‘An orange day at home’ – School counsellor resource to help military kids succeed

Article / August 29, 2017 / Project number: 17-0142

By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs

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Ottawa, Ontario —Twenty years or so ago, 80 per cent of military families in Canada lived apart from the rest of society, with many services offered on the bases. Today, that has been more than completely reversed, with 85 per cent living in their local communities. That change  has affected many aspects of military family life, including how children succeed in school.

Challenges arise when community service providers such as schools and health services do not always understand the impact the military lifestyle can have on military families. This lifestyle also affects the families of Veterans. There are about 54,000 children in military families across the country, and if the children of Veterans are included, the number climbs to about 462,000.

A need for ‘military literacy’  

The term “military literacy” in this context can be defined as being aware of the stresses that are common to the military and Veteran lifestyle and how to use that knowledge when working with military and Veteran families.

“As the military and Veteran family community grows, there is a need for military literacy in Canada – awareness of the unique experiences of these families,” said Director of Military Family Services (MFS), Colonel Dan Harris. “Their reality includes inherent “military life stressors” such as high mobility, extended and/or unexpected work-related separation and risk that can have an impact on CAF parents and their children.”

New resource for school counsellors

A new resource, in the form of a 12-page booklet, was launched on May 19, 2017 at the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA) annual conference held in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The goal is to have this resource in schools by the start of the 2017/18 academic year.

School Counsellors Working with Military and Veteran Families is the result of a year-long collaboration between the CCPA and the Canadian Military and Veteran Families Leadership Circle (CMVFLC), which is a component of the Military and Veteran Families in Canada Initiative. This initiative is a partnership between the Vanier Institute of the Family, Veterans Affairs Canada and Military Family Services to build awareness, capacity, competency and community regarding military and Veteran families in Canada.

The new resource aims to answer four key questions:

  1. What is the military and Veteran lifestyle?
  2. What resources are available to school counsellors to assist them in their work with children and youth of military and Veteran families?
  3. How can school counsellors promote mental health and advocate for students of military and Veteran families in schools?
  4. How can school counsellors support classroom teachers in their work with students of military and Veteran families?

 “While many military youth are both strong and resilient, some students may struggle with some of the routine challenges inherent with the military family lifestyle. A teenager may struggle with a family move that requires both social and academic adaptations,” Col Harris said.  “That same teenager might also have to adjust to periods of separation from the serving parent, due to a job-related training or deployment.”

He continued, “School counsellors who understand the challenges associated with the military family lifestyle will be able to detect the differences between adjustment issues and personal learning styles, and between learning disabilities and distractedness.”

‘An orange day at home’

Tips covered in the resource booklet include information on helping students adapt well to yet another “new normal,” skills that are particularly important when a parent returns from a deployment or training period and reunite with the family.

As noted in the document, students of military and Veteran households are not immune to mental health concerns that affect one in five students in Canada. The Department of National Defence’s mental health continuum provides a quick guide to changes in mental health status. The terminology used in the continuum (red, orange, yellow, green) is often used by students from military and Veteran families when describing mental health and wellness. Under the “Promoting Mental Health” section, a student is quoted, “It feels like an orange day at home – I feel an edge about it.”

Dr. Kim Hollihan, Deputy CEO of the CCPA and project lead at CCPA for this resource, explained, “If they are hearing that language at home because that is the language a parent is using through therapy, it’s important that school counsellors and school staff working with these youth understand what those words mean so it’s just part of their everyday conversation – oh, feeling orange, ok, I know what that means.”     

Subject matter experts with both “lived” and professional experience

Dr. Kim Hollihan’s involvement began at a 2015 conference of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veterans Health Research.

“They had a round table on military family issues that I attended wearing two hats, my professional hat as a leader within our association but also my military spouse hat,” said Dr. Hollihan. Her husband is a Canadian Army artillery officer who deployed to Afghanistan when their two boys, who are now 12 and 14, were of kindergarten and preschool age.

“That round table led to an invitation to join the Leadership Circle where the notion of military literacy was discussed. The CCPA is a very large national association with more than 6,100 members across the country in every province and territory. We have people who work in the primary and secondary school systems, post-secondary, community-based agencies, government, private practice, so we thought, ok, ‘What segment of our membership would have the most contact with military and Veteran families?’ and of course it was our school counsellors.”

The School Counsellors’ Chapter of CCPA was quickly onboard and the resource was finalized within one year. “I think we were up to 30 drafts at the end because it was really important to have input from a variety of subject matter expert reviewers. We had a really strong group with both “lived experience” in the military as well as people with professional experience with the military,” she said.

“I have to say it was such an easy partnership. I think that because we all worked together so well, we were able to achieve it in that one-year period. In the end, the quality of the resource really speaks to the input from all of these leaders in the field.”   

The way forward

Looking down the road, Dr. Hollihan hopes best practices will be developed and shared among the counsellors through a “community of practice” made up of members who have accumulated experience with military and Veteran families.

Col Harris also sees feedback resulting in continued development of the resource. “At Military Family Services, we are always listening to what families tell us, so we are in a position to collect and document the many stories we hear about the anecdotal family feedback that the resource may generate.” 

“Military Family Services is extremely happy to be working with CCPA and our extended partners from the Canadian Military and Veteran Families Leadership Circle.  I am extremely grateful for the leadership and determination of CCPA in the development of this publication that will have tangible outcomes for military families across Canada,” said Col Harris.

Second in an ongoing series

School Counsellors Working with Military and Veteran Families is the second in a series of publications designed to educate non-military community service providers on the unique lifestyle challenges faced by spouses and children who support their military family members on the home front.

“We are remaining a member of the Canadian Military and Veterans Families Leadership Circle. We are very proud to be a part of that and will actively engage and continue to look for opportunities to collaborate again and I think the outcome will certainly benefit a whole lot of children and families across the country,” said Dr. Hollihan.

The first publication in the series was developed in collaboration with the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC) and was electronically distributed to over 35,000 family physicians in Canada, and it has received generally positive feedback.  

Other subjects that may be studied for new publications include caregivers, teachers, first responders, employers, mental health professionals and financial professionals to name a few.

“Each resource takes time and care to ‘get it right’ by listening to the organizations with whom we partner and with the military and Veteran families who help to validate the resources we are developing,” said Col Harris.

See Related Links to download a copy of School Counsellors Working with Military and Veteran Families.

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