Deployed parent groups at Fort Belvoir Elementary provide safe haven for children
October 13, 2011
Fort Belvoir Elementary School supports children of deployed parents with an outlet to share any feelings the children might be having.
For the past 10 years, the school has organized two groups a year to provide essential support to this population of children.
"We talk about the emotional cycle of deployment with the first through third graders," said Teresa Chapman, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade counselor. "With older children, we might actually pull out a globe and find where their parent is, and if they don't know that will be a homework assignment; find out where your parent is."
Kindergartners meet four to five times while 1st- 6th graders will meet six to eight times depending on the progress made during the meetings.
Getting children to understand what their parent has to go through to prepare for a deployment is an area of focus during the classes. Chapman said she will have the children do a physical fitness test or have them make a military identification card like their mom or dad has to do.
"The PT test is some pushups and sit ups and we make them sing twinkle-twinkle little star," said Chapman. "It's pretty loose."
Chapman said the children are also asked to journal. Packets are provided to each child with each page having an exercise that gives the child an opportunity to express his or her feelings. One of the pages included in the packet are the "I felt really sad when" page, which, in the past has allowed the child to share his or her feelings with their mother or father.
"If their mom or dad sees that they can say to the child 'Oh, you felt really sad when …' and that's a beginning for a conversation," Chapman said.
Suzanne Davidson, a counselor at Fort Belvoir Elementary said one of the problems she and Chapman run into with kindergarten through third grade children is they won't speak out load about their feelings. One way they get the children to open up is with a page called "Picture of their person" which allows the child to draw a picture of his or her deployed parent. Another page included in the packet for young children is the "My dad is deployed where is he?" page which allows the child to see where in the world their parent is.
"We put a star on the map to show where their parent is deployed to and a heart where the child is so they can see the significance of the distance," said Davidson. "Kindergartners don't have a concept of abstract yet. So, they're very concrete and we can only work with the concrete part of that. So, what you present to them is breaking the surface kind of stuff, but allowing them an opportunity to talk if they want."
Though the journaling is strongly encouraged, Chapman said she actually doesn't want to go through every exercise in the packet during the classes because she wants the children to have exercises to do after the meetings are over for whenever they feel sad.
Despite all the different exercises done with the children, the classes themselves are what the children who participate like the most.
"The success of the group is not what we teach them, it's not what we say, it's not what we do," said Chapman. "We could color the whole time and I think they would be OK with that because the dialogue and knowing they are all in it together and supporting each other is what helps the most. All we do is lend the environment and start the conversations."
Seeing the children handle their parent being gone is encouraging for Chapman and Davidson and it keeps them motivated to continue the classes.
"It's uplifting for us as well because the children are just awesome," said Chapman. "They are so young and so resilient because they have to be. They have to take their experiences and build upon them. So, that's what we are hoping they will do."