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Military Families and Students With LD – An Overview

Military Child - Army Families  Are you (or your spouse) a member of the U.S. military who is also raising a child with a disability? If so, rest assured you’re not alone. According to Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-CA, and Chair of the Military Personnel Subcommittee), there are 100,000 military families with children or other family members who have some type of disability. Military families—even those whose loved ones don’t have special needs—face a host of challenges. Frequent relocation around the country (or around the globe) and deployment (and extended absence) of one or both parents can make life difficult for children. Sometimes a grandparent must assume the role of caregiver and education advocate when a child’s parents are unavailable. If your child has a disability, the challenges become even greater. You and your family deserve extra support. The good news is that there is a wealth of support—and new legislation—to help you and your child.

One of the most difficult disabilities to identify and address is learning disability (LD), sometimes called the “invisible disability.” LD is less obvious than many other disabilities, and usually isn’t identified until a child enters elementary school. Nevertheless, the sooner LD is identified and addressed, the greater chance a child has of keeping up in school rather than losing ground and losing self-esteem. In this article, the first in a series of three, we’ll guide you through the maze of challenges that you and your “military kid” may face.

Before we delve into the topic of special education and the military, let’s step back and look at the larger landscape of military kids and education.

Education and Military Families: The Big Picture

Exactly how big is the “student body” among military families? Here are some statistics that might surprise you:

  • There are approximately 1.5 million children and youth today in U.S. public schools whose parents are in the military. (Source: Military Child Initiative)
  • Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) operates more than 200 public schools in 15 districts located in 13 foreign countries, seven states, Guam, and Puerto Rico. All schools within DoDEA are fully accredited by U.S. accreditation agencies. Approximately 8,785 teachers serve DoDEA’s 102,600 students. (Source: Wrightslaw) However, about 80 percent of military children attend school in a civilian school district. (Source: National Military Family Association Fact Sheet, 2006)
Note: The DoDEA is essentially a subdivision of the Department of Defense (DoD). Military parents whose children have physical disabilities that require special education will probably deal with the DoD in general for the child’s medical needs and with the DoDEA specifically for special education issues.
While life in the military certainly offers benefits, it often comes at a price. Military families typically face challenges in school and at home, such as:

  • Frequent relocation—every 3 years, on average. This means starting over in a new community—and a new school—each time the family moves.
  • Living overseas (in some cases), adjusting to a different culture and/or feeling isolated living at a remote military base.
  • The stress of having one or both parents deployed far from home. Children are affected by the absence of one or both parents and have even higher levels of stress when their military parent is in a war zone shown constantly on T.V. (Source: National Military Family Assoc.) A child’s distress level is also closely tied to the number of months a parent has been deployed during the child’s lifetime. (Source: Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, April 2010.)
  • A correlation between a child’s distress level and that of his or her parent(s). In one study, researchers found that about one-third of the parents left at home while their partners were deployed experienced increased anxiety and depression. Almost 40 percent of recently returned deployed parents showed elevated anxiety and depression. (Source: Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, April 2010)

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