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A guide to navigating school with a child with reactive attachment disorder in the pandemic

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

“I hate you!” my daughter yells, throwing her school work on the floor and shoving her school-issued Chromebook across the kitchen table. “I’m not doing those assignments! I hate school and I hate you!”

The assignments my daughter is refusing are those I petitioned the teachers to let her turn in, even though most were due weeks ago. She is at risk of failing at least three classes, not because she cannot do the work. She refuses to do the work.

Welcome to the daily struggles of parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder during the pandemic. As if school isn’t difficult enough with a child with reactive attachment disorder, the struggle is especially real right now. No matter your situation—in-person school, full-remote, or hybrid learning, families of children with the disorder are under even more stress than usual these days.

Even as an educator, I’m still figuring out how to best navigate educating my child with reactive attachment disorder during this pandemic. So as a mom and a teacher, here’s what I’ve learned thus far…

Tips for parents of students with reactive attachment disorder during the pandemic:

Tip 1: Communicate with the teachers.

Find a time to chat about your child’s diagnosis with the teachers. Explain your struggles with getting your child to complete schoolwork. Most teachers will extend due dates or modify assignments for students when they see parents actively trying to help.

Remember that many teachers are parents too. They can understand what it’s like to get their own child to cooperate with schoolwork. If you are nice and honest, you can usually get them to work with you.

Tip 2: Give your child choices.

Allow your child to choose the assignments they’d like to tackle first (even if they’re failing and have make-up work due in all subjects). To get some work out of them is better than none at all. And a fight won’t get anyone anywhere. A child with reactive attachment disorder always wants to feel in control. When you give them choices, that feeling of control may aid in work completion.

Tip 3: Pay attention to your child’s sensory needs.

Most people don’t realize that many children with reactive attachment disorder have sensory issues. These body-based distractions can further irritate them. You won’t get anywhere with schoolwork if you don’t address these needs first.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Allow your child to have a stress ball or other fidget items to manipulate when they get stressed.

  • Give your child a yoga ball to sit on while they work. This engages the core muscles and can help with focus while getting the extra wiggles out.

  • Take time to move. Even adults need to get up and move after sitting for a while. Doing so allows all people, whether big or small and with or without a diagnosis, to return refreshed and with more focus.

  • When your child takes a movement break, encourage them to do gross motor movements that allow for deep pressure or that impact the joints. For example (depending on age), they can do frog jumps or crab walks across your living room floor. They can do 20 jumping jacks. They can also give themselves a tight hug for about 15 seconds from five to ten times. You can also encourage them to see how long they can hold a plank position. All of these exercises can help improve focus and diffuse anxiety and noncompliance in work tasks.

Tip 4: Praise your child when they complete an assignment independently or with minimal help.

You can attract more flies with honey sometimes. Many children with reactive attachment disorder do not feel successful in school which creates further anxiety. If you praise their successes, including the small ones, you can help to build their confidence. And confidence can lead to more academic effort in the future.

As we navigate this “new normal” I hope these tips—one that I’ve tried successfully as an educator and with my own child—can help you. Remember that what works for your child one day may not work on another. You’ll need to do your best to stay patient and persistent (and remember to take good care of yourself too).

And remember, above all, what’s most important. It’s not school.

Keep in mind—especially on those days when your child is really struggling—that school isn’t everything. Maslov’s hierarchy of needs theory states that an individual’s needs dictate their behavior. All children, with or without reactive attachment disorder, need to feel safe and secure first and foremost. Without that feeling of security, they’re unlikely to learn anything. Regard your whole child and meet their emotional needs first, allowing you to meet their academic needs later.

The pandemic adds an additional level of chaos to an already stressful, and oftentimes, strained relationship with your child. If school adds to that stress, give it a break. And don’t compare yourself or your child with another family in any way, including academically. Success is different for every individual, particularly for a child with reactive attachment disorder.

Allison Ellenwood is a mom, second-grade teacher, and writer. She earned a master's degree in education and certificates in preschool special education and emotional disabilities for grades K-6. Allison became interested in writing about reactive attachment disorder and developmental trauma by raising her own adopted child with reactive attachment disorder. Through her professional and personal experience and writing, Allison hopes to help parents of children with the disorder to understand the school system and teachers and administrators understand children of trauma and their families.

Allison is married to her husband Mark and has two children, 6-year-old Noah and 11-year-old Naudiya. In addition to writing and teaching, Allison enjoys reading classic British literature and medieval history and capturing remote places in nature through her camera lens.


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