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Spouses Help Teachers Understand Life for Deployed Families

By Jason Austin
Special to American Forces Press Service

HEIDELBERG, Germany, Oct. 16, 2008 – What began as a chat over coffee became a learning opportunity for teachers here.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
A panel of U.S. military parents from Heidelberg, Germany, shares deployment experiences with more than 30 Heidelberg teachers, explaining how children act at home when a parent is deployed. U.S. Army photo by Jason Austin
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Seven women, all who have, or have had husbands deployed or frequently away on temporary duty, shared their experience with a room full of teachers and support staff at Patrick Henry Elementary School during a teacher in-service day Oct. 10.

The topic was one that touches almost everyone in the community: deployments and the effect they have on military children.

Fifteen to 20 percent of students in Heidelberg have a deployed parent at any one time, according to Jim Ruehmling, Heidelberg schools liaison officer.

The panel idea came up during “Coffee Friday” time, when the school invites parents to come by, have coffee and talk - no agenda, just to chat, said Russ Claus, the school’s principal.

“Many of these parents have moving stories, and I wanted all our teachers to hear them,” he said, quoting author and motivational speaker Stephen Covey: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

"I watched the faces of the audience, and they got it," Claus said.

The women gave the teachers a "clearer view into their worlds," he said, and helped them better understand what the children are experiencing.

Jane Shumway, one of the parents, related a telling story to the audience. Her husband had been deployed to Iraq for about four months, she said, and her daughter told her she’d better learn how to type. She asked her daughter why such a skill was necessary, and her daughter pointedly told her, "If Dad dies, you have to get a job."

It was the first time she fully understood how the deployment was affecting her daughter, she said.

Mothers of younger children described their children regressing. One mother said her 3-year-old started wetting himself again, months after successful potty training.

Another mother, Jade Rangel, said her daughter stopped talking and would only point to what she wanted. When her husband came home on rest and relaxation leave, her daughter was once again a chatterbox, showing him all the toys and drawings she had.

Rangel said her daughter confided, "My daddy left me," early in the deployment.

Her daughter suffered separation anxiety, fearing that her father had left her and her mom might, too, Rangel said. The anxiety lasted well after the deployment and involved more than just her immediate family.

Her daughter's teacher was out one day for some personal appointments, and her daughter was clearly upset, saying that her teacher left her, too. "A year later, and she's still scared that someone is going to leave her," Rangel said.

Several mothers talked about ways in which their children acted out -- kicking, screaming and, in some cases, biting.

Other children retreated. Madeline Lanza talked about how her son is very outgoing, willing to talk to anyone, but that when her husband was deployed, the boy gradually pulled into himself. When asked why, he replied, "Daddy's not here, so I don't have to talk."

Today, when her husband is on temporary duty, her son becomes more belligerent, she said. She recalled a time when she accompanied her husband on a business trip, and she was told her son became very aggressive and was easily turned to tears.

One mother confessed that although she tried to maintain a stoic appearance, "I lost it." Katherine Hite said her experience was a lot of firsts for her: her first assignment, her first time overseas and her first deployment.

She was able to handle it in public, she said, but not at home. "I hit depression hard,” she said. “I would go to the commissary to have adult conversation."

Claus said that was one comment that evoked emotions on his teachers' faces. Hite said one of the things that brought her out of the depression was when her daughter's teacher would show her what her daughter was doing in class.

"It made my day," she said.

Many teachers in the room made a mental note when Hite made the comment, Claus said.

Hite said she went to counseling and began talking to other parents, and that she has learned to cope in a deployed marriage. "Once I got myself straight," Hite said, "[My children] took their cues from me."

Many mothers talked about the ways they help their children cope with the deployment. Many of the coping strategies involved keeping everyone busy and in a routine.

"I got my son involved in everything I could," Lanza said. "Mothers in this community are running trying to keep up with their children."

The panel discussed ways teachers can help them and their children.

"Hook parents up with other parents," Hite said. She had a hard time finding a deployment support group, she said, but the teachers know other parents and programs. She also said it’s important for teachers to communicate to the parents what their children are doing in school, so they can relay that information to their deployed spouses.

One of the moderators, Sally March, a military and family life consultant, said she has never met a bad child, just children who are in pain and who are scared. Teachers should take that into consideration when a child acts out. "It doesn't mean the rules or discipline changes," she said.

"I look for opportunities to talk to my children one on one," Shumway said. They open up at those times. "Remember, when a child has a tantrum, it is not time to have your own."

The parents advocated for two-way communication, asking that teachers ask how the children are behaving at home. They also told other parents to keep in mind that the teachers follow multiple children and will need to be prompted from time to time for information about their children.

A teacher told the group that deployed parents can call teachers using the Defense Switched Network. Another teacher suggested that parents tell teachers if their child is having a hard time with academic support at home. Parents may need to spend some special time with their child during deployments, and academics might be secondary, the teacher noted.

Claus said now that the panel exists, and more than 30 teachers attended, they can tell other teachers and the parents can tell other parents, and a dialogue will develop.

Teachers already network within the school and discuss how they can support the children better, Claus said. The panel's input will influence those discussions.

The panel helped him go through his list of ideas for helping deployed children, and helped him decide what to continue, what to change and what to start, the principal said.

"The parents are really accepting and helpful," Claus said. "It's great to be in a community where the parents are willing to help."

(Jason Austin works in the U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Wuerttemberg Public Affairs Office.)

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