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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 spoke with Jeff Mullins, MS.  Jeff is an Early Childhood Special Educator working with the overseas Educational and Developmental Intervention Services (EDIS) Early Intervention program as an Early Childhood Special Educator at Naval Station Rota, Spain.  Jeff has provided special instruction services to babies and toddlers (birth through age 2) with developmental delays and their families for twelve years with nearly half that time being with military families.

What’s your favorite part of your current job?

I love seeing a parent evolve over time as they learn to support their child. They often come to me overwhelmed when they first learn about their child’s developmental delay. I really enjoy watching them grow to become empowered and confident in supporting their child’s development. I get excited when I can see parents making connections, understanding their child in a new light, and taking an active role in supporting their growth. When I see them take ownership of their child’s goals and feel confident in how to help them, then I know I have done my job right.

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

Over the last 6 years, I have worked with families in the Army, Air Force, and now the Navy through the EDIS Early Intervention program.

How did you come to work with military families?

I think it was my desire to live overseas that ultimately brought me in touch with military families. After an intensive search for work abroad, I was hired by my current contracting company to work in Germany with families serving in the Army. I later transitioned to work at an Air Force base in England with the EDIS program there and now find myself with the Navy. I am so glad that I have been able to meet and work with so many people across all three branches of the military. The military community faces unique challenges and it feels so good to be able to support these babies and toddlers and their families at such a critical time in their lives.

Describe a rewarding experience working with military families.

I remember having the opportunity to support a family who came into our clinic for a routine newborn hearing screen for their baby and discovered that he had degenerative hearing loss. They later learned that he had autism spectrum disorder. I watched them come to early intervention scared and uncertain of the future. Even as ‘seasoned parents’ they felt insecure in their ability to raise their son. Initially, they deferred to us as providers to tell them what they needed. However, as we worked together, they began to take ownership of the process and developed great ideas to support their son. They also began to clarify what they wanted, got connected to a local parents’ support group for children with hearing impairments and became strong advocates for their son’s needs. It was evident that they had both a vision and a plan for him and I really enjoyed supporting them through this process.

Describe a challenging experience working with military families.

My most challenging experiences have involved working with parents of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. When a family first learns about their child’s special need, they go through the same stages of grief as those who have experienced the death of a loved one. All families that I have worked with go through some form of denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as they process this new information. They often cycle back and repeat the same stages over again. Supporting them through this process can be quite challenging as denial, depression, anger, etc. are difficult feeling. A diagnosis alone can be incredibly life-altering for a family, but with military families, a diagnosis of ASD can often mean a compassionate reassignment to the states to pursue therapy resulting in yet another move overseas. Also, the parent may receive the diagnosis alone while their spouse is deployed and they are left to deal with this news away from their family or support system. So, handling the feelings and responses of these families can be quite challenging. But, by staying warm, compassionate, and empathetic during this time, we as early interventionists can help families move on to become strong advocates for their children.

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

The complexity of the needs of families is greater within the military than outside. The layers of need can be pretty complicated when supporting a family with a child with special needs overseas. They are living in a foreign country, away from their support system, and often parenting without the physical support of their spouse. Military families endure hardships beyond what other families often face. They deal with ever-changing and demanding work schedules, are sometimes asked to cancel family vacations to respond to the call of duty, and usually have to uproot their family every 3-4 years. Supporting families in the military requires much more of an early intervention provider than it would with other types of families.

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

Involve the deployed parent in whatever capacity they are willing to participate. Even though military parents are away, they still desire to be involved in what is going on for their child, so enabling them to participate via phone, Skype, or e-mail can be very empowering for them. This is also a very positive, connective force for the family at home as they can feel more united working together with their spouse, even from a distance. I remember holding visits with a father and his kids while the mother was using FaceTime to participate from her deployment location.   She still felt like an integral part of the team despite being so far away. Remember to always assume that family members want to participate and enable them to do so however they can.

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

The most common stressor I have observed is transitioning early intervention services from the family’s current location to the next. Finding the appropriate contacts, ensuring that they have all the required paperwork, navigating Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) clearance, and the anxiety associated with getting acquainted with an entirely new early intervention team has always proved very challenging for the families I have supported.

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

Be humble and approach the family with fresh eyes every time. Do not assume that you understand the child and family and what is best for them. Allow them to teach you what is best for their unique family and you will gain their trust and have a greater impact on the child as well.

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

I would like to change the perception of the Exceptional Family Member Program as a “career killer” and a negative byproduct of participation in early intervention. Beyond the paperwork, EFMP can be a great and supportive resource for families as they locate assistance for their child with special needs. One of the military bases that I worked on had a full-time EFMP Family Support Coordinator who organized events, provided families with resources and information, and more. I would like to see every military base have a coordinator that would bring a supportive face to EFMP so that parents could look to them for the help they need as opposed to seeing EFMP as a source of endless paperwork and limiting them from their desired duty station.

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 utilize the military family resources from Zero to Three which include a number of excellent children’s books that prepare children for the deployment and return of their parent. I always appreciate the helpful trainings and resources on the Military OneSource website. I have attended professional development activities with Specialized Training of Military Parents (STOMP) and the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC). I have found a number of resources and educational opportunities through the Penn State University Clearinghouse for Military Readiness as well.  And, of course, OneOp website and webinars have been an excellent support in my learning about military families as well.