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Strengthening and Supporting Military Families and Families Facing Challenges

Providing support is one of the most important things we can do for families. This lesson will provide an introduction to the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework. You will learn about each factor, how you can provide support and what some unique challenges are when working with school-age children and their families. This lesson will also help you understand common situations military families face, such as frequent moves and deployment.

  • Identify situations in which a family member may need assistance understanding their child’s development or point of view.
  • Develop methods of conducting individual conferences with families to support a child’s development or learning environment.
  • Apply knowledge of appropriate resources when necessary to support families.
  • Identify common effects of deployment and how school-age children and families are affected.



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 school-age program staff member, 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 program-related processes.

Families everywhere go through times during which they need support accessing information to help them navigate the circumstances they are dealing with. Families will look to you for support. A family member may have a concern and you may be asked to provide information, suggestions, or recommendations about a variety of topics, such as child development, challenging behavior, literacy, in- and out-of-school activities, community connections, health-care providers, related services, and so forth. Sometimes you may have answers and sometimes you may have to look for answers. Above all, respect and maintain families’ confidentiality. If a family member shares a need or concern with you, respect his or her privacy and recommend resources if asked, however treat their information sensitively.

Offering knowledge and guidance is a way of strengthening the bond between yourself and the families of children in your care. It is important to always be available for families and to provide support whenever possible and appropriate. Engaging families in your program with the variety of communication methods will be create a great foundation that will support your relationship.

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. This framework 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. Our job is not only to care for each child 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

Now that you have been introduced to the Protective Factors, we will discuss each factor in greater detail. This will give you concrete information and examples of each factor as well as methods for implementing it into your program.

The Protective Factors: Parent Resilience

We all know that stress can adversely affect our lives. What makes us resilient is how we choose to deal with and overcome a stress or challenge in our lives. Part of your role as a school-age staff member will be to help families overcome, avoid, or manage certain stressors. Some methods of helping families through challenges are:

  • Create a welcoming environment where families feel comfortable seeking help.
  • Encourage suggestions and feedback from families.
  • When informing families of behavior issues or incidents, be calm and supportive. It also helps to have some suggestions on how to help the situation and move forward.
  • Take the time to listen to families. Sometimes, family members may need you to be a supportive listener to help them through a situation.

Families of school-age children are faced with challenges that are different from those posed to families with younger children. Busy schedules and rapid changes in their development cause family members to experience added stress. Here are some examples of possible challenges for families of school-age children, and how you can help.

Possible Challenges for
Families of School-Age Children

How to Help

School-age children can be very busy when they try to balance school, sports, clubs and other activities as well as their family obligations and social life. This can cause stress for families, because of the financial requirements involved, as well as the time commitments and transportation needs.

Help school-age children organize their schedules by working with them to create daily or weekly calendars.

Do your best to make sure that children are staying on task when working on their homework assignments or studying, this will give children more time to spend with their families at home. 

The academic requirements for school-age children become increasingly difficult as they progress in school. This can cause stress for families because of the time commitments involved. It can also create challenges for families who don’t have resources available to assist their children with their homework.

As school-age children complete their homework, be sure to check it for accuracy. If you notice a child struggling in a particular topic, learn how your program can help provide assistance. Provide resources such as workbooks, additional reading materials, and online tutoring help whenever possible.

The Protective Factors: Knowledge of Child Development and Parenting

Knowledge of child development milestones and various parenting techniques is an important part of your role as a school-age staff member. There will be many times when families will come to you seeking resources, knowledge and help. When a family member comes to you with questions about child development, you should have a variety of quality resources available to share. These resources should be a combination of services available within your program, print resources, and online resources, as well as resources and references available outside of the program. Great places to start are the milestones charts and information guides you printed in the VLS Cognitive Development course. There is also a resource guide attached to this course. As you learned in the Cognitive Development course, children develop at different paces. When a child’s peers work at a higher level or behave differently, parents may compare their child against others. If you notice this happening, or a family member brings something to your attention, remind them that not all school-age children will develop the same. Use the milestone charts and information guides as tools to demonstrate information about child development. When working with families that may have a difficult time understanding you because of language barriers or other differences, work with your program to provide a translator or other support.

The key is to make families feel welcome and comfortable discussing their child’s development so that you can all work together to help the child succeed. Families might also come to you with their parenting preferences and beliefs as well as any cultural traditions or practices that affect the way a child may develop. You should keep the following in mind when providing this type of support to families:

  • Information given should always be accurate and appropriate.
  • When providing information, always be respectful and positive.
  • All family practices should be respected and honored. If you suspect that a particular practice may be dangerous or negatively affect a child’s development, share your concerns with your supervisor. Do not mention your concerns to the family.
  • Work with other program staff and administration to provide families with the best resources possible. If you are unsure of how to answer a question or choose a resource, check with your trainer, coach, or administrator.

Here are some examples of possible challenges for families of school-age children, and how you can help:

Possible Challenges for
Families of School-Age Children

How to Help

Unlike younger children, school-age children have 3 "teachers" in their lives; their family, their school teacher and you. Sometimes, this can cause challenges when sharing information or helping a child through a situation.

Whenever possible, work together with the family and the school. If a school is using specific information or resources to support the family, find out what it is and ask your supervisor if they can purchase the same resources. It will help the family and the child if all educators can be on the same page.

Older school-age children may begin to have rapid developmental changes as they enter puberty. Sometimes, these changes can be difficult for parents to handle and accept because it means their little girl or boy is not so little anymore.

Provide information for families on child development and puberty. Reassure them that this is a natural part of growing up - and ask them to reflect on what it was like for them at this stage.

The Protective Factors: Social Connections

Family support or discussion groups are a great way for families to get to know each other and offer social connections. Family members may form groups to discuss education, service projects, parenting, or the common stressors of life.

Some examples of family groups include:

  • Family/staff groups: Similar to parent-teacher organizations in schools, these groups work to raise funds, plan special events, or give suggestions for activity planning.
  • Family support groups: This type of group is made up of family members who want or need support. They may meet on their own time and discuss parenting issues or methods or similar situations they are experiencing.
  • Welcome committee: This type of group is made up of family members who spend time with incoming families to welcome them into the program.

The Protective Factors: Concrete Supports in Times of Need

We all know that tragedy can strike at any time for any family. Unfortunately, you may encounter this during your time as a school-age staff member. When a family member finds themself in a time of need, it is up to you to provide any support possible. A “time of need” can mean a variety of things such as:

  • Meeting basic economic needs such as food, housing, health care and clothing
  • Domestic violence
  • Mental illness
  • Substance abuse
  • Fatal or long term illness
  • Death of a family member

When an event like this occurs, work with your supervisor and program administration to provide concrete support for the family. Keep in mind that school-age children will have an awareness of the situation because of their age and independence.

The Protective Factors: Social and Emotional Competence of Children

The social and emotional competence of school-age children involves their behavior and emotional well-being. This is increasingly important as children grow because it affects their abilities to make and maintain positive relationships. Family members may have questions or concerns about their child’s social or emotional competence. Here are some things you can do to support families:

  • Be aware of the daily interactions of the children in your care. Make observations when you see something that may cause concern. If you notice a behavior that is cause for concern, bring it to the attention of your supervisor. You will learn more about social and emotional health in the Self course.
  • Talk with family members about behaviors they see at home or at their school. Have conversations about concerns and successes.
  • Create a safe and welcoming environment that allows all children to feel comfortable. This will help children feel that they can express themselves, communicate their needs and form relationships.

Another way to help support the emotional and social health of children is to help family members understand a child’s point of view.

As children age, they begin to move away from the egocentric views of early childhood and have the ability to see certain issues from others’ perspectives. Like any other developmental milestone, this ability will differ in each child. Some children will be able to show sympathy and empathy, while others may only see how a situation will affect them. The method a school-age child uses to approach a situation may be very different from what an adult may do in the same situation. This can cause misunderstandings and communication issues between family members. If a parent has difficulty communicating or relating to their child, they may come to you for advice or assistance. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers these tips for parent-child communication:

  • Become an active listener
  • Set aside time without distractions to listen and respond
  • Put aside your own thoughts and try to put yourself in your child’s shoes
  • Accept and show respect for what your child is sharing
  • Create opportunities for your child to solve their own problems
  • Remain positive when talking to your child
  • Be consistent
  • Be honest – let your child know how a situation or specific behavior makes you feel

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 school-age staff member, 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. School-age children may experience fear, sadness, confusion, or loss. You can support families during deployment by maintaining ongoing communication. As a school-age 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 and youth 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 school-age program staff, remind families to take care of themselves, as this will also help children and youth 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 and youth 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 and youth’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 and youth may experience sadness, anger, anxiety and restlessness. 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 and youth. This also applies to all children and families dealing with transitions and new experiences. When it comes to children and youth 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 and youth. In response to comments children and youth 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 and youth 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 and youth cope with difficult situations.
  • Offer children and youth 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 and youth 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 youth, 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.

You can find additional information on supporting military families in the Strengthening Military Families documents in the Learn Section.

Factors That Promote Resilience and Effective Coping In Families

In your work with families and children and youth who face challenges, it is important to acknowledge that sometimes these challenges have multiple causes and that families may require help that goes beyond what you can provide at school. You must recognize that assisting families experiencing challenges may require a wide range of services. As a school-age staff member, you may be one of several professionals working to support families.

There are factors that promote effective coping, which may help you support families facing challenges. In addition to the protective factors discussed in The Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework, researchers have identified additional factors that promote resilience and coping in families who deal with challenges:

  • Adult family members setting and following rules at home
  • 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 informal supports, such as extended family members, teachers, friends, community leaders, or neighbors


Listen to this school-age staff member discuss methods of supporting new families in a program.

Supporting New Families

A staff member discusses methods of supporting families as they enter your program.

In this video, an assistant director discusses the ways you can support families by knowing how to provide resources.

Providing Resources

An assistant director discusses sharing and providing resources with families.

In this next video, listen as the many stressors of military life are discussed.

Military Life and Stress

A staff member discusses the common stressors found in military life.

In this video, listen as a parent and an assistant director talk about ways to support the military family and lifestyle.

Supporting Military Families

Family member and staff member discuss ways a school-age program can support military families.


You can provide resources to families in your program are 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 program 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 program 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 school-age program staff member, in collaboration with your trainer, coach, or supervisor, you must be prepared to 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 the program, 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.
  • Finally, explore the following websites for additional information on how to communicate about child development and support families in your program


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 children in your program and how challenging events in their lives may affect them. How can you apply your own experiences when working with families who face challenges? Take a look at the Events Affecting Families activity. Write your thoughts in each column and share your responses with a coach, trainer, or administrator.

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. View and complete 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 the Supporting Families Facing Child Maltreatment activity to learn more about supporting families of children in your care who may be experiencing maltreatment. Speak with your trainer, coach, or administratorif you feel that there is abuse or maltreatment in your classroom and follow your program’s policies.

Then, use the New 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.


Active listener:
A method of listening where the listener demonstrates understanding of what is being heard by restating the information. Active Listening Sample Conversation: Child: “I wish I didn’t have to go to piano practice anymore.” Parent: “I understand that you don’t want to go to piano practice, but can you tell me why?”
A transfer or reassignment to another location. Deployment lengths can vary but typically last multiple months
When one’s outlook is limited to their own needs, wants, and activities
Ability to understand and share feelings of another
The ability to recover or “bounce back” from difficulties
Understanding and reaction to the distress of another’s distress or need


Which of the following are factors that promote resilience in families who are facing challenges?
True or False? When a family member returns home from a deployment, it can be a stressful time for families and children.
Why is it important as a school-age staff member to have a solid knowledge of child development milestones?
References & Resources

Administration for Children and Families. (2017). Early Childhood Homelessness in the United States: 50-State Profile. Washington, D.C.: Department of Health & Human Services.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2012). Family Life: Components of Good Communication.

Bumgarner, M. (2011). Working with School-Age Children. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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

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.

National Military Family Association

Obama, B. (2011). Strengthening our military families: Meeting America’s 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. 

Schor, E., American Academy of Pediatrics. (1995). Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12. New York: Bantam. 

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

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.