Caring for Children with Special Needs from Military Families

Child using reverse walker
Being a child care provider means doing your very best to provide excellent care and learning opportunities to young children, including those with disabilities and other special needs. A recent study has found that child care providers who have experience and training in caring for children with special needs along with typically developing children find it challenging, but also rewarding, to be able to provide such a valuable support to these families.*

Added Challenges for Military Families

Providing valuable support to military families with a child with special needs requires understanding the unique challenges that these families must navigate as part of the military community. On top of the hurdles that every parent of a child with special needs faces, military parents often experience:

  • Feelings of isolation because of their distance from extended family and familiar personal support networks
  • Difficulty in understanding and navigating a complex, often disconnected system of care and services within the military complex
  • Starting from scratch in finding service providers and piecing together a plan of care after every relocation, and learning the hard way that the availability of services can vary widely from installation to installation and from community to community
  • Being put at the end of waiting lists for services that can often stretch many months, even years for some – time during which the child may regress without the therapies he or she needs
  • Adjusting to deployment: managing it all as a single parent on the home front, or not being able to contribute practical help as the deployed parent

Three Supporting Roles for Child Care Providers

Recognizing these added difficulties is the first step for child care providers to offer supportive care for military families. But you, as a family’s child care provider, can help in additional ways.

Be a connector:

When a new military family with a child who has special needs enrolls in your program, connect them to:

  • Other families with children who have special needs. Social isolation and feeling that no one understands is one of the most difficult challenges for a military parent of a child with special needs.
  • Early intervention or disabilities specialists in your community. Having someone with expertise and knowledge about local disability services for young children can be a tremendous advantage, even if the service providers are not connected to the military.

Be a resource:

Here are several resources that you can share with families:

  • The Military Special Needs Network – This is a virtual network created by parents for parents.
  • The DoD Special Needs Parent Tool Kit –- This webpage includes lots of additional information for military families with children with special needs and is also a great resource for child care providers.
  • The Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) – This program from the Office of the Secretary of Defense provides support, information, and service coordination for military families with a member having identified special educational or medical needs. Local EFMP Family Support offices are located on every installation.
  • For National Guard, Reserve, or active duty families not living near a military installation, consultation is available through MilitaryOneSource’s help line: 1-800-342-9647

Be a learner:

Providing the best care possible for children with special needs requires continual learning. Here are a few sources of additional information on serving young children with special needs in child care settings.

  • Extension Alliance for Better Child Care articles
  •  “Include Me: Guide to Inclusive Child Care”: a helpful handbook (in PDF) for those who are new to child care or to caring for children with special needs. 
  • TACSEI (Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention): lots of free resources for caregivers in supporting the social and emotional needs of young children with special needs.
  • Center for Inclusive Child Care: lots of resources available, including online courses, podcasts, print-based materials, and consultation with an inclusion specialist. 
  • Easter Seals: tools for programs providing high-quality inclusive child care (e.g., financial planning, facilities planning).

Keeping the Child in Focus

Military parents of young children with special needs need child care providers who are willing partners in the care and education of their child, good listeners (who value confidentiality), and consistent sources of warm smiles and hugs for them as well as their children. Most of all, they need child care providers who look beyond the special needs and see their child as a unique, wonderful, precious human being.


*Odom, S. L., Vitztum, J., Wolery, R., Lieber, J., Sandall, S., Hanson, M. J., Beckman, P., Schwartz, I., & Horn, E., (2004). Preschool inclusion in the United States: A review of research from an ecological systems perspective. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 4, 17-49.