Over the last several years, operational tempo for our military and technology have changed, and likewise, United Through Reading’s strategies have also changed. With conflict operations in Iraq and Afghanistan drawing to a close, the way we reach our military service members and their families has changed. Large-scale military deployments are decreasing, but there continue to be service members who are away from their families for security operations in troubled parts of the world and humanitarian missions like recent deployments to West Africa to respond to the Ebola outbreak. In addition, service members are often away from their families for training and duty assignments, and because of family circumstances (for example, families who choose not to accompany their service member on a tour in order to preserve education continuity and support networks). As we have done for 27 years, in peacetime and in times of conflict, United Through Reading will offer our program to all of these families because separation is always challenging, no matter the reason.
United Through Reading tackles several challenges inherent in family separation.
Separation is a routine part of military life but it isn’t easy, especially for children at home. Research from the RAND Corporation’s 2013 study of children from active-duty military families indicates that these children experience higher levels of emotional difficulties during family separations than children in the general population. About one-third of the military children surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety.
While new technologies like Skype, FaceTime and others are wonderful for families during separation, they are often unreliable. Due to poor internet connection, insufficient bandwidth or an inability to sync family schedules with a service member’s schedule during deployment or active-duty assignments, families and their service members are left feeling disappointed and frustrated by attempts to stay connected. With United Through Reading, families are guaranteed special and uninterrupted time with their service member that can be viewed over and over again.
Long separations are linked to difficulties in children’s social and emotional functioning which affect their ability to learn. An earlier RAND Corporation study found a strong association between children who have endured separations from a parent due to deployment and lower achievement in reading and math. The cumulative time of separation mattered more than the length of each deployment. Further, an alarming study by the US Department of Education in 2000 found that 34 percent of American children entering kindergarten cannot identify letters of the alphabet by name and are not yet at the first level of reading readiness.
These troubling reports are counterbalanced by many reputable studies that advocate a simple family response: the single most important activity for building early emergent reading skills is reading aloud to children.
When a parent is away, the family at home continues with daily routines and it’s often difficult for a returning service member and the family to find their way back to everyday routines they left behind months ago.