Educators from around the region gathered in La Plata, Md. on March 27 and 28 to examine some of the best practices in their field in support of military children with exceptional needs. The conference also focused on providing the best education possible to gifted military children.
The goal of the Responding to the Military Child with Exceptional Needs Institute (RMCEN) training, established in 2013 by the Military Child Education Coalition, is to increase awareness about the unique challenges that face military children with special needs and their families, and to give educators tools to support them inside and outside the classroom.
One of the difficulties facing all military children are frequent moves; for military children with special needs, those challenges can be overwhelming. “We are here to explain that a military child with exceptional needs and their families experience increased transition challenges,” said Mary Ann Ketron, a teacher with 32 years of experience and RMCEN trainer. “We want to bring that out to the course participants so that they’re aware of those [additional] concerns that are involved with moving.”
Those challenges affect the children’s service member parents, as well. “Depending on the severity of their child’s disability, there are limited places where [parents] can serve,” said Ketron. “It can also affect promotion and whether or not they can leave the country.”
The Washington, D.C. region hosts a large number of military children with exceptional needs because of the many “compassionate care” resources in the area. However, military children in the region are also widely distributed among various military installations and school districts. Bringing together educators from around greater Washington to discuss the needs of military children in the area was one of the course’s highlights.
“One of the things we try to do is experience what it is like to be a military child or service member,” said Ketron. “We do a [permanent change of station] exercise. Once the [educators] are seated with their friends and colleagues, we make them switch up and shuffle them around.”
The shuffling helped illustrate how a sudden, unexpected move to new surroundings is an uncomfortable experience for most people.
Another exercise saw instructors divide course participants into two groups. Members of the first group were residents of a fictional island and possessed a wealth of local knowledge; the other group was new to the “island” and had to quickly adjust to the customs and features of their new surroundings. The exercise was designed to be educational, as well as fun.
On a more serious note, the instructors and course participants debated the pros and cons of specific tools for educators in the classroom, such as “mainstreaming” military children with special needs, which brings them into the regular classroom as much as possible.
In previous decades, educators often grouped special needs children together in “self-contained” classrooms. The general consensus of the instructors and participants was that mainstreaming and its related, more specific practice known by educators as “inclusion,” benefits not only children with exceptional needs, but also non-special needs students. The former generally experience improvements in social skills and opportunity; the latter tend to gain more mature, accepting attitudes towards fellow students with exceptional needs.
The other portion of the course related to educating gifted military children and offered a similar comparison of the best tools and techniques for the job. As with military children with exceptional needs, frequent moves pose unique challenges.
The RMCEN instructors covered several techniques and methods that could benefit such students, such as acceleration, summer enrichment and cluster grouping. While each method offered advantages, the educators found the “self pacing” method to be the most useful.
The local educators who attended spoke highly of the two-day event. “I think that the conference was very good,” said Olivia Coffey, intermediate school counselor for Charles County schools. “This is the third or fourth [time] that I have attended [a conference] offered by the Military Child Coalition. The presenters are very knowledgeable and engaging. The information that was shared was very beneficial. The resources and ideas that were shared will help me support this exceptional group of students.”
The Charles County school system hosts a large number of military children. “We have lots of military families that we support,” said Coffey. “Because we have a Student Ambassadors program, new students report to me and receive a student/peer tour of the school. This gives me an opportunity to meet and learn a little about the new students.”
Once Coffey determines whether or not her new students are military children, they can be included in activities like the school’s annual Veterans Appreciation Ceremony alongside their service member parents.
“When [students] inform me that they came from a school out of the country or far away, I instantly explore whether their parents are in the military,” said Coffey. “Most likely they are. When they confirm. I become aware of these exceptional students.”