Some children of military families can experience more social-emotional risk than the average student due to stressors such as frequent moves and parental absence, according to Cristin Hall, associate professor of education (school psychology) and faculty affiliate for the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness at Penn State.
Hall is principal investigator (PI) for a Penn State-led, five-year project to help schools build durable, flexible frameworks to set up military students for success.
“We want to have conversations, establish trust and build relationships where we can say, ‘We want to help you build something that’s going to make your life easier, that’s going to make your job easier and that’s going to help these kids,’” Hall said.
The Schools Empowering At-Risk Students (SEAS) Project is funded by a $2.65 million grant from the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) Military-Connected Academic and Support Programs. The project’s goal is to help military students succeed by facilitating access for student support personnel to online training materials and providing technical assistance, coaching and consultation in ways that are sustainable and manageable given the unique needs of each school and community.
DoDEA is responsible for planning, directing, coordinating and managing prekindergarten through 12th-grade educational programs on behalf of the Department of Defense (DoD). The Clearinghouse, housed in the Penn State Social Science Research Institute, is an interdisciplinary team of research faculty and staff, and creative services professionals committed to providing outstanding support to professionals who provide programs and services to military families. Their vision is to help support United States military families with practices and programs that are known to be effective based on science and evidence.
The SEAS Project has been supporting student support personnel (school counselors, psychologists and nurses) at schools on military installations since its inception in 2016, but the most recent grant, which was awarded in 2019, enabled the researchers to expand their services to all educators who serve military-connected children, including those attending civilian public schools. In previous awards, the SEAS project focused more specifically on preventing suicide and self-harm; violent threat behaviors; and problematic sexual behaviors in children and youth (PSB-CY).
For the pilot project, the SEAS team is working with DoDEA schools in South Korea, Germany and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The researchers also are collaborating with a school in California with a high percentage of students from Coast Guard families. The team has conducted mostly online meetings with the educators but they have met in person with educators from the North Carolina and California schools.
A key feature of the now expanded SEAS Project is the piloting of a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), a framework many schools use to give targeted support to struggling students. Hall said in an attempt to address social, emotional and behavioral adjustment, some schools “silo their risk” by developing multiple programs for separate issues — which makes implementation difficult since the programs are disjointed and fragmented.
When DoDEA informed the team that they had challenges with PSB-CY in a couple of schools, she added, they decided to combine the work they had been doing on other problem behaviors with PSB-CY interventions into an MTSS framework.
“It’s been a series of projects that have evolved to this point,” said Hall. “We’re trying to help students and teachers, and help schools function in a more positive and peaceful manner.”
While many military students are well-adjusted and don’t exhibit behavioral issues, Hall said some may be at a greater risk due to the transient nature of the military service and the potential of having one or both parents absent due to deployment or other assignments.
“Given that most military service members move on average every two to four years, transitional stress is a challenge for students and for the educators that serve them,” she said.
The SEAS project is designed to address not only the needs of student support personnel and teachers related to social-emotional risk but also to support the unique needs of military-connected children.
Hall said a unique challenge that DoDEA schools face is the high annual turnover of both students and educators. The turnover rates create challenges for the continuity of the training programs the researchers are trying to implement.
“In a DoDEA school, you might need to reboot every year because there are a lot of new kids,” said Hall. “Our coaching framework is really set up and designed to talk through some of those realities and prepare for them because it’s just what is in their schools.”
The SEAS team is in the process of refitting and extending a webpage hosted by the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness that was designed to provide access to materials for school practitioners that serve military-connected students. The development of the website occurred in 2017 as part of an ongoing previous project funded by the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and includes a portfolio of materials including online learning modules, handouts, printables and other resources.
While the SEAS team’s goal is to have an up-and-running MTSS framework for social and behavioral adjustment for pilot schools by the end of the project in 2024, Hall said that educators will be able to tweak the framework as the need arises. The team continues to consult with DoDEA leadership on how MTSS can be used system-wide.
“My team’s intention is to take these materials and adapt them so they can be used outside of the DoDEA system as well,” she said. “Within this framework, (educators) can make continuous decisions about what’s working and what’s not working.”
Hall’s collaborators on the SEAS Project are co-PI Jeremy Moeller, assistant teaching professor of education (special education); Timothy Mazer, program manager for the SEAS team; Brooke Kanaskie, project manager; Savanna Woika, graduate assistant for the Clearinghouse and research assistant for the SEAS team; and Juliana Boucher, a second-year doctoral student and a graduate assistant for the SEAS team.