For civilians, many can recall their first day in a new class, the excitement of seeing friends they missed over summer, and the comfort of returning to familiar settings. But what’s it like for military kids? Back to school can look very different. It often means starting at a new school, in a new neighborhood, in a city where you don’t know anyone.
In fact, the average military child transfers schools 6-9 times by the 12th grade. Often, this is during the school year, after most students have already settled into a routine — meaning military kids struggle more with feelings of loneliness and isolation without the comfort of familiarity or a set routine. Here are five things that make a military child’s back-to-school experience different from other kids.
1. It’s Always Expecting the Unexpected
Usually in life, a big move is planned for and families have the comfort of knowing what is happening next. And making those choices makes it seem more like a grand adventure. But most military families have little say in where they move to or the time frame they have to move.
We try to plan as much as possible with multiple contingency plans, but most of those are thrown out the metaphorical window. Being a military kid means having to face the unknown and unexpected because plans are constantly changing.
At one point, circumstances led to our daughters being unable to attend the same elementary school. With one in kindergarten and one in fourth grade, that Monday morning in November, everything they expected to happen on the first day of school changed abruptly. One started school and one didn’t until a week later. It definitely took a toll on both children, and as you can imagine, they were disappointed at suddenly not being at the same school. It was the first time they really felt what it is like to be a military kid at a new school.
2. It’s Saying Goodbye…a Lot
Many people think that saying goodbye for military kids happens only when their families PCS. Being a military kid means separating from friends much more frequently than that. Military families often live in military housing communities and most of the children that our children play and attend school with are also from military families.
During one summer PCS season, my son said goodbye to seven kids he frequently played with on our street. Even more of our friends that lived in other areas of our community relocated that summer as well. He cried. They cried. It was rough. One child’s family ended up having orders delayed after the kids had already said goodbye, so they had to go through tearful farewells again a few months later.
3. We Talk Often About Resiliency and “Little While” Friends
Resiliency is how people handle stress and becomes very important to manage the effects of growing up in a military family. When meeting new neighbors, military families often mention in casual conversations if they are moving soon. Not letting your family get too close to others when you know you are about to leave is one effect of military life on families. The younger children do better at just playing with other kids on the playground and not growing too attached. Another effect of growing up in a military family in a military neighborhood with a constant stream of new playmates is that we NEED to talk about temporary friendships. In our home, we call them “little while” friends.
The Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA) has created specific programs that focus on resiliency to help military families. Even their services for youth development like Operation Hero support school-age children, while offering a positive environment for making lasting friendships.
4. It’s Having Strangers as Emergency Contacts
What it’s like to be a military kid is that they may not know their emergency contact the school has on file. It’s not completely uncommon to ask someone you just met outside of school or in the neighborhood if they can be your child’s local emergency contact. And, typically, we have to change emergency contacts every year because of moves.
5. It’s Feeling Like You Don’t Fit In
Whether military or civilian, many “new kids in school” feel like they don’t fit in, especially as they get older. There are groups of children who have been in classrooms together for years and have formed lasting friendships.
At a school that was predominately attended by military children, when my middle child finished the fourth grade, only four of all the fourth graders had been together since kindergarten, and only 3 of them continued to the same school. The next year, my daughter started at a new small school and she was the only military kid in her grade. Most of the other students had known each other for years, so she definitely felt like an outsider. Going to military events and activities so she could meet kids away from school helped.
Feelings of loneliness and isolation seem to be more common among military families, and the ASYMCA reports that 43% of military families feel isolated from their communities. These feelings greatly affect the mental health of service members and their families, as they deal with family separations during deployment on top of the instability that comes with frequent moves. This blog article, “The Effects of Military Life on Child Development and Mental Health,” provides more helpful details.
Starting over is especially difficult on teenage mental health. Not only are teens missing their old friends and school, they are frequently dealing with additional stress that comes from transferring to a new middle or high school like:
- Having multiple, new teachers instead of just one.
- A very large unfamiliar school campus to navigate.
- Specific programs that don’t transfer and not meeting prerequisites for classes students need to complete specific courses.
- Not having out-of-state, advanced placement (AP) classes or special testing accepted.
- Not having enough class units or credits to be in the same grade they transferred from or to graduate on time without taking extra classes.
- Trying to figure out how to join clubs and sports teams that have already passed sign-up deadlines.
Navigating “New to School” Can Be Difficult, But the ASYMCA Is There to Help
There’s no denying the difficulties that military kids face when they’re constantly “new to school.” But the ASYMCA understands and is there to help by providing resilience-focused programs, such as Operation Little Learners and Operation Hero, to support military families through the unique challenges they face. You can also support military families by making a gift today.