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Oceanside School Helps Kids Cope with Deployment

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Aired 5/6/11

Deployment puts lots of stress on soldiers and families. A new study from the RAND Corporation shows that stress can lead to a decline in a child’s academic performance.

— It’s almost lunchtime for Michelle Anderson’s first graders at Santa Margarita Elementary School in Oceanside. At a time of day when the attention spans for six and seven years olds might be growing short her 26 students are quiet.

Santa Margarita Elementary School students in Oceanside spend recess in the school's information Lunch and Recess Options room instead of out on the more volatile playground.
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Above: Santa Margarita Elementary School students in Oceanside spend recess in the school's information Lunch and Recess Options room instead of out on the more volatile playground.

This is the kind of calm classroom any teacher tries to maintain. But it’s something a school like Santa Margarita might have to work a little harder at.

“One of the things that I’ve heard from teachers that have recently been at other sites is that they just see – maybe just a more high level of emotionality among the children," said Pat Kurtz, Santa Margarita's principal. "There’s the appearance of a higher stress level.”

That’s because all of Santa Margarita’s students are the children of active duty or retired military personnel. At any given moment during the school year, Kurtz said 75 to 80 percent have a parent who is deployed or scheduled to be deployed within six weeks.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spanning a decade, more families are weathering multiple deployments. A recent study from the RAND Corporation shows that elementary and middle school kids’ academic performance can suffer as those months apart add up. Kids whose parents were deployed for a total of 19 months or more over an eight year period had lower scores on achievement tests.

The study made recommendations about how the military and schools could help kids avoid these problems

“You might bring more behavioral health providers into schools that have a high proportion of military families to help them to identify these children early on and address these issues early on,” said Amy Richardson, one of the study's authors.

And, that’s exactly what Santa Margarita and Oceanside’s other schools serving Camp Pendleton families try to do.

“We have a USC social worker intern who does a variety of things – leadership group, friendship group and one-to-one counseling. We have counselors here through TriCare who are available for year-round counseling with children and with families. We have counselors here that are available through Palomar Counseling. We have the FOCUS Program here,” said Kurtz.

First grader Benjamin McNett went through the six week FOCUS Program with his sister to help him deal with his dad’s deployment to Afghanistan. The groups talked about a few simple ideas.

“The feeling thermometer, feelings and how to control your anger," McNett said. "Green means happy, orange means not OK and red means really uncomfortable."

Now, when he's feeling "really uncomfortable" McNett does what they told him to during the FOCUS sessions.

"Take three deep breaths and take some time to yourself,” he said.

It may not sound like a lot, but Benjamin’s mom Kelly said the program and other supports at the schools have made a world of difference.

“We live on the base – they know their friends dads are gone – but to actually sit down and share their feelings – they know they’re not alone and my son doesn’t start throwing things across my living room because he’s mad and he misses his dad,” she said.

The school's emotional supports for students don't stop at formal behavior health services. There is also a casual classroom open to students most days during recess and lunch where kids can read and play board games.

"A lot less kids are out (during recess) having meltdowns," said Rochelle Parkhurst, a teacher that supervises the game room. "Especially because if they’re out there and they get frustrated they just come in here and play some other games and have some down time. It’s more like alone time where it’s calm."

Giving kids tools to cope with their emotions seems to pay off at Santa Margarita. Reports released by the state department of education this week rank the school as above average statewide.

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