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Field Talk is a monthly blog post sharing the voices of early childhood providers who serve or have served military families of young children with disabilities (birth to 5 years old).  We hope you find it to be educational, personable, and encouraging.

This month we welcome Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff, Ed.D., NCC, NCSC, TLC Trauma and Loss school Specialist.

Dr. Ratliff is the Program Director and an Associate Professor of the M.Ed. School Counseling program at American Public University/American Military University.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Describe your current role.

I serve as a content expert in school counseling and educate students who have a desire to be a professional school counselor in P-12 school settings. Many of my students are military spouses or in the military, so we often discuss needs and resources for military families through our program curriculum.

I am fortunate to work for a university founded on supporting educational opportunities for our military and public service workers. We serve those who serve and that is very rewarding.

What’s your favorite part of your current job?

I love preparing my students to become professional school counselors. They have the amazing opportunity to impact the lives of students and families within the U.S. and abroad. The diversity of our learners is incredible and I truly enjoy supporting the educational goals of our students, many of whom are military connected. Knowing that we are filling a need for developing quality school counselors across the globe is a responsibility I take seriously and I love hearing from graduates who are making a difference on the front lines in our schools.

Tell us about experiences you have had working with military families.

First and foremost, I have personal experience as a former military kid, so I had to cope with the frequent moves, confusion of school transitions, and absence of my father figure while he was in Korea and temporary duty (TDY). I have now been a military spouse for 20 years and have a genuine understanding of the challenges of military life as an adult.

Professionally, I was employed as a school counselor in the Ft. Bragg, North Carolina and the Washington, D.C. areas where I had the opportunity to work with military families and military children for 12 years. I helped children transition to new schools and adapt to new social environments and support systems. I facilitated group counseling for military children after 9-11 when constant deployments were in the beginning stages of “normal” life for these families, and I provided resources to support military families outside the school setting.

How did you come to work with military families?

Initially, military children and families were a significant part of the school populations where I worked, so meeting their needs was part of my role as a school counselor. However, the most important part of my work started after September 11th when I was working at an elementary school in North Carolina. For the remainder of that year, I shifted my focus in the school counseling program to address the needs of children with deployed parents and the spouses remaining behind. After implementing several counseling groups, one local family went so far as to transfer to my school, so their child could participate in my small group counseling program. That experience helped me realize the importance of providing free, accessible services to military families in “neutral” settings. Although access to counseling services has improved, there is a stigma to seeking counseling within the culture of the military, so providing services in the school setting was viewed as a normal part of children’s educational experience and removed some of the stigma.

Describe a rewarding experience working with military families.

Military families have a great deal of resilience despite the challenging circumstances they may face. One particularly rewarding experience occurred when I was working with elementary age students in group counseling. After a few weeks of sharing feelings of sadness, anxiety and anger, the group dynamics began to change drastically. After the initial shock of deployment and separation, the group members developed a new sense of resilience. They began to express pride in the deployed family member, began to express healthy coping mechanisms, and found a sense of community and support with one another. Watching them develop through the grief cycle and find strength and resilience was very rewarding. Watching members of the group provide support to each other helped to secure some normalcy in another otherwise not normal situation of having a parent sent to war.

Describe a challenging experience working with military families.

I could name several challenges, but if I have to describe just one it would be the transient nature of military families. There are several frustrations associated with changing schools, learning about new resources and new processes, and adapting to new environments. Continuity of care and stability is important and military life means you often have to disconnect from your support systems on a frequent basis. Some of the most challenging situations are when you finally see progress and then the family moves away. For example, evaluating students for gifted education or special education services is not a quick process. There have been many times when we were at the verge of securing resources and placements at the time when the student moved to another school district. This sometimes requires students to endure further testing and adjusting to a new environment before decisions can be made, and therefore services may be delayed.

From your experience, how are military families similar and different from other types of families? How do you change your practice between families?

Military families often transition from being together, being separated, being reunited, enduring many high stress deployments, etc. For this reason, the family unit is constantly changing. In my opinion, military families share some characteristics with single parent families, particularly when one parent is deployed or away for long periods of time. In some cases, both parents may be deployed and this creates a unique situation where other family members are taking care of the children. This can uproot children and place them in a new environment with new rules, not to mention the grief they experience being away from both parents. Military families do have added stressors related to long separations and the anxieties that accompany lapses of communication, and missing holidays, sporting events, and graduations.

One essential skill in counseling is the ability to adapt your approach and consider the unique culture of clients you are working with in practice. Understanding the transient nature of military families and understanding the family dynamics of separation, reintegration, and the deployment cycle in general, I am more diligent in seeking out resources for social support and more aware of assessing emergent needs. I have found that children need their non-deployed parent to exhibit resilience and optimism. In order to do that, non-deployed parents must have their needs met. This could be providing resources for respite care in order to provide self-care time for a non-deployed parent. I truly believe that you must take care of yourself before you can effectively take care of others.

As providers, how can we support military parents who are deployed or away frequently due to trainings/school?

Communication is key. Many of the interventions implemented in my small group counseling program involved communicating with the deployed parent. Even if communication is not immediately available, we can find creative ways to include the deployed parent. For example, my students recorded an ongoing journal about things they were doing while Mom or Dad were away and they would mail them monthly to their parent. This bridged the gap between what the parent was missing and helped the child connect with the parent through their daily activities even though the parent was not physically present. Some of the best experiences were when the deployed parent would return and thank us for providing that connection to their child while living a world away.

Describe a specific stressor that military families with whom you have worked have shared or experienced.

One specific stressor that tends to be a theme in working with military families is the constant rotation of deployments. It is a rollercoaster ride from the time of finding out about a deployment to the anticipation of them leaving to enduring the worry and stress while they are in harm’s way, and then the emotions associated with the homecoming and having to redefine life again as a family. Roles within the family change frequently and readjusting to those roles can create added stress. If you add symptoms of PTSD to the reunification, it can be even more complicated. I have worked with many families experiencing marital distress, coping with PTSD triggers, and learning to live with irritability or loss of family functioning – things that they did not have to cope with prior to deployment.

What “insider” tips or advice do you have for service providers working with military families who have young children with disabilities?

It is important not to assume that all military families who have young children with disabilities have the exact same needs. Although military families may share common experiences, they are not all exactly the same, just as children with disabilities are not all the same. It is important to ask questions, assess immediate needs, identify immediate sources of support, be familiar with the challenges and strengths associated with military families, be flexible, and have a system in place to assist with expected or unexpected transitions to new duty stations or other relocations. Also, as a service provider it is essential to know the community in which you work and be able to provide helpful support channels for various needs.

If you could change or improve one thing for military families with young children with disabilities, what would it be?

One improvement that I think needs continued attention is continuity of care. There should be a way for military families with young children who have disabilities to move from one place to the next with no interruption or delay in receiving services. I know some cases where the transition was not handled smoothly and children were on waiting lists to continue care they had on a regular basis.

What types of resources have you sought out to feel more confident and competent at meeting the specific needs of military families? (e.g., trainings, blog posts, organizations, etc.)

I attend trainings at counseling conferences, seek out information from publications and newsletters from the Military Child Education Coalition, and seek out research on topics related to military families. It certainly has helped to have firsthand knowledge of military culture and military life.