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Strengthening and Supporting Military Families and Families Facing Challenges

Families are many times faced with challenges that put them and their children at risk. Specifically, military families deal with unique circumstances that can affect their functioning and well-being. This lesson will help you become aware of factors that can affect families and children in your program and will highlight effective ways to support these families.

  • Describe challenges and unique circumstances that can have an impact on children and families.
  • Identify effective ways to support children from families facing challenges.
  • Brainstorm ideas to use in your classroom that reflect consideration of families facing challenges.
  • Explore resources that can help you better support military families during the process of deployment.



Think about a time in your life when your family was facing a challenge. Maybe you or a family member was dealing with health issues, financial issues, loss of employment, relationship difficulties, moving to a new place, or separation from family and friends. How did these challenges affect you and the rest of your family as a unit? How did you cope with these challenges? What were some factors that enabled you to deal with these challenges successfully?

Just as we need to appreciate the many variations among families, we must also acknowledge the various contexts and environments in which families function (Hanson & Lynch, 2004). All families face challenges at some point in their lives. For some, these challenges may pose risks for children as well as other family members. As a preschool teacher, it is important to know that these challenges may also affect families’ willingness to seek help or participate in services, as well as their ability to actively participate in school-related processes.

Challenges that Pose Risks for Children and Families

There are many factors that can affect family functioning and child development, such as poverty, substance abuse, illness, exposure to violence, unemployment, marital discord, separation from parents, and trying to adapt to a new culture and learn a new language. Regardless of the situation, family life and children’s behaviors are affected when families are challenged. Keeping with the idea that families are complex systems of individuals that are interconnected, events that affect one individual in the family may affect all family members.

Poverty puts children and families at a greater risk for stress, illness, and social isolation. Exposure to violence may have negative effects on children’s school performance, emotional stability, and social competence. Substance abuse may affect family members’ ability to care and provide for children and as a consequence, children may be maltreated and neglected. Separation from family members, particularly parents, causes stress and emotional instability for all family members, especially young children. Marital discord or trying to adapt to a new culture or ways of living may also increase stress for all family members.

The stress families experience during these challenges may affect their patience and energy levels. Stress can weaken families’ sense of competence and shake their sense of control. At times, the complexity of these difficulties may seem overwhelming to families and service providers, who are themselves challenged to come up with appropriate and meaningful resources, suggestions, and solutions.

Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework

The Center for the Study of Social Policy has developed the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework. Originally designed as a framework to prevent child abuse and neglect, the Protective Factors can be a useful way to approach all of your work with families. It is important to understand this framework because it can help you see that the high-quality, family-centered work that you do every day in your program makes a difference in the lives of children and families. Your job is not only to care for each infant and toddler, but also to provide care and support for the whole family. The Strengthening Families Protective Factors framework gives us tools and ideas to support families.

Strengthening Families Protective Factors
By the Center for the Study of Social Policy (Figure 1)

  1. Parental Resilience

    Families are able to manage stress and bounce back from challenges.

  2. Knowledge of Child Development and Parenting

    Adults know what to expect as children grow and are able to meet their child's needs at each stage of development.

  3. Social Connections

    Families know there are people who care about them and who they can call on for help.

  4. Concrete Supports in Times of Need

    Families can get the help they need when crises strike: food and shelter, medical and mental health services, social, legal, and educational resources.

  5. Social and Emotional Competence of Children

    Social and emotional development promotes healthy relationships with others. Children with strong relationships, who can regulate their own behavior, express their emotions, and relate to others are at lower risk of maltreatment.

You can learn more about the Protective Factors Framework by visiting:  

Promoting Family Resilience

Resilient individuals have elements in their life that help them “bounce back” to overcome challenges and move forward in positive ways. Researchers have identified factors that promote resilience and coping in families who deal with challenges. Some of those factors are:

  • Establishing positive early family member-child relationships
  • Maintaining family coherence through shared values and beliefs
  • Families finding positive meanings in difficult situations
  • Teamwork within the family and strengthening the family as a unit
  • Family members developing collaborative relationships with professionals
  • Family members expressing feelings and communicating effectively with each other
  • Maintaining friendships and participating in social activities and networks
  • Receiving supports from extended family members, teachers, friends, community leaders, or neighbors (all these are called informal supports)

Supporting Military Families

Military families face challenges unlike those experienced by others. These challenges may pose unique risks for children and the family as a whole. The nature of a military family member’s work can involve frequent moves or periods of separation from children; this can affect children’s emotional well-being. As a preschool teacher, it is important for you to know how to recognize when children are dealing with emotional stress and how to effectively support children and their families during difficult times in their lives.


Deployment has a great effect upon family functioning, particularly relationships between caregivers and children. When children experience long periods of separation from their primary caregiver, their family life, routines, emotional state, and behaviors may be affected. Deployment can add stress and anxiety to families. Preschoolers may experience fear, sadness, confusion, or loss. You can support families during deployment by maintaining ongoing communication. As a preschool teacher, you can work with families to ensure they are well supported during this challenging time. It is important that families and caregivers work together to provide needed resources. It is also essential to acknowledge that as a service provider, you may also feel overwhelmed when trying to support military families. If you need help supporting military families of children in your care, talk with trainer, coach, or supervisor.

Before Deployment

While preparing for deployment, families may experience heightened anxiety and stress. If deployment occurs without warning, there may not be time for preparation. No matter the circumstances, families and children can be vulnerable during this time. As a preschool teacher, remind families to take care of themselves, as this will also help children cope better. Consider the following to support children and families before deployment:

  • If possible, ask family members to share the time of upcoming deployment. Communicate with families to learn ways to support them, and ask them how and when they prefer to exchange information.
  • Prepare materials to use with children during deployment. Photograph children with their loved ones. Audio- or video-record the deploying parent reading favorite stories, singing songs, or leaving special messages to their children.
  • Plan for special events where family members can come to your classroom and be part of an activity or go on a field trip, giving them an opportunity to spend quality time with their child at school. Take pictures of these activities and display them in your classroom.
  • Be sensitive to children’s needs and emotions during this time. Watch for signs of stress (e.g., crying, behavioral problems, irritability, inability to stay on task, mood swings, clinging) and develop a plan of action. Involve the families in suggesting management strategies to establish consistency between home and school environments.
  • Help families identify possible sources of support (e.g., other family members, neighbors, or friends) who can help them throughout this process.

During Deployment

Children and families greatly miss their loved ones during this time. Children may experience sadness, anger, anxiety and restlessness, and preschoolers in particular may become clingy and in need of more reassurance and hugs from you. Acknowledge that what works for one family may not work for another family. Consider the following to support children and families during active deployment:

  • Provide stability and minimize changes to routines, especially when it comes to the staff working with children. This also applies to all children and families dealing with transitions and new experiences. When it comes to children from military families it can provide them with a sense of stability and predictability about their lives on a day-to-day basis.
  • Use lots of affirmations with children. Preschoolers are often very capable of verbally expressing emotions. In response to comments children make about missing a parent or wanting to be with their mom, dad, or loved one, say things like “I can see that you miss your dad a lot,” or “I know you wish Mommy was here today.”
  • If children are having a hard time expressing their emotions, provide the words for them. You can say, for example, “I know that you are feeling upset and that’s OK.”
  • Involve the parent who is deployed by sending them photos, newsletters, videos, or special items that their children have produced (e.g., a drawing, a poem, or a few special words).
  • Use videos or audio recordings you made before the family member was deployed (of family members sharing special messages, reading stories, singing songs, etc.) to help children cope with difficult situations.
  • Offer children opportunities to stay emotionally connected with their loved ones who are deployed by writing letters, making drawings, or recording videos for them.
  • Maintain ongoing communication with the family.

When a Family Member Returns

Reunions can be very happy times, but can also be challenging as many strong emotions are involved. Deployment can greatly affect the deployed individual and this, in turn, affects everyone else in the family and family members may need to adjust to new ways of doing things. A family member’s return may cause routines to be reevaluated and modified and family roles and responsibilities reworked. Children and family members may have mixed emotions. Consider the following to support children and families when a family member returns from deployment:

  • Help children prepare for their family members’ return by talking about it. Always check in with families to get their suggestions about what may or may not work with their child.
  • Organize special classroom events (e.g., a field trip or lunch) and invite family members who are back from deployment to participate.
  • Watch for signs of stress in children, and work with families to support their children.
  • Acknowledge that this may be a difficult time for families and children, and be patient and understanding.

Supporting Military Families: Professional Views

Watch this video to learn about working with military families.


Promoting Family Resilience

Watch this video to learn about what programs can do to promote resilience in families.


You can provide resources to families in your classroom through lending libraries, family classes or workshops, inviting classroom or program guest speakers, or sharing referral information about local professionals or agencies. Consider the following ideas when it comes to providing resources to families:

  1. Classroom lending library: A lending library can be a great starting point in your efforts to make resources available for families in your classroom. The library may include books, toys, CDs and DVDs, which families may check out and take home. Your lending library should include materials that are written and presented in a family-friendly, jargon-free language. It should cover a variety of topics and interest areas, include materials that reflect consideration of diversity and multiculturalism, and, when possible, include materials in different languages to reflect the backgrounds of particular children in your classroom.
  2. Family classes and workshops: These can be fun and inviting events that provide information on a variety of topics of interest to families. As you get to know the families of children in your classroom through the year, you may hear similar comments shared by several individuals. Use these common concerns to decide the topic of a family class or workshop. Depending on the topics of interest, you may choose to serve as the class leader for the family classroom or workshop or you may invite other professionals (e.g., pediatricians, local college instructors, program administrators) as guest speakers. Sometimes, even parents or family members of children in your classroom can serve as the guest speakers. These events can cover a variety of topics, such as nutrition, exercise, management of challenging behaviors, transition to kindergarten, school policies, or resources for families of children with special learning needs.
  3. Referral information: Some families in your program will require more specific information related to their particular needs. In this case, you may be able to provide information about professionals, agencies, or other services. Consider gathering information about different resources that may be helpful to families at the beginning of the year to make sure your information is current and up to date. As you get to know the families of children in your program better, you may also be able to find resources that are more specific to their needs. Your list of resource topics may include the following:
    • Child care
    • Parenting helpline
    • Local school districts
    • Health-care professionals
    • Local special education services
    • Local libraries and community centers
    • Government benefits (e.g., Social Security, health-insurance programs)

As a preschool teacher, in collaboration with your trainer, coach, or supervisor, you must consider the appropriate services or resources for military families and families facing challenges. Always remember that each family’s needs are different from the next, and that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Consider the following when working with families facing challenges:

  • Use a family-centered approach: Each family’s needs are different, and what works well with one family may not work at all with another. Support families by focusing on their particular needs and honor their heritage and culture. Above all, focus on their strengths and build on those.
  • Be flexible and creative and individualize your approach with each family. For instance, if a family is having problems with transportation and has a difficult time meeting you at school, arrange for a meeting at a place the family can safely get to. Let families choose how much and how often they wish to communicate with you about their lives in the military and during deployment.
  • Suggest informal sources of support. Those can include other family members, neighbors, friends, church members, or other individuals the family knows and feels comfortable with.
  • Make resources available to families. These may include community organizations, related professionals who can provide assistance, or child-care providers. Don’t assume that families who have experienced deployment several times have the needed resources in place.
  • Overall, be understanding and nonjudgmental. Families facing challenges are sometimes overwhelmed meeting their basic needs and might not always respond to your suggestions or recommendations.

Strengthening and Supporting Families Facing Challenges

Watch this video to learn about supporting families facing challenges.




How have challenging events in your own life or in the lives of any of your family members affected your family as a whole? What factors helped you cope during these times of need? Think about some of the preschool children in your care and how challenging events in their lives may affect them. How can you apply your own experiences when working with families who face challenges? Download and print the Events Affecting Families activity. Write your thoughts in each column and share your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.

Next, think about your work with military families. Supporting military families during times of stress is difficult and worrisome. It is easy to forget that you affect families and that at the same time, families affect you. Remembering and identifying your own thoughts and emotions, can help you to be more purposeful and effective in your connections with families. Download and print the handout, Remembering Myself While Keeping a Focus. Read through, think about and respond to the questions in the handout.


Family stress and disorganization puts children at risk for maltreatment. Use these resources to learn more about supporting families of children in your care who may be experiencing maltreatment. Speak with your trainer, coach, or supervisor if you feel that there is abuse or maltreatment in your classroom and follow your program’s policies.

Then, download and use the Emotional Cycles of Deployment handout to learn more about deployment and how it affects families.  Knowing what to expect from children who experience separation from caregivers is key in order to come up with ideas for meaningful supports.


Informal supports:
These refer to family members, friends, neighbors, church members, association members, coworkers, or others who are not paid to do so but provide social support to children and their families
Protective factors:
Conditions or attributes in individuals, families, or communities that promote health and well-being


Which is not a good example of a way to support children and families during deployment?
Which is not a factor that promotes resilience and effective coping in families?
True or false? It is important to use a family-centered approach when working with military families.
References & Resources

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Child Abuse and Neglect: Risk and Protective Factors.

Center for the Study of Social Policy (n.d.). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. 

Derman-Sparks, L. (2009). Children—Socioeconomic Class and Equity. Young Children, 64(3), 50-53.

Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. (2018). Supporting Children and Families Experiencing Homelessness. Eight modules for supporting children and families. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Harper Browne, C. (2014). The Strengthening Families Approach and Protective Factors Framework: Branching out and reaching deeper. Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Social Policy.

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Hanson, M. J., & Lynch, E. W. (2004). Understanding Families: Approaches to diversity, disability, and risk. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Lynch, E. W., & Hanson, M. J. (2004). Developing Cross-Cultural Competence: A guide for working with young children and their families, 3rd ed. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

McAnaney, K. D. (1989). Single Parenting: The hardest thing I’ve ever done. Exceptional Parent, 19, 28-33.

Military OneSource. (n.d.). Deployment - Resources. 

Morse, J. (2006). New Emotional Cycles of Deployment for Service Members and Their Families. US Department of Defense, Deployment Health and Family Readiness Library.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). NAEYC Position Statement: Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment.

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Research on Early Childhood Homelessness. (2016). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 

Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families. (2017). Self-Assessment Tool for Early Childhood Programs Serving Families Experiencing Homelessness. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families. (2020). Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Family Shelters. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families. (2017). Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Family Supportive Housing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 

Park, J., Turnbull, A.P., & Turnbull, H.R. (2002). Impacts of Poverty on Quality of Life in Families of Children With Disabilities. Exceptional Children, 68(2), 151-170.

Petty, K. (2009). Deployment: Strategies for working with kids in military families. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Sesame Street in Communities. (n.d.) Family Homelessness. New York: Sesame Street.

Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E. J., & Soodak, L. C. (2006). Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnerships and trust. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Policy Statement on Meeting the Needs of Families with Young Children Experiencing and At Risk Homelessness. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.