Dear Institute for Attachment and Child Development,
As a school counselor, I’m looking for information as to how to assist teachers with children with reactive attachment disorder in their classrooms. I’ve read that teachers should provide natural consequences for the inappropriate behaviors of kids with trauma. However, doing so is difficult for teachers to carry out in a typical classroom setting. For example, one child with reactive attachment disorder threw a tantrum for 90 minutes the other day while the teacher had an entire classroom to instruct. In short, how can a teacher manage meltdowns and motivate students with reactive attachment disorder in their classrooms?
It’s difficult for me to say how to help all teachers in all classrooms. Every teacher and student is unique in his or her experiences, aptitude, etc. However, I can share how we approach school with the children here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development. The children in our program live in real families and attend public schools. We work closely with everyone in our communities, including our teachers, so we can surround our children in nurturing and safe environments in which they can grow and thrive.
We believe all behavior is purposeful. We cannot, nor do we try, to control behaviors. One foundation of our program is to understand what lies beneath behaviors and work alongside the children to help them learn and grow.
Our kids with trauma backgrounds often have a multitude of feelings that can create complications in school. These feelings may result from their learning disabilities, low self-esteem, poor social skills, lack of motivation to learn, agitated mood problems, or a history of behaviors that have led to “bad kid” labels. All of these dynamics, particularly when combined, may attribute to misbehavior in typical classrooms if not effectively and positively addressed beforehand. When we learn the dynamics that create individual struggles for each of the children in our program, we prevent escalations from occurring in the first place.
Here’s what we do for our kids at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development:
1. Our team starts with thorough assessments of children as individuals. We assess our children in regard to the following reasons children typically misbehave in school including:
- Low self-esteem — A child may try to get attention in any way possible, whether positive or negative.
- Academic or social struggles — A child may feel agitated and frustrated academically or with peers and react with overpowering emotions that he doesn’t know how to handle.
- Mood/mental health disorder(s) — A child is not in a position to learn when she battles with disorders such as bipolar disorder, etc. Various disorders can result in quick and extreme mood escalations. Unfortunately, this is thorough information most teachers don’t ever receive. That’s because many children with reactive attachment disorder get misdiagnosed. Please read: Five mistakes clinicians make about reactive attachment disorder
2. Once we have an accurate assessment and diagnosis of a child, we work closely with the teacher and staff to work alongside him. We begin working closely with the school staff in regard to the child’s individual education plan (IEP). We also work with the individual teacher and child so that they can understand one another better. For example, we may recognize that a child has a learning disability in math. We work with the child and the teacher so the child can express himself calmly to his teacher. A child may learn to say to his teacher, “When you talk too quickly during math, I get agitated because I can’t follow what you’re saying.” The teacher can reciprocate with empathy and openness to create a plan. When the teacher works with the child rather than against him, he is less apt to escalate emotionally in class.
3. Should an escalation occur, our teachers follow school crises protocols and return to the child when calm. We urge teachers not to allow our children to control their classrooms. If a child escalates during class, we suggest that the teacher follows school crisis protocol. In our school district, a teacher removes all other students from the classroom if one child puts the class in danger or disrupts learning opportunities.
When the situation is over and the teacher and child are calm, they revisit the problem. The teacher works alongside the individual student to decipher what went wrong and what can happen differently next time. We know that punishment for poor behavior never works with our children. Punitive consequences only affirm the children’s beliefs that they are “bad” and deserve punishment. Thus, the cycle of misbehavior continues. Rather, we join the children with empathy as they experience natural consequences and come up with solutions to prevent future incidences.
To learn more about strategies in the classroom, please read: What we wish teachers knew about their students with reactive attachment disorder. We also recommend Love and Logic teaching strategy resources (see here). Thank you for your investment in children with developmental trauma and their teachers. While school teaching and counseling are not easy jobs, your support and interest in learning more about reactive attachment disorder is so important. You make a difference in the lives of children through your concern, advocacy, and self-education. Thank you.
Executive Director at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development
If you have a question you’d like us to answer, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask the Institute”.