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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 Audra Classen, PhD.  Audra is an Assistant Professor at The University of Southern Mississippi in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education. Her expertise lies in supporting the academic and behavioral development of young children from birth to age eight.  In addition, Dr. Classen is actively engaged in research to develop culturally responsive and family-centered services for military families and their young children.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your current role.

I currently teach undergraduate and graduate students wishing to become teachers (i.e., special education and dual elementary/special education). In addition, my local community has a high percentage of active and part-time National Guard families, which provides me with opportunities for research and service to families.

What’s your favorite part of your current job?

Previously as an early childhood special education teacher, I enjoyed collaborating with families to support their young children’s growth and development. Some of my most cherished memories as a teacher were the times I was able to make home visits, go to ball games, and engage with families outside of the education setting. Therefore, as a professor, one favorite aspect of my current job is sharing that passion with teacher candidates and helping them to realize the value of family-centered practices. Secondly, I have enjoyed opportunities to work with military families on a few research studies where I have gained valuable information and insights. The joy is being able to integrate and embed the families’ voices, insights, and wisdom in undergraduate/graduate course work.

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

Previously as an early childhood special education teacher I worked with several military families and their young children with disabilities. Several of those families experienced deployment during the time I worked with their children.

In addition, I have several family members that serve in various branches of the military. Therefore, I can easily relate and understand the unique needs military families and their children face.

How did you come to work with military families?

The primary reason I have this interest in working with military families is due to my brother and his family. My youngest brother was deployed to Iraq when my nephew was just a month old (the same age as my son at the time). As I experienced and watched my son and my nephew develop and grow during those crucial first three years of life, I was also observing the unique challenges my brother and his family were experiencing and overcoming. Strength and resilience was gained through my brother’s early years of military life but I continued to wonder if there were other supports that would have made their lives more comfortable or manageable at the time. Therefore, I began to investigate resources that would bolster military families’ success.

Describe a rewarding experience working with military families.

For my dissertation I conducted a qualitative study where I interviewed military family members and early educators working with military families.  It was very rewarding to hear their voices and experiences.  A few important points families and educators conveyed will continue to drive my research.

First, the importance of a detailed IEP was something that I knew was important as a practitioner. However, when visiting with families my understanding of the importance was deepened. One parent used the word “transportable” to describe this concept. In addition, this parent talked about the need for practitioners to include “quantitative measures” and explicitly explain the measures used to monitor an IEP goal. He stated, that experienced practitioners and really good teachers did not convey the “science of their practice” on paper very well. Therefore, the IEP may end up vague or have less detail about the measures they use. Other parents in my study talked about their dissatisfaction with “cookie cutter IEP goals.” Several family members felt like practitioners did not really listen to their needs or goals as a family, or more importantly failed to listen to the parents report about the previous school’s services. Thus indicating that there was a lack of information included in the IEP that the previous school had developed. This meant some families had gaps and inconsistencies in the services their children received. Ensuring an IEP is “transportable” is vital to a family that may move every 18 months.   

 In addition, families shared a different perspective about the identification and evaluation timeline. Families were well versed in IDEA law so they were aware of the timelines and provisions. However, they shared from the military families’ perspective that these timelines sometimes cause a delay or gap in services, as well. Furthermore, an active duty military member perceives time differently due to multiple deployments. One family shared that during their child’s first three years of life they had only been home for approximately 15 months and they were preparing for another deployment. For this family the father was deployed during their child’s initial evaluation process that led to IFSP services and due to an upcoming deployment they were concerned that the father would not be a part of the reevaluation process, development, and transition to IEP services. This father gave a detailed account of his feelings of hopelessness during his previous deployment when his wife would call about the IFSP process. For military families this distraction during deployment is something they would rather not have, as it impacts a soldier’s safety and ability to focus on the mission.

That being said, when interviewing teachers they indicated a strong commitment and desire to communicate and support families, even if this meant volunteering to host a parents’ night out at Christmas so that the spouse left at home would have time to shop. Many educators discussed ways they support, involve and engage families. It was apparent that educators and families needed more information regarding the other’s perspective but did not have a forum for sharing such information. Families suggested the need for an expedited evaluation process that considers the unique military issues of deployment and relocation. In addition, educators mentioned wishing they could attend military family trainings offered on many bases that address the unique aspects of the military culture. Some of the issues expressed by families and educators were not unique to military families, however the military culture and nature of the active military member’s job complicates common special education processes that civilian families encounter.

It is my desire to continue this research leading to the development of other resources and/or policy changes for military families and their young children with disabilities.

Describe a challenging experience working with military families.

One of the most challenging or difficult aspects of coordinating research with the military families, beyond gaining access to families was hearing about the discourse between family members and educators. As a researcher, I was hearing a desire to work together and share resources but saw the need for a collaborative and transparent partnership between the military command and school district. It takes time for a family to begin to relax and let their guard down, but once they see we are not here to judge but to help, our relationship becomes deeper.

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 experience many of the everyday challenges that civilian families experience. Challenges such as balancing hectic careers and schedules, family time, community involvement, and navigating the special education referral to placement process. However, for military families the stress of deployment and frequent moves compound those everyday challenges.  Military connected children can face learning challenges that come from inconsistencies in education standards across states and the complications of dual military family careers. Families can also encounter the strains of recovery from physical injuries, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder due to combat.

We try to make life more comfortable and collaboratively work with military families so they feel a sense of control in the special education process. While all families benefit from active listening, open lines of communication, empathy and professional competence, military families greatly need and have a desire for a detailed and transportable IFSP/IEP. This empowers them during times of relocation and deployment. Most importantly, a detailed IFSP/IEP can sometimes enable the receiving team to develop and implement appropriate services more quickly. For young children with disabilities, this means continuity and consistency of services between school districts.

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

Be aware of the family’s strengths and needs outside the educational context. Presume that the parents want the best for their children and do have their priorities in line. Understand that military families likely have extenuating circumstances or previous experiences that cause them to react to change negatively, respond to an educator in a demanding way, and/or cause them to occasionally show up late to events. Seek to understand the family and engage them in their children’s education. These behaviors will positively impact children’s outcomes. We have to remember to empower parents with these additional tools and confidence they need to continue helping their children grow and develop at home.

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

Many families have expressed the difficulty they have managing the special education process for their children. Many educators may not understand that when a military family experiences a relocation they essentially become their child’s case manager. They are often tasked with the job of coordinating with multiple insurance agencies, military programs, and school districts at the same time. As one family described, this can be almost a full-time job by itself. Educators may not understand that when families experience relocation the military programs and services on each base and avenues for accessing those programs and services are different. Therefore, the knowledge a family gains during one relocation may or may not help the family during the next relocation.

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

Build relationships with the families that you understand their current needs for support. Be familiar with a few resources in the local community or on the local military base that may help a new family moving into the community. Ask about their previous special education experiences and get them involved.

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

I would love to see families become less fearful of the Exceptional Family Member Program and being judged. I wish educators and administrators could work together to expedite the implementation of appropriate special education services so that military connected young children with disabilities have improved consistency in services.

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 read articles, blogs, and some policy pieces currently available. I also seek out relationships with other professionals who work with military families (e.g., military family advocates, social workers, early interventionists, other professors or graduate students conducting research with military families).