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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 to Jill Eversmann, MS, CCC-SLP.  Jill is a speech and language pathologist (SLP), as well as the owner of Speech Signs, LLC.  She also works as a clinical supervisor for undergraduate SLP students and an adjunct professor at Columbia College, Columbia, SC.  Jill has a specific interest in and understanding of military families due to her husband’s service in the Marine Corps.  She has a great deal of experience with the military lifestyle and also with military families.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your current role
As a pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), my career has focused on working with children aged birth-5, and their families, to help improve the communication skills of children with speech and language delays and disorders. I have worked in early intervention (birth-3), in the 3-5 year old itinerant program at 2 different school districts, as a SLP in a state School for the Deaf, and in a preschool program for deaf/hard of hearing children.

In addition, I have started offering workshops and professional development seminars to teach parents and professionals some basic sign language as well as how, when, and why to use sign language with pre-verbal and nonverbal children.  The other topic I frequently present on is success in early intervention.

What’s your favorite part of your current job?
I feel like I have the best job in the world! While I really enjoy so many aspects of what I am doing at this stage in my career, my favorite part is meeting and working with a variety of children and families and together, finding ways to help them learn to communicate.

Tell us about experiences you have had working with military families.
As the wife of a former Marine and the mother of 2 (adult) children, I feel a special bond with the military families I have worked with over the years. I have worked in 2 Department of Defense elementary schools, in a public school that served many military families, as an early intervention SLP in the Educational and Developmental Intervention Services (EDIS) program with families who lived on post,  and also South Carolina’s early intervention program, where my caseload included a number of military families who lived off post.

How did you come to work with military families?
Since I got married, I have always lived in military towns, first as the wife of an active duty service member and later as a civilian, after my husband separated from military service, in two different towns with military installations.

Describe a rewarding experience working with military families.
It is impossible for me to limit my response to one experience. First, working with military families is very rewarding, as there is a bond between us that I believe all military families share. Second, as a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I am often a part of, and a witness to, children saying their first words, signing their first signs, pointing to pictures, etc., starting to communicate their wants, needs, and feelings.  It is a privilege to contribute to the joy that these “firsts” can bring to the whole family.

Describe a challenging experience working with military families.
One of the most challenging experiences I had was finding out that, even though the military child I was going to work with had a hearing loss identified at birth, the family had never been told about or referred for early intervention services. In addition, while the child was referred for audiological services soon after failing follow-up hearing screenings, the parents reported numerous road blocks to getting a complete audiological evaluation, ear molds and hearing aids. At almost 2 years of age, this child had only had hearing aids for a little over 3 months and had NO functional language (no spoken words, no signs or picture communication system). The challenge was not working with the family, it was knowing that the child could never get those 2 years back and had missed out on learning language during those prime language-learning months, and it was preventable.

From your experience, how are military families similar and different from other types of families? How do you change your practice between families?
All families come with their own stories, whether military or civilian, and I try to offer services that meet the needs of each family. All families share the desire to help their children,  and families of children with special needs often shoulder extra financial burdens. The time commitments involved with therapy visits, medical appointments, activities to be done at home in between visits and/or medical maintenance activities in the home also place a strain on families. For military families, there is constant change. One of the things we contend with is changing care providers with each new move. Sometimes the new duty station includes a provider who is a perfect fit for a family. Other times, families leave providers with whom they have forged a close bond and have a hard time finding new providers in new duty stations.

As providers, how can we support military parents who are deployed or away frequently due to trainings/school?
As providers, we need to work harder to help the active duty family member who is frequently away, not only know that they are an important part of the team, but feel like it as well. Some of the things we can do include making sure they are familiar with and understand:

  • Their child’s special needs
  • Terminology used involving their child’s diagnosis and treatment
  • The goals for the child and family
  • Each provider’s name, credentials and role
  • Things the parent can do to be part of the child’s treatment during the time he/she is present in the home
  • Things the parent can do to participate in their child’s care when away from home.

In addition, we need to listen to family members to ensure concerns are addressed and questions are answered.

Describe a specific stressor that military families with whom you have worked have shared or experienced.
One common stressor, when moving to a new duty station, is missing deadlines to register children for programs, school options, camps, etc., when caregivers have no way of knowing about the programs or deadlines until they arrive at the duty station and living arrangements are determined. For instance, in SC the 4-year-old preschool programs for typically developing children are not mandatory and enrollment is determined on a first come-first served basis. If a family arrives after the list if full, they miss out on that option and need to either pay for private preschool or wait for another year until their child is old enough for kindergarten.

Other common stressors for military families include: financial burdens, scheduling numerous therapy and medical visits, balancing the needs of a child with special needs with other children’s needs, keeping up with mounds of paperwork, and feeling like they are effective advocates for their child.

What “insider” tips or advice do you have for service providers working with military families who have young children with disabilities?
Do not judge, be kind and give parents a break. Until you walk a mile in the other person’s shoes, you have no idea what a parent/family is dealing with every day. None of us  can completely walk in another’s shoes, even if our experiences are very similar… but we can all try to empathize and offer support.  In addition, never underestimate the power of humor. It is a stress reliever and helps with bonding with parents and children.

If you could change or improve one thing for military families with young children with disabilities, what would it be?
I would want to insure that military pediatricians are better trained and educated regarding services that are available for young children. Additionally, military medical facilities serving young children should be encouraged to employ a professional who acts as a medical service coordinator for children with special needs. Some private pediatric practices offer this and it can be very helpful when navigating the maze of services for children with special needs. Navigating the system can be especially difficult during the early years when families are new to early intervention, and the special education system at large. The terminology, practices, legal issues etc. can be particularly daunting.

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 am constantly seeking out trainings, blog posts and articles that might help me improve my skills as well as my ability to help train others to serve both military and civilian families.