Imagine you’re a teacher. You have a student battling trauma in your classroom (childhood trauma affects at least one in four students, according to the Attachment and Trauma Network, Inc.). You want so much to help your student. But the training you’ve gotten only taught you to recognize trauma, not really what to do about it. Your student’s adoptive parents feel frustrated with you and you with them.
This is a typical scenario in classrooms nationwide.
Our society has a long way to go to understand the effects of trauma. And our education system is no exception. They have even further to go in understanding reactive attachment disorder (RAD)—the disorder that can develop due to early trauma. Trauma effects, as well as RAD, fall on a spectrum—with those on the moderate to severe end being the most misunderstood. Kids battling RAD, as well as those raising and teaching them, don’t have time to wait for society to catch up. The adults in their lives have to figure it out for themselves.
Parents and educators need to work together for the sake of kids. Teachers must seek education on their own, often without the help of their districts. Parents of kids with RAD are often the best resource for educators, if teachers are open to such opportunities. In the meantime, here’s our crash course version for teachers of kids with RAD…
Here are 3 critical things teachers need to know about students battling RAD:
1. Kids with RAD manage their environments and the people in them to feel safe. That said, they often triangulate the adults in their lives. For them, it’s a survival mechanism. The adults rarely realize it’s happening because kids with RAD are so good at it. Teachers, therapists, and other adults often feel at odds with the children’s parents as a result.
2. Kids with RAD push away their primary caregivers—those trying to get close to them emotionally. They often ostracize their primary caregivers from friends and family and may even falsely accuse parents of poor care, etc.
3. Trauma during critical developmental stages hinders brain development. Children who survive trauma at early ages aren’t given the chance to get through early developmental stages normally. Therefore, their brains are essentially “stuck” with a mindset of a toddler.
With these 3 factors in mind, here’s how to proceed…
Here’s what teachers can do for their students battling RAD:
-Take allegations seriously but keep the nature of the disorder top of mind. While it’s always important to take a child’s allegations seriously, it’s vital to keep in mind that the child may be doing so as a result of his or her disorder. False allegations often result in serious damage to families. They can result in the child, as well as other children in the home, to be removed from healthy parents.
-Keep discipline discreet to keep control of your classroom. Hold kids with RAD accountable for their actions, but in privacy. As previously mentioned, kids with RAD do their best to manage their environments to feel in control and, therefore, safe. If you bring attention to such a student in public, he or she may very well take the opportunity to take center stage and take over your class.
-Try to not take the child’s behaviors personally. Kids with RAD use behaviors as self-protection and survival. Their behaviors can feel extremely frustrating, overwhelming, and confusing. Do your best to remove yourself emotionally from their behaviors.
-Remember your important role—to educate. Although tempting, don’t attempt to solve or “fix” children suffering from RAD. Leave the jobs of therapists and parents up to them. Kids with RAD need you to focus on educating them most of all.
-Focus on natural consequences and structure, not behavior modification techniques. Kids with RAD want and need for you to treat them the same as their classmates. They thrive on routine, consistent expectations and accountability, and logical consequences, just like all kids.Behavior modification systems present another way for kids with RAD to control their surroundings. While they may jump through the hoops to manage their environments, they aren’t making real progress.
-Hold kids with RAD accountable for their own learning and choices, not their parents. Parents can provide children with quiet and sufficient learning spaces, time to complete homework, and their availability to answer questions if needed. The rest should be left up to the child. Allow kids the gift of responsibility and opportunities to build their self-esteem.
-Work alongside parents. Parents of kids with RAD often get mistaken as “bad parents”—either too lenient, too strict, or uncaring. These are often misconceptions that stem from the complicated nature of RAD. Trust and listen closely to the parents. Remember that primary caregivers likely know more about RAD than you do because they live with it.
The old cliche that it takes a village is absolutely true for kids with RAD. They work against their own healing when they can divide the adults working to help them. When parents, teachers, therapists, and other important adults are a team, they can make a positive difference for kids battling early trauma. Please keep learning and don’t give up.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January of 2016 and was extensively updated in February of 2018.