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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 talked with Dora, MS, CCC-SLP.  Dora is a speech pathologist and currently serve children with a variety of needs including autism, cochlear implants, apraxia, phonological disorders, and language disorders.  She currently is employed by a Children’s Hospital, which is part of a large University Health Care system. In this position she serves children in an outpatient therapy center which provides physical, occupational, and speech therapy to children from birth through age 18.  This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your favorite part of your current job?

I enjoy being part of a team of therapists who focus on the whole child. There is nothing better than working in a collaborative setting where you can brainstorm ideas with other therapists and coordinate services with other care providers.

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

I served military families while employed by a private practice; the majority of children were in an early intervention program or at developmental day centers. In my current setting the military families I serve are National Guard or Reserve families.

How did you come to work with military families?

I became an active duty military spouse and moved to an area with a large military installation. I later had my own children, one of whom has special needs, and have experienced being a military family receiving special education services.

Describe a rewarding experience working with military families.

A rewarding experience I had serving a military family was when I was working with a 2 year who had complex medical needs. This child had a tracheostomy and we were doing Passy Muir speaking valve trials. I was there when this child’s mom heard his voice for the first time and later when his mom heard “mama” for the first time. This was an unforgettable experience and I was blessed to be a part of a special moment for this military family.

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 are similar to other families in that they have the typical day-to-day challenges non-military families face. They also have the same emotions with regard to receiving a diagnosis for their child or giving birth to a child with a disability. Military families are “real” families with “real” day-to-day challenges that other families face. The difference is the additional things military families have on their plate. They might deal with an active duty parent leaving for training, preparing for a deployment, and returning from a deployment. There are constant adjustments that are being made in a military family’s life. Also, many military families live away from their extended family, and other military families become their support system. These families have a bond and support each other unlike the non-military families I have served.

Another difference when serving Reserve or National Guard families is that these families often make major adjustments when one parent is activated and away from the family. These families have to switch from a civilian life to being an active duty family when the service member is activated. Sometimes these families may not live in an area where there is a military installation and the community and providers may not be aware of the best ways to support the family.

I changed my practice to accommodate and understand schedule changes and made efforts to include the active duty parent(s) in order to make them an active part of the care team. Often the active duty (or activated) parent may feel left out of the therapy plan because they may be away or just returning from training/deployment.

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

As providers one way we can support military parents is to include them using email, Skype, and Facetime, if these are options. Many years ago this was not an option for families, but now depending on the circumstances of the training/deployment, the parent may have access to the Internet. This is a great way to include the parent who is away. Another way is to meet with the parent before he/she leaves and go over the treatment plan and ways this parent can support the parent who is home with the child(ren). Additionally, once the parent returns and has had time with the family, meeting to discuss progress and the current home program for the family is also helpful. If providers assume the parent at home will explain everything to the spouse who is away, this can put additional stress on the spouse at home. I have found that trying to work with the family as a whole yields better progress, as well as unity within the family.

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

One stressor I have seen in military families is when one parent is deployed or away at training, the parent at home with a child who has a disability may need respite. Having a child with a disability can be challenging, but when one parent is away then all parenting and household responsibilities fall on the parent holding down the home front. While there may be respite services available to some families, other families may not seek these out or qualify for them.

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

First and foremost if you are not familiar with military language and acronyms – learn them! You need to know what these things mean when the family talks about what is happening in their life. Another suggestion is to learn the specific needs of the area in which you serve families. For example, the needs of Reserve and National Guard families are different than active duty families. When serving active duty families consider the kinds of units in the area. Learn about them so you will know what those families’ schedules and challenges are like. Consider: Is it a unit that deploys frequently for short durations or time? Is it a unit that does less frequent deployments but for longer periods or time? Is it a training installation where service members may be away for training or teaching frequently? In my experience, when working with families, each military area has unique needs to that specific area. In order to better serve families, learn about the area and its unique needs.

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

I would like it to be easier for families to transition services when moving from one place to another, to alleviate some stress on the families. These families are extremely resourceful, but that does not mean providers shouldn’t help ease the process a bit.

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 learned about being a military wife while I was serving military families. I was fortunate to have other wives and providers mentor me through that process. Resources like the Military Family Learning Network are so valuable as they provide information that is easily accessible for providers and families.