This is an opportunity for the whole family to learn decision-making skills, and if the family is not experiencing financial stress, can be exciting. But while finding a home can be a thrill, it can also put families on edge by taxing their free time and requiring them to deal with complicated financial and legal details.

Stage 4: Making it home
Moving requires families to reestablish order out of chaos. Boxes must be unpacked, and bedrooms and living areas must be set up. Parents can help their children attain a feeling of control by letting them make decisions about which room is theirs and where their pictures, stuffed animals, books, and other personal items will be placed.

Stage 5: Getting to know the new school 
The real adventure for transferring students begins when they enter their new school. New students get a school handbook, school map, and course schedule to add to any information they gathered before the move. The PTA and the school counselor should ensure that the school provides an ambassador or student guide to help introduce new students to the school—especially the lunchroom, which can be the most intimidating place in the school for new arrivals. (The MCEC Student 2 Student Initiative Web page [www.militarychild.org/S2S.asp] has great tips on implementing a student guide program.) The parents of new students should be contacted by the PTA with a personal invitation to attend the next PTA meeting.

Teens often find the transition to a new school very trying. They tend to be sensitive about social matters and usually hate being the object of attention. Because their parents are unfamiliar with the new area and the new students, transferring teens may temporarily lose some of the privileges they had in their previous home, such as driving and staying late after school with friends—and they may resent that loss of freedom. It may take teens one to two months to become comfortable in the new school. Flipping through scrapbooks and e-mailing friends from their previous school may help students keep a sense of self during this time.

Stage 6: Self-discovery 
Students will spend the next two to four months forming stronger connections to their new environment. They will be selective about their acquaintances and activities and may assess themselves and others in an uncomfortably intense way. Younger children usually skate through most of this stage.

Students will need to exercise care as they navigate the choices available. The “fringe groups” are always looking for new members, but the other groups tend to take a while to open up. If counselors, teachers, and families are supportive during this time, mobile students will emerge with a strong sense of themselves and a purposeful commitment to their new school and community. Students may connect to a school community more quickly if they join a school group, such as band or a sports team.

Stage 7: Turning point—recognition and acceptance 
After passing through stage six, with the self-doubt and loneliness that can accompany it, mobile students often find that stage seven is a radiant burst of joy. Something happens about six months after a move that lets students know they have arrived. They know how to solve a complex problem; they become the “go-to person” because others recognize their special skills or talents, such as their problem-solving ability. And, most of all, people know them and like them.

The pitfalls of mobility 
As is abundantly clear, social and psychological transitions after a physical move take time. At times, it may feel like forever. The most realistic way for families to deal with these transitions is one day at a time. If a student does not pass through the transitional stages within the normal time frames, then a nudge via the school guidance counselor or military family support center may be helpful.

If families move more frequently than once every two years, they may experience cumulative relocation or cumulative deployment fatigue, which occur when there is insufficient time for achieving a full transition. Students and families who have not stayed in the same place for at least 18 months after stage seven may need extra help with their new transitions.

A healthy new start
While military families are never the same after a relocation or deployment cycle, they can achieve successful transitions. And PTA can help. PTA has a network of local units that serve military children, parents, and educators in various parts of the world. Involvement in PTA enables parents to function in a familiar group setting and connect with their new community through their children’s educational activities.

Military families bring a richness of experience to their schools, their communities, and their PTA units. We owe it to them and to ourselves to help them make their frequent but necessary transitions as painless and successful as possible.

Kathleen P. O’Beirne has published many articles on and resources for military families. She was raised in a military family and is a Navy wife and mother. She can be reached at Kathleenobeirne@aol.com.