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October 14, 2021

Building Belonging for Military Family Students

How to Build a Sense of Belonging in Students from Military Families

Being the new kid is tough, but it can be especially tough if you are a student in a family with active-duty military and you’ve moved several times, often in the middle of a school year. In this advice column, Dr. Mamie L. Pack offers applicable, helpful advice to teachers to help them integrate these new students - whether five-years-old or fifteen - into their classroom communities in ways that are not threatening, so that all students have a chance to thrive.

I am a faculty member at Western Governors University, previously serving as a classroom teacher. I am also a military spouse with school-age children, so I’ve seen the struggle children from military families can have trying to fit into the classroom community. There are many actions you as a teacher can take to help that student thrive and quickly build their sense of belonging and value. There are also a few actions that can make the situation worse. So, let’s explore what helps – because when all students feel seen, valued, and heard, the classroom community is a place of learning and joy.

1. Build Awareness

The first step is understanding whom among your students are a part of a military family. There are many ways you can build this awareness. One simple step is to send home a classroom survey with your syllabus along with an introduction from you. This survey asks the typical questions about each child’s special interests, favorite subjects, concerns, any behavioral triggers. It can also include deeper questions such as, “Tell me what helps your child thrive in learning environments,” or “What has worked in the past to create ‘a ha!’ moments for your child?” It’s fine to ask in this survey if the family is active-duty military. As a teacher, you want to avoid taking any action that would single that student out as different in front of the class. Sometimes these students feel self-conscious. They may be joining your class with additional challenges learning regional colloquialisms, building new friendships, adjusting to the community, or adjusting to changing family dynamics.

The survey is a great opportunity to learn more about the student in a safe way while establishing open lines of communication with the parents or guardians. It helps you become aware of who prefers phone, email, or text for better response rates. Use this information for monthly check-ins and updates about student progress.

2. Provide Consistency and a Classroom Agreement

Change is a norm for students from military families. Creating compassionate consistency will help students thrive in a new classroom setting. Once you’ve identified the military children in your classroom, intentionally help them adjust to your school and classroom culture. In my previous column, I suggested all teachers create a Classroom Agreement with their students very early on in the school year. This serves as the foundation for many useful teaching practices. 

teacher building belonging

Using the Classroom Agreement, you can help new students understand your classroom culture. Students will learn how to communicate best, how to listen actively to each other, how to disagree with respect, and so much more. This foundation can speed a child’s ability to feel a sense of belonging while celebrating uniqueness in your classroom.

3. Shared Language Doesn't Mean One Worldview

It’s important to note that when we talk about a shared language, we are not talking about making students all speak the same way in the same voice with the same perceptions. Most importantly, resist any urges to make them be like you. Allow some space for your students to see the world from their unique lens and celebrate these differences in a supportive way rather than leaving a student to feel isolated. This will build significant relationships with your students. As one of my favorite quotes attests: "No significant learning happens without a significant relationship." This is especially important when a student of color has moved to a school with low diversity. The goal is always to leave your students with a sense of “I’m unique, and that is valued here,” rather than “I’m different. Now I stand out.”

4. A Differentiated Approach is Powerful

The best classrooms make space for students to advocate for their needs and teach others to do the same. As a military family, our children have often attended schools in new communities. It’s vital I advocate for their needs and help teachers understand the importance of differing their approaches to support students. Here’s an example of how differentiating your approach can help elevate each student. One of my sons is introverted. He enjoys school and is performing well academically, but sometimes he likes to eat his lunch alone. The teacher reached out to me to express her concern that sometimes she noticed he was eating at a table by himself, and she wanted him to join another table so he could socialize with his peers. I was able to advocate for his needs by explaining the alone time allows him an opportunity to recharge after receiving frequent social stimulus in the classroom. His alone time was not a cry for help. It was his way of choosing what was best for him, even if it looked different from the approach by the rest of the class. It helps him succeed. Now she supports what he needs, and in turn, other kids do too. She now has alternative seating in the classroom and in other settings to meet the needs of students. As a teacher, be willing to redefine what it means to “fit in”. Instead of pushing students to be like others, find ways to create an inclusive approach that supports learning and belonging. Everybody benefits!

5. Don’t Probe the Student on Military Specifics

photo of a teacher helping a student

While it’s fine to ask the parent or guardian in the survey to learn more about family dynamics and military service, be intentional on how you use this information when helping the student. Avoid asking the child where the parent is deployed, when they are returning home, or how often they see the parent. In many cases, for security reasons, the family may not know where the parent is deployed and/or is not allowed to share that information. 

These questions may seem simple for connecting with the student, but they may trigger uncomfortable feelings for the student. The child may not know if the parent is safe, and it may have been a while since the child has spoken to their parent. Instead, focus on what will bring attention and consistency to the child’s day-to-day life in your learning community.

6. Mind the Gap and your Gap Mindset

Being part of a military family comes with some unique education challenges. Differences in school requirements, curriculum, and academic standards can result in an educational gap. Sometimes this gap means students are behind, while others are ahead. Teachers must be aware of how their bias impacts their ability to evaluate a student’s ability. Sadly, this bias happens frequently with military children, especially military children of color. It’s critically important teachers not only check for deficit gaps but also look for advanced knowledge and skills. Gaps are not always a deficit.

But being ahead can create its own set of challenges for military-connected students. Bored students can develop behavioral issues because they spend too much time waiting for the class to catch up. So, it’s incredibly important to understand where the student is academically so you can ensure they are properly challenged to thrive in their new academic environment.

7. Watch for Behavioral Cues

 In this pandemic, many children are already emotionally fragile, and when you factor in the complexities of military life, it’s hard on kids. This is where having an open dialogue with the parent will help you. It’s okay to reach out and say, “I’m seeing some new emotions and wonder if there’s anything I should be aware of.” Children may not have learned how to communicate emotions effectively and often struggle because they feel ‘something’ but can’t explain it. When my husband is coming home or leaving, I drop a confidential note to the teacher so they can watch for reactions to support my kids better as a team.

8. Not Everybody is Dreaming of a White Christmas

Holidays can be a time of joy and excitement, but not everyone experiences this the same way. Military families, like many other families, are diverse. Children from military families may not be able to do the big family holiday. Students may be experiencing some sadness. They may have uncertainty about when the active-duty military parent is coming home, if at all during that holiday. A good exercise might be to ask each student to choose some way (song, photography, drawing, collage, etc.) to share something they are looking forward to in their community or household during a holiday they celebrate.

9. Censor your "Shoulds"

As I wrap up this column, I want to address one of the most important things teachers can stop doing today. Become aware of when you are using the word should with students. I have heard it. “You should know this by now,” or “You should have learned this two grades ago.” The word ‘should’ can create a penetrating sense of lack and isolation. If your student doesn’t know some basic math skills taught in the previous grade, just get academic support. Deficit language like that can be very detrimental to students. If you find places that need bolstering, bolster, and then pivot to “Tell me something exciting you learned last year that you thought was neat,” and re-engage them in the joy of learning.

10. Don’t Go it Alone

Along those lines, effective and empathetic teaching is hard work. Ask for help and make use of the resources available to you. Find out about school liaisons, military liaisons, community liaisons, etc. This way, you can inform the parents or guardians of the support or services they can enjoy in the community to help their child build a sense of belonging, from events with other military families to neighborhood sports leagues.

Open Lines of Communication

By taking some of this advice to heart, building strong lines  of communication between yourself and parents or guardians, and having your solid Classroom Agreement, you are positioning yourself to be tremendously successful as a teacher and, even better, you are positioning yourself to be a teacher-leader in a classroom filled with happy, engaged students. Thank you for your commitment to education, our youth, and our communities. You are a difference-maker!


If you liked this article, check out Dr. Pack’s advice column: Ten Tips for New Teachers in Uncertain Times



Dr. Mamie L. Pack is an Instructor in the Teachers College at Western Governors University. Dr. Pack has spent more than 20 years in education, amplifying diverse voices. From writing grants to teach African American literature in high schools to creating diversity, equity and inclusion safe spaces for youth, Mamie’s professional interests include cultural studies, educational equity, and mentoring. With a Ph.D. in Education in Mentoring and a MEd in Divergent Learning, she has served as a clinical supervisor and as a mentor for teachers entering education and also provides ongoing support for military spouses. Additionally, she serves as a consultant for teachers supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in her community. Mamie is passionate about breaking barriers in education. Mamie’s other roles include military spouse, mother, and a former classroom teacher.



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