Two million children in the United States belong to military families. With one or both parents serving in the military, these children face unique challenges. Though children in military families face higher rates of mental health problems, educational programs designed for this population stand out for their willingness to deal with these issues head-on and provide quality care despite the unique challenges they often find in their paths.
In 2010, the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry published an influential study, which indicated that children age 3 to 5 with a deployed parent have more behavioral symptoms than their peers. These children exhibit both externalizing and internalizing behaviors and may regress to behaviors exhibited at a younger age. Additionally, a more recent NPR program highlighted the fact that 40 percent of military children are under the age of 5. The same discussion explored ways that military preschool programs offer services uniquely suited to this demographic – something they have worked hard over the years to pinpoint and roll out.
Altogether, military childcare programs encompass 800 centers and 3,500 family childcare homes, with about 40,000 employees. Held up as a model for other preschools, military preschool programs have come a long way since the Military Child Care Act of 1989, which spurred many of the changes that have made these schools so popular today. The law aimed to improve the convenience, cost, and quality of childcare programs for military families.
Military childcare thrives in part because it offers an affordable option for parents. The military subsidizes nearly two-thirds of the cost. Teachers in military programs receive 50 percent more per hour than the average teacher does at comparable non-military schools. These teachers also enjoy military benefits, making this a coveted job that can easily draw in and keep the best applicants. Professional development is a requirement, but the military pays for this continuing education.
One of the most important aspects of training for teachers in military preschool programs focuses on the unique needs of these students. Making a child feel comfortable in a new environment is always challenging, but this situation arises more often in military families. Teachers regularly encounter children who are struggling to cope with emotional responses related to the deployment or return of a parent to or from overseas. United States military families include about 75,000 active-duty single parents and 40,000 active-duty dual-military families.
The children in military childcare programs read stories and engage in discussions centered specifically around the life of a military family. Caregivers receive training so they can help children process their complex feelings. The focus on promoting a healthy home life for preschoolers is an important strength of these programs. Notably, this is a factor that is more challenging to replicate in civilian programs, where children don’t face such a unified set of challenges.
Family Child Care (FCC) homes offer a home-based alternative for childcare. The military offers generous support for FCC homecare providers, making this a profitable business option for providers who want to work from home or earn extra money while staying home with their own children. FCC providers receive furniture, books, toys, and other supplies from the FCC program, so they face no startup costs. They also get the same training and support as teachers at an Army Child Development Center.
Additionally, FCC providers receive a host of perks including free childcare for their own children and opportunities for additional time off. They have access to a helpful support network that aims to make this business as stress-free as possible. Homes are carefully inspected to ensure that they meet safety, health, and fire prevention standards.
Civilian childcare providers, on the other hand, can face startup costs ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. Lacking the support and provisions that military child programs enjoy, these businesses struggle to provide the same reliable quality and safety.
Military childcare programs generally promote flexibility. FCC homecare providers may offer full-day, part-day, and hourly care options as well as 24-hour or long-term care. To minimize stress for military parents, additional hours are usually provided at no extra cost when training exercises require longer-than-usual days. A genuine concern for the family unit as a whole is at the heart of these programs.
Forty percent of American parents work non-traditional hours, but accommodating childcare isn’t as easy to find for civilian families. There’s a growing need for quality care that extends beyond the traditional work schedule.
Parental involvement is encouraged in military preschool programs. Fort Bliss Child Development Centers maintain an open-door policy, regardless of the time of day or the scheduled activity. This encourages parents to visit their children often and become a regular part of the classroom setting. These centers encourage parents to get involved in their children’s programs and to familiarize themselves with the caregivers. These centers also encourage parents to become regular volunteers by offering a 10 percent tuition discount to volunteers.
Other preschool programs do not always maintain such open-door policies. Allowing parents to participate regularly in the classroom helps strengthen family relationships and increase parental confidence in the educational program as a whole.
While civilian preschool programs face different challenges than those designated solely for military families, many of the principles that guide them could help improve civilian schools as well. All parents want a preschool program that alleviates worry while they’re away at their jobs. Using military preschools as a guide, civilian programs can improve by focusing on ways to strengthen the child’s family at home and address emotional or psychological concerns that are prevalent in the demographic area.