Defence families and their educators will have extra support to help young children cope with the emotional stress of having a parent away on deployment or training, with the development of targeted resources underway. 

University of New England (UNE) early childhood education researcher Dr Marg Rogers, who has previously developed Australia’s first research-based eBooks for 2-5 year olds with Australian Defence Force families, is leading a UNE research team’s efforts to write two new programs for educators and parents, which will be freely available online.

Dr Rogers says there is still a gaping hole in what’s available for young children, who can be vulnerable to the impacts of family stress and frequent relocations.

“Parents have been asking for strategies and resources to help children who don’t know why they feel angry or sad or understand where their mum or dad has gone,” says Dr Rogers.

“My research has found parents can feel isolated and unsupported because of the lack of resources available that can help them have conversations with their children about the really difficult concept of deployment.”

A $100,000 grant from The Ian Potter Foundation, for community-focused projects, will go towards helping Dr Rogers and fellow UNE education researchers Dr Jo Bird, Dr Ingrid Harrington and Dr Pep Serow to produce the new research-based programs. They will include story-based resources for use in the home and early childhood environments.

“In the home, families will be able to use the program and resources to not only help children understand and cope with their feelings, but also to develop useful strategies to stay connected with the parent who is away, such as by drawing pictures or writing stories about something they’re looking forward to doing together when the parent comes home, and using a variety of digital communication technology. This is important for helping ensure the parent does not become a stranger when they return.

“The program for early childhood educators will help to develop empathy and understanding among a child’s peers in early childhood services, and provide strategies to help with emotional and social support,” Dr Rogers says.

There will also be modules to assist with frequent relocations and adjustment once the parent returns, including if the family has a physical or mental health issue to cope with.

The resources will be developed based on first-hand data with children, which Dr Rogers says is an important difference in her research and with the team’s work.

“In Australia, there has been no other early childhood research about defence families using a strengths-based resilience model, based on first-hand data from working with children.

“Using this approach, we’ll be able to best ensure the resources fill this gap and provide support to families to build resilience and understanding when they need it the most.”  

The researchers will work with Legacy and early childhood educators to develop the programs and resources, which will then be trialled in early childhood services within a navy, air force and army base in different Australian states.  

The team expects the resources to be available following evaluation in February 2023.

The existing eBooks developed by Dr Marg Rogers can be downloaded from the Defence Community Organisation website. An app, developed with UNE’s Dr Jo Bird, Raph Roberts and Trish Donald, can be downloaded from the App Store from an iPad.

Image: A draft eBook resource by Dr Marg Rogers that will be available as part of the new programs for defence children, and their families and educators.