Abstract: Listening Closely to Measure Better: Using Qualitative Data to Build an Inventory of School Supports for Military-Connected Students and Families (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Listening Closely to Measure Better: Using Qualitative Data to Build an Inventory of School Supports for Military-Connected Students and Families

Friday, January 13, 2023
Maryvale B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Renee Spencer, EdD, LICSW, Professor, Boston University School of Social Work, MA
Juliann Nicholson, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, Boston University, Boston, MA
Jake Steggerda, BA, Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR
Alison L. Drew, PhD, Assistant Research Scientist, New York University, New York, NY
Carla Herrera, PhD, Research Associate Professor, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Amy Slep, PhD, Professor, New York University, NY
Timothy A. Cavell, PhD, Professor, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR
Background/Purpose: The almost 1 million school-aged children with active-duty military parents (DOD, 2018) enrolled in civilian schools experience, on average, 6 to 9 moves during their K-12 years, a mobility rate 3 times that of non-military children (Kitmotto et al., 2011). Growing recognition of the stressors experienced by military-connected (MC) children and families has led to calls for schools to offer greater support (Esqueda et al., 2012). Funded by the Department of Education, we partnered with a school district located near a joint military base that serves a large number of MC students and families to launch a study testing a model of how school supports are related to student functioning. Because a measure of school supports was lacking, we developed our own measure, beginning by listening closely to the expertise and experiences of key stakeholders.

Method: In the absence of an existing measure, we generated an initial list of categories of supports schools may provide to mobile students based on the literature on MC as well as other highly mobile student groups (e.g., foster care, homeless). To identify additional supports schools may provide MC students and families, we then conducted interviews and focus groups with school personnel, including district-level administrators and support personnel (n=3), school principals (n=3), and school counselors (n=13). Next, we pivoted to talking with MC parents (n=5) and students (n=2) both to triangulate the reports of school personnel and to identify supports families and students may want but were not receiving. Finally, we constructed two versions of the school supports inventory, one for MC parents that contains 26 items addressing supports for both parents and students and a shorter 12-item version for youth. These inventories ask participants to rate both access to and the importance of each type of support. The measures have shown strong reliability and validity in our ongoing study.

The Impact of Listening to Stakeholders: Our measure was significantly shaped by what we learned from talking with stakeholders. Included are items that reflect what we learned about the importance of supports for MC students during transitions both into and out of schools. We heard how disruptive off-cycle moves are, as children enter schools after classes have been set and popular extra-curriculars and after-school programs may have filled, which heightens the need for helping students make strong social connections. Also emphasized was the importance of both individualized supports and supports relating to broader school culture and community-building efforts, without singling out MC students and families in a way that feels stigmatizing.

Conclusion: In order to understand how school supports are related to student outcomes, a measure of these support was needed. Listening closely to key stakeholders was an essential step in developing a measure to assess school supports for MC students and families as it highlighted needed supports beyond what was addressed in the existing literature. We plan to make the inventories available to schools and to researchers interested in continuing to learn how to better support and serve MC students and families.