Promoting Successful Transitions for Military Families with Young Children

Hope Gerde photo
Hope K. Gerde, PhD

Transitions are a regular part of life, particularly military family life. Military families move from installation to installation, often across state and international borders. Military children move from home-to-school or school-to-school. On average, military families move six to nine times during children’s school years (Astor, 2011; Berg, 2008; Kitmitto et al., 2011), which is three times that of a non-military family (Berg, 2008; Bradshaw, Sudhinaraset, Mmari, & Blum, 2010).

Moves are just one type of transition military families will navigate. Beyond moving, families experience a range of transitions including the addition of a new family member, change in parent career path, and even separation during deployment.

Transitions can be challenging for all family members, but are particularly difficult for young children. Even moving from playing at the park to playing at home is a transition that requires skill for young children to navigate successfully. Children birth to age five love consistency! Predictability and familiarity with people, spaces, and routines supports positive child development (Landry, Smith, Swank, Assel, & Vellet, 2001).

How many of you have, like a trooper, read the same children’s book every night for six months? How many of you have to use a Navy Seal stealth operation to wash your child’s favorite blanket while she is sleeping? Young children love consistency!

Consistency helps children develop skills they can use to successfully transition. Consistent family routines communicate a sense of security to all family members which can help to restore calm within chaotic events (Berson & Baggerley, 2009). Further, the American Academy of Pediatrics promotes consistency through family routines because consistency helps children feel safe, comfortable, and confident even in the face of change.

While military personnel may be Army Strong and live up to the Semper Fidelis moto, their children may not be Semper Paratus, or “always ready” to transition in an instant. The no questions asked military approach to transitions is not the most successful for children. Service personnel parents have been trained to 1) follow orders, 2) don’t ask questions, 3) do what you are told, 4) with very little notice. Transitions can be stressful and scary without the appropriate supports, especially for young children.

Change is inevitable, particularly in military families. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce stress and support positive development for young children within transitions when families translate military directives in ways that offer children safety, autonomy, and understanding.

Facilitating positive adjustments within a transition can support positive interactions with new peers and can increase children’s ability to resolve social conflicts in the future (ACF, n.d). Using these strategies can promote children to feel safe and manage stress within a changing environment. Children can develop skills for confidently navigating a range of transitions, but they need your help.

Approaches to Successful Transitions

Give Accurate Information Early and Often
Communicate early with your family, including young children, about upcoming transitions. “You ship out at 0800” may not leave a lot of time for early warnings- but sharing information about a transition as early as possible can promote successful transitions. This gives children time to process their ideas and emotions, ask questions, and work with you to create a plan.

Create opportunities for your family to talk about the transition. Discuss what the transition means for each family member,  including what will stay the same (e.g., we will always be a family) as well as what will be different (e.g., you will have a new teacher).

Open and supportive communication exists when families share accurate, age-appropriate information about the transitions (Baggerly & Exuma, 2008). This is a time when adults and children can identify feelings, normalize typical feelings (e.g., it is okay to feel sad or angry about moving), communicate procedures or details about the transition, and revise misunderstandings that may exist. It can be helpful to end these discussions with a positive focus and by offering comfort (Baggerly & Exuma, 2008).

Create Space to Discuss Feelings
Although military families always follow orders, they still have feelings about what happens to them. Creating a space in which families discuss how they feel about a transition can be meaningful for everyone involved.

Expressing positive and negative feelings is appropriate; let children have the feelings they have. It is important not to try to change children’s feelings; working through feelings is a valuable opportunity for children. Be sure to meet children’s feelings of fear or sadness with comfort and reassurance that the adults in their lives will always keep them safe.

Adults can reinforce positivity about the transition by viewing the change as an opportunity, highlighting strengths and benefits of the transition. Modeling change as an adventure rather than as a crisis can help children to see varied perspectives.

Retain as Many Family Routines as Possible
Military transitions often occur quickly. Families may approach this, “need for speed” by stopping their typical routines and focusing all attention to the newly identified “mission.” Abrupt change, however, is very stressful for children and families (Berson & Baggerly, 2009).

Strong adult-child relationships can promote positive transitions (Landry et al., 2001), so be sure to identify ways that family routines can be retained to strengthen family relationships and promote a sense of security for the entire family. For example, stop packing to eat dinner together, retain a bedtime routine even if it means working after children are asleep, be consistent with family movie night though you may watch a shorter film than usual. For some transitions, e.g., deployment, scheduling more family time may be essential.

Create Transition Rituals
Military families move three times more than non-military families, so creating family traditions focused on frequent transitions can be a meaningful opportunity to strengthen family unity and promote feelings of security and peace. This might be part of the leaving process.

Perhaps the night before the move the family watches a favorite movie and enjoys a special favorite meal. This can soothe and comfort everyone before a big day of unknowns. Traditions might be part of the process of arriving in a new place. For example, the family might go to the public library to get library cards and check out books. No matter the event, if it is done with military consistency, this new tradition will become a comfort to the entire family. The children will know that no matter where they move, they will find the library.

Give Choices When Choice is Possible
Military personnel relinquished much of their choice when they signed up for service. However, providing children autonomy and choice, whenever possible, can facilitate successful transitions.

Children may not be able to choose where they move, but they can choose the clothes they will wear on their journey to this new place. Children may not choose their new teacher, but they can choose the color they want to use to write their name on their new cubby. Children certainly did not choose for any family member to be deployed, but they can choose whether they want to write a letter or video conference when they communicate. Importantly, only give a choice when the choices are actually available.

Celebrate Where You Are
Celebrate the schools, peers, people, and places you have lived. These people and environments have been an important part of your life and contributed to your development and learning. Of course, gathering records (e.g., school, health, etc) to take with you is an important part of moving. Celebrating what is special about this place or how this place has influenced you can be meaningful for families who transition frequently.

Keeping a map with push-pins indicating where the family has lived or having a t-shirt reflecting the place where each family member was born can provide opportunities for sharing memories from past transitions. Providing opportunities to say goodbye and sharing why these people and places are special to each family member can solidify positive memories, build prosocial skills, and help family members learn more about one another. In fact, this process could become part of your family transition tradition. Visiting favorite spots like the park, restaurant, movie theatre, or library, and sharing a favorite memory or identifying why it is a favorite place can help family members share their feelings and also offer ideas for potential new favorite places.

Involve Children in Learning about Where they are Going
Whether it is a new classroom, after school program, city, or country, children want to know about new environments and people they will meet. Helping children to make connections between their pre-transition and post-transition lives, including similarities and differences, can promote security and reduce stress.

Before you move, look up maps and pictures of the new location, try some foods that may be popular in the new city, listen to music or the language of their new environment. Upon arrival to your new place, find the ice cream shop and test your favorite flavors. Go to the park and talk about how this park is the same and different from the park you used to visit. Talk about what you and your children like about the new space, what they do not like, and what more they want to know.

Families can contact the new school and ask for information about the school and class each child will attend. Teachers who will be receiving new children can involve their current students in taking pictures of the building, classroom, and themselves to send to the new family. Including with the pictures messages from the students and expressing a willingness to correspond prior to the family’s arrival can enhance the transition process.

Resources for Positive Transitions:

Visit https://militaryfamilieslearningnetwork.org/event/52250 to view the Promoting Successful Home-to-School Transitions for Military Families with Young Children archived webinar.

Authored by Hope K. Gerde, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development & Family Studies at Michigan State University.

Dr. Gerde earned  master’s and doctoral degrees from Purdue University and is a former preschool teacher. Her federally-funded research focuses on the development and evaluation of approaches to promoting growth in children’s early language and literacy skills, particularly early writing, via high-quality professional development for teachers. She examines the interrelations between early reading and writing development and how at-risk children’s language and literacy development is affected by the quality of the adult-child interactions they experience across contexts. Dr. Gerde’s work has been published in top research journals and highlighted in media outlets such as PBS NewsHour and Michigan Radio. Dr. Gerde teaches undergraduate courses in early childhood curriculum development (a lecture/practicum combination course) and graduate courses in advanced language and literacy development and prevention and intervention research for early childhood education. She is the program coordinator for Michigan State University’s premiere online bachelor’s degree in early childhood care and education sponsored by the Great Plains IDEA.

 

References

Administration for Children and Families. (n.d.). Supporting Transitions: Using Child Development as a Guide. Retrieved from eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/supporting-transitions-brief-one.pdf

Astor, R. A. (2011, June 8). The need to support students from military families. Education Week, 30(33), 27, 32. Retrieved from www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/06/08/33astor_ep.h30.html

Baggerly, J. N., & Exum, H. (2008). Counseling children after natural disasters: Guidance for family therapists. American Journal of Family Therapy, 36(1), 79-93.

Berg, K. F. (2008). Easing transitions of military dependents into Hawaii public schools: An invitational educational link. Journal of Invitational Theory and Practice, 14, 41–55.

Berson, I. R., & Baggerly, J. N. (2009). Building Resilience to Trauma: Creating a Safe and Supportive Early Childhood Classroom, Childhood Education, 85, 375-379, DOI: 10.1080/00094056.2009.10521404

Bradshaw, C. P., Sudhinaraset, M., Mmari, K., & Blum, R. W. (2010). School transitions among military adolescents: A qualitative study of stress and coping. School Psychology Review, 39, 84–105.

Kitmitto, S., Huberman, M., Blankenship, C., Hannan, S., Norris, D., & Christenson, B. (2011). Educational options and performance of military-connected school districts research study – final report. San Mateo, CA: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from www.militaryk12partners.dodea.edu/docs/2011-air-report.pdf

Landry, S. H., Smith, K. E., Swank, P. R., Assel, M. A., & Vellet, S. (2001). Does early responsive parenting have a special importance for children’s development or is consistency across early childhood necessary? Developmental Psychology, 37(3), 387-403.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.37.3.387

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