One parent shared with me that she was told ‘You’re just on your own until they go to school. There’s nothing out there’. She was part of my research project to find out what 2-5-year old children understand and experience when their parent worked away due to military deployment and training.
During the project many other parents and early childhood educators repeated this problem, telling me about the lack of resources. They told me they wanted storybooks and apps for children from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families to help them understand and build resilience to deal with the stresses they face.
These stresses include: long parental deployments, frequent parental training, frequent relocations and a parent who may get injured or suffer mental health conditions when they return. Children can react to parental deployment in many ways, including emotionally, socially, physically and in their learning and development (cognitively).
The responses are shown in the infograph below, however, many families are able to use supports around them and adapt and try to cope in different ways.
Early childhood programs
During the research project, the activities I did with the children involved reading them storybooks I had created about defence families. These were used as a springboard to start group chats, artwork, craftwork, raps, puppet play and role play that focussed on their experiences, understandings and feelings about their parent working away.
During the project, an educator said, ‘I want programs like this in all the early childhood services and schools to help the children cope’, referring to the research activities. ‘It helps the children to be able to understand and verbalise what is upsetting them, rather than just whining and crying’.
Our first efforts
Another parent had requested I create an app, saying her daughter had used a US app about military families which the daughter really enjoyed, but the parent said it was not culturally appropriate for Australian children because the context and uniforms were quite different. So, one of the eBooks was chosen to be developed into a free app for iPads. To do this, I joined with an early childhood technology specialist, Dr Jo Bird, an IT technician, Raph Roberts and a media designer, Trish Donald from the University of New England (UNE) to create ‘Rose’s story’ app.
To support early childhood educators, I also published newsletter articles to communicate ideas to partner with parents when they work away, and how to use various activities to gather the voices of very young children, as I had done in the research project.
For parents, I also published academic media articles about ways to support young children when they have a parent who works away. To further support military families, I published a recommendations report for policy makers, educators, family workers, social workers, and education liaison officers within the ADF.
A bigger response
After these efforts, I decided a more coordinated approach was needed and put together an educational research team, combined with a support team of technicians, digital media learning designers and parent, educator, research and community volunteers, with plans to create 2 free, online programs.
One program will be for educators and another for parents to support 2-5-year old children from defence families (see here for details). Our project then received funding from The Ian Potter Foundation and in-kind funding from the University of New England.
We will be creating the programs in 2020 and early 2021, then trialling and evaluating them in 2021-2022. This will involve piloting the programs with parents and educators in early childhood services near navy, army and airforce bases. To register your interest in being involved in these control trials, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org . Once we refine the programs and resources, they will be released for free online by February 2023 in order to better support these young children to build resilience and have the opportunity to flourish.
Can you give us some ideas?
To make sure we create the best programs we can, we are asking educators who have experience working with children whose parents work away and parents from families who experience a parent working away to share some of the strategies with us. We are also asking them to let us know what topics they would like to see covered in the programs and which types of resources they would like the children to use.
There is also a place for feedback on the website for any community suggestions or comments. Please join with us to help make this project a success.
Marg Rogers is a Lecturer in the Early Childhood Education team within the School of Education at the University of New England, Armidale. Marg’s current research interests are about programming and resourcing parents and educators to build resilience and understanding in 2-5 year olds from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families. The programs are to assist them with parental separation during deployment and training and when the parents return with injuries and mental health conditions. She also researches professionalism in early childhood, creative arts education in early childhood and works with Dr Jo Bird in researching early childhood technologies.
Personal photos in images are supplied by defence families and ADF personnel