Getting children to focus on their studies can be a challenging task under any circumstances. But doing so when a parent is sent to war can be especially difficult. While war rages in Iraq, some U.S. grade schools are providing specialized counseling and other activities to help students from military families cope with their fears and keep them engaged in their studies.
Nestled in the rolling hills outside Columbus, Georgia, Midland Middle School bustles with activity as students head to class.
More than 100 Midland students have at least one family member in the armed forces who has either been sent to Iraq or may soon be deployed somewhere in the region. Among the students is a soft-spoken 13-year-old, Christopher Cain.
"My dad is a drill sergeant in the military. He might be deployed [to Iraq]," he said. "I do not get to see him that often anymore. I watched a [television] show last night. It showed people getting shot [in combat]. If my dad got shot I do not know what I would do."
Midland Principal James Wilson says the impact of Operation Iraqi Freedom has extended into his classrooms. Some students have become preoccupied, fearing for a parent's life. He says teachers and administrators have had to grapple with a delicate, emotionally-charged situation.
"The main thing is to be available [to students]. Let them know that you care," he said. "A lot of times they just want to talk. For example, we have a sixth grade student, a young man who came into the guidance office and said, 'I may not see my father again.' And none of us are trained to handle that kind of situation, but we tell him, 'Listen, what your dad is doing allows us to be here and doing what we are doing. We are all going to pray for your father, and I am sure he will come home.'"
Mr. Wilson admits there are no easy answers to questions concerning war and death, noting that students from military families can feel helpless because they have no control over a parent's fate. The challenge, he says, is to get them to focus on their own achievements in a way that honors both themselves and their families.
"What we have tried to do is emphasize to the child, 'You are in a situation where you can do nothing but make your parent proud. Write your parents letters. We will make copies of your work, your homework, things that you are excelling at, and we will mail them to your parent or to a brother or a sister, whoever may be deployed,'" he said.
Mr. Wilson says administrators have consulted with officials at nearby Fort Benning, home of the 3rd Brigade of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, to devise a counseling program for students of military families.
Carmen Weeks, one of two guidance counselors at the school, said the number of students seeking her help has increased markedly in recent weeks. She said students must feel secure at school if they are to do well in their studies.
"We want the child's environment to be as normal as possible," she said. "We do not want the child to feel that anything is abnormal. I think abnormality causes stress. If you pull them [aside] and tell them that they should be worried, it often causes distress."
Christopher Cain, 13, points to a wall decorated with red, white and blue stars. Called the "Wall of Honor," it bears pictures of students' parents and other family members who are taking part in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"We asked students to bring in pictures of their family members that are being deployed," he said. "Two other students and I have put up a banner and their pictures on the wall. I think we should recognize these people [in combat] because they might need a little extra help (encouragement)."
Principal James Wilson says patriotism is openly encouraged at school.
"We are going to have Honor Our Country Day," he said. "On that day, every student that wears red, white and blue - we will drop the lowest grade they have. So they get a chance to help their academics and to honor their country."
Mr. Wilson says he finds himself marveling at the courage and strength his students display on a daily basis while coping with overwhelming fears and doubts. He says wartime has brought new duties and responsibilities to his staff, but adds that it has also forged a stronger sense of unity and purpose, which he welcomes.