Skip to main content

By Amy Santos, PhD

If you are working with military families of young children with developmental delays and disabilities, there is a good chance that you work with, have worked with, or will work with children and families whose backgrounds are different from your own.

The 2013 Demographics Profile of the Military Community provides data on active duty members and their families show that military families tend to have young parents with young children (birth to 5 years old). Of the total number of active duty members, 20% completed a bachelors degree or higher. Furthermore, 31% identified themselves as members of a minority group. The majority of active duty members (35%) are married to civilians. Notably, 93% of the spouses of active duty members are female. While over 60% of spouses are employed, the majority (40%) are employed in the civilian labor force. These demographics provide context and insight into the unique situations that providers may face when working with military families with very young children with and without disabilities.

Why does this matter?

According to the NEILS data, professionals working with infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families are largely Caucasian females who are highly educated and monolingual. These findings are echoed in other data sources and research studies that have examined the backgrounds of the work force for the preschool population.

There is compelling evidence to suggest that one’s background, including race, ethnicity, educational attainment, age, and economic status influence an individual’s beliefs and perceptions regarding disability, parenting styles, and expectations of children’s attainment of developmental milestones. With differences in demographic backgrounds between military families of young children and the providers who work with them, it is not surprising that these two groups may not always share similar beliefs and understandings of how young children develop and learn. These differences can lead to mismatched expectations, miscommunication, mislabeling and misdiagnosing disabilities, and overall misunderstandings between families and providers.

What can providers do?

It is the job of professionals to provide services that are family-centered, which is built upon the premise that “all families, with the necessary supports and resources, can enhance their children’s learning and development” [6]. Here are three ways that professionals can build relationships with children and families when they do not share similar backgrounds:

  • First, recognize that we all look through a different “lens” and our “views” affects how we look at (and often judge!) others.By understanding our own biases and other people’s biases, we can begin to understand why we hold certain beliefs and expectations about our world and of each other. By becoming aware that we all view our world differently we can begin to appreciate, and accept differences in beliefs, values, and practices.
  • Second, make a sincere effort to learn from families about their goals, dreams, and concerns for their children and family members.Over time, we may find that through conversations with families we have more in common with each other than we have differences!
  • Third, gather information about the communities with which children and families identify.Not every family will identify themselves by specific categories (e.g., marital status) nor would they identify with just one single category (e.g., religious group). In fact, many families identify themselves using multiple categories (e.g., Active duty Marine wife, second-generation American Jew from the Midwest). The more we learn about the different communities, the better able we are to understand some of the unique beliefs and practices that they have that may be different from our own. Local community centers, libraries, social media groups, and churches are just a few of the resources that providers can access to learn more about different communities.

Some researchers have noted that while sharing the same background as the children and families we work with may help us get our foot through the door, it is more critical that we gain the disposition to willingly embrace the differences we each bring to the table. If we remain open to the diverse backgrounds and beliefs that children with disabilities and their families bring to any relationship, we allow ourselves to learn and grow as professionals!


[1] Hebbeler, K., Spiker, D., Bailey, D.B., Scarborough, A.,  Mallik, S., Simeonsson, R., Singer, M., & Nelson, L. (2007). Early Intervention for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities and Their Families: Participants, Services and Outcomes. Final Report of the National Early Intervention Longitudinal Study (NEILS). Menlo Park, CA: SRI. 

[2] Division for Early Childhood. (2014). DEC recommended practices in early intervention/early childhood special education 2014. 

[3] Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community and Family Policy (2013). Demographics: Profile of the Military Community. Washington, DC: Author. 

[4] Saluja, G., Early, D. M., & Clifford, R. M. (2002). Demographic Characteristics of Early Childhood Teachers and Structural Elements of Early Care and Education in the United States. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 4 (1). 

[5] U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs (2014). 36th annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2014. Washington, DC: Author. 

[6] Workgroup on Principles and Practices in Natural Environments, OSEP TA Community of Practice: Part C Settings (2008). Seven key principles: Looks like/doesn’t look like. 

Image from DVIDS, CCo