Teaching about military families: Lessons from the field

by Tara Saathoff-Wells, Ph.D., CFLE; Amy Dombro, M.S.; Karen Blaisure, Ph.D., CFLE; Angela Pereira (Col., U.S. Army, Ret.), Ph.D., MSW; Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, Ph.D., CFLE
NCFR Report
Content Area
Family Science Education


This article focuses on college-level courses about military families. The authors of this article have just finished collaborating on a textbook about military families aimed at undergraduates training to become helping professionals. The book was inspired in large part by the courses developed by two of the authors, Karen Blaisure and Tara Saathoff-Wells. As a group, our goal is to work to ensure that the next generation of professionals from disciplines like family studies, counseling, social work, psychology, student affairs, and others are well-prepared to support military and veteran families as they enter, complete, leave, and deal with the aftermath of their military service. Similar to our recent cowriting experience, the development and implementation of Karen and Tara's courses involved purposeful collaboration with a range of professionals and families within the military and veteran population. Each of the authors played a role in the courses, some of which were more visible than others: Angela, as a career Army social worker, is a professional who does the work that students need to know; Shelley, a researcher, conducts studies and disseminates results that students read; Amy, the writer, listens to families and creates support materials that students read and can share with families; and Tara and Karen, the instructors, facilitate learning.

Although the number of service members and veterans is relatively small compared to the U.S. population as a whole, they and many more millions of moms, dads, siblings, and other family members have been deeply influenced by the conflicts of the past decade as well as earlier conflicts. Thus, all professionals working with families are now likely to encounter military and veteran families in their practices even if they work in the civilian community.

The support our society offers military families has grown from a seed to a twig over the last few years. But we need to offer them the support of a tree for the good of military families and our country. Courses like this will help. KLC, WMU student

Course Structure and Content

Karen, at Western Michigan University, and Tara, at Central Michigan University, both developed and taught courses on military families during the past 5 years. Most human development and family studies programs in the United States do not regularly offer a course on military families, so following university guidelines for special-topics courses may be necessary. The following items are examples of what Tara and Karen considered in developing their courses:

  • A weekend format. We both found that a weekend format worked well, whether offering a 1-credit or 3-credit version of our courses. A large block of time allowed for deeper discussion of topics, for extended time with guests, and for unique field trip opportunities.
  • Flexible course numbers. These courses were offered at a level that allowed both graduate and advanced undergraduate students to enroll.
  • Online course-management systems. An online platform helped structure homework and reading assignments and kept dialogue about topics active via discussion boards and resource sharing between class sessions.
  • CVIT and Skype. Compressed Video Interactive Technology allowed us to stream class sessions with each other throughout the semester. Additionally, classes could "share" guest speakers, creating an open dialogue across sites. Skype„¢ enabled video conference calls with guests who were not local to one of our universities. We also became good friends with our local IT gurus. (Note that tech support availability for a weekend class may be challenging on your campus; check beforehand!)

Course content is a combination of background information and current trends in research and practice. We strongly recommend that instructors take time at the beginning of a course to familiarize students with hallmarks of military culture; of basic organizational characteristics of the different branches, including active duty and ready reserve; and of common experiences of military family life compared, when possible, to civilian families.

As we mark almost a decade of sustained military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, other topics have been added into our courses. Emerging research on stress and resilience regarding multiple deployments and combat-affected families (spouse's and children's well-being, family violence, substance abuse, and changes in close and extended family relationships), visible and invisible wounds, and service member death now take a more prominent place in our courses than they did 5 years ago. In earlier iterations of our classes, students were asking "Where is the research on families, children, loss, and deployments?" Now we can point to a rapidly growing body of literature that examines these questions. Discussions on new military and civilian initiatives built from this research and practice innovations are also included.

Assignments and field trip/guest speaker opportunities offer variation in integrating course content. For example, students find it informative to investigate local veterans' organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars or Student Veterans of America. They may collate resources for returning National Guard families or volunteer in a Yellow Ribbon reintegration weekend.

In fall 2010, we coordinated our classes at WMU and CMU and met together for a joint field trip to an Air National Guard base on a drill weekend, a VA hospital, and a national cemetery. During the base visit, the family readiness manager, the chaplain, and a first sergeant described their work and reactions to deployment. We toured the facilities and ate lunch in the cafeteria, providing some students their first experience on a military installation. At the VA medical center, a psychologist discussed PTSD treatment; at the national cemetery, staff discussed how they assist families with arrangements. During another class session, our coauthor, retired Army Colonel Angela Pereira, skyped into our classrooms sharing her experiences as a career Army social worker and answering questions from students. These experiences bring information about military families to life in a way that a standard seminar format cannot duplicate.

Instructor Knowledge and Preparation

Because there are currently 30 million veterans and 2.2 million service members and their families, college and university instruc-tors may be part of an extended military family. While this is appreciated by students and is a means of gaining initial credibility, experience as a military family member is not necessary to teach a course on military families. Building from respect for military families, instructors can engage in the study and activities required to prepare and deliver a high-quality course.

If you aren't a member of a military family, be up front about it. If you are knowledgeable, share stories you have gathered, and bring in guest speakers with military backgrounds, you will have credibility. KH, CMU student

An instructor's knowledge should span military culture (e.g., values, mission, chain of command, service before self, language), active and reserve components (i.e., reserves and National Guard), and the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Familiarity with recent research on military families is central to an instructor's knowledge and includes factors that support family resilience, the implications for adults and children of separations due to training and deployment, relocations, service members' 24/7 "on call" status, and visible and invisible injuries. Instructors also need to know military and civilian resources for military, as well as content found in key reports, research articles, and books (see Recommended Resources, below).

Theory and praxis are necessary to address tension between content that focuses on service members and content that focuses on family members. Helping students frame intricate, contextual influences for individual and family resilience requires taking time throughout the semester to revisit theoretical concepts and models so that they can create a robust theoretical foundation.

Developing positive relationships with on-campus and local military groups can be mutually beneficial. A course on military families adds to a supportive climate for military students, veterans, and their families. In turn, members of these groups often are eager to be guest speakers. If a college or university has a department of Military Science (responsible for the training of Reserve Officers Training Corps students), it is staffed by active-duty members, typically willing to make presentations on military culture. Members of the campus military student/veteran office or organization can describe reintegration and the transition to or back to college life. Family program staff at a local National Guard unit (e.g., Military Family Life Consultants, Director of Psychological Services), reserve unit (e.g., Family Readiness Manager), or active-duty base or post can describe their day-to-day work with military families.

Opportunities and Challenges

Students enrolled in a military family course vary in knowledge of and comfort with the military and in motivation for taking the course. Some may be limited to what they have learned from media accounts while others have lived in the military culture for years. Other students may take the course for personal reasons, such as marrying a service member. Yet others enroll because they realize issues military families face will continue even if current military actions come to a close and as a professional they will be responding to these implications for rest of their professional lives.

Students' experiences with the military often have been with one branch of the military or one population (e.g., returning veterans). A course on military families offers them the opportunity to share their knowledge while also expanding it. For example, in our coordinated 2010 courses, several graduate students in a student affairs program at WMU had experience working with student veterans and with military family members who were attending college while a loved one was deployed. Students at CMU were both undergraduate and graduate students in Human Development and Family Studies whose career goals included working as civilians on military installations in child, youth, and family programs.

Students also vary in their political or social views that intersect with their interests in a course about military families. For example, when thinking about course policy and expectations for civil discourse, we have found it helpful to think ahead about how to address topics and facilitate classroom and online discussions on issues such as political stances on current military actions and social views on the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell or women serving in combat positions.

Guest speakers provide some students their first experience talking with a service member or veteran, as well as the opportunity to hear about the highs and lows of military life. Discuss with guest speakers what to cover. At times, what they say may challenge students, and how students respond may challenge speakers. These are opportunities for respectful dialogue.

Field trips to nearby Army or Air National Guard installations during a drill weekend offer both opportunities and examples of challenges for faculty and students. Dates of a drill weekend may change, allowing students to experience a bit of what it is like to rearrange personal and professional schedules in response to a military decision.

Why Courses Like This Matter to Military Families

Perhaps the most important contribution a course on military families can make in educating current or future professionals is imparting to them a greater understanding of the culture of military life. Military service is a subculture of American life. If we can convey to students what it means to be part of a military family and help them feel more comfortable working with those families, we will give them the greatest tools in their work with this population.

Military members and families relate best to and trust those who understand them, which means that professionals need to address barriers in their knowledge about military subculture and comfort in working with military families. When a professional is more familiar with and more comfortable working with military families, and when military family members understand that a professional acknowledges, appreciates, and understands what it is to be part of a military family, the helping relationship can develop and thrive. Even students who have been in the military or have been part of a military family will benefit from being able to look at the military culture and military family life from another point of view with other students. They will gain a better appreciation of how life differs for civilian and military families in general and will be able to work with military families whose experiences and needs are different from their own.

Courses on working with military families should have the goals of helping professionals become competent in their knowledge about military family life and developing professional skills that enhance effective interactions. These goals can be achieved when students:

  • are introduced to military members, veterans, and their families;
  • share personal experiences as or with military members and families;
  • acquire a basic understanding of military structure and history;
  • learning about the culture of the military and the nature of military service, including the fact that many military and family members may not agree politically with the missions of the military, but feel they must carry out whatever missions the nation has deemed necessary, because they have vowed to do so; and
  • exploring the role(s) and stance of a helping professional when it comes to supporting families.

These course contents help professionals develop empathy for military families€ˆthe single most important characteristic for a helping professional and help them to become compassionate professionals who are knowledgeable about the population they will serve.

Contact Tara Saathoff-Wells at [email protected]
Photo credit: Military Saves Fair stresses planning for the future by USAG-Humphreys

Recommended Resources

The following resources are appropriate for background preparation and as sources of information for students. Explore websites, as many contain additional reports, handouts, and program information appropriate to assign as readings.