Reactive attachment disorder in the classroom: Why parents are upset and what they can do about it

Updated: Mar 2

There she sits, a mother of a 10-year-old child with reactive attachment disorder. She has maneuvered herself into a student-sized chair to discuss her child, per the teacher’s request. The mother does her best to remain poised and attentive, although she is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted.

The teacher, of course, does not know that the child broke a window and punched holes in the drywall of three rooms, pulled a door off the hinges and tried to physically attack her sibling the night before. She does not know what it is like to keep an adrenaline fueled, rage-induced child from hurting themselves or others for five straight hours.

As the mother explains why her daughter is not turning in her homework, the teacher sits with an increasingly skeptical incredulity growing on her brow. “I am sorry,” the teacher replies. “But I don’t see it. I don’t see any of the behaviors you describe.”

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The mother shifts uncomfortably in the tiny chair. Her heart sinks. She knows the teacher doesn’t believe her. She feels isolated, frustrated and disappointed once again. Every time she shares the very real needs of her child with anyone, she is dismissed.

This is a common experience for parents of children with reactive attachment disorder. In order to assist such families and the teachers of their children, I am writing this piece as both a parent and an educator to help bridge the gap.

I know firsthand as an educator that most teachers do not get extensive training, if any at all, about reactive attachment disorder. As a parent, you will need to provide that education for your child’s teachers as they likely have no other resources.

Here are some tips for parents to create open lines of communication with educators and to bring awareness about reactive attachment disorder:

Tip 1

Ask to meet in person with your child’s teacher(s), administration, guidance counselor and/or school psychologist before the school year starts without your child in tow. This will give you a chance to set the stage for communication. For each accommodation, plan, task, etc. you request, explain why it is important.

Here are some things that need to be discussed in this meeting:

  • Educate them about reactive attachment disorder and any other diagnoses that will affect your child’s performance in a school setting. Explain the disorder in layman terms. Include how the disorder presents differently at school and at home. They need to understand how the attachment piece makes the child act differently in different settings. Explain how the connection between survival wiring and the need for control and how that can affects the child in a classroom setting. Give examples of behaviors from previous grade levels.

  • Explain your child's trauma or behavior triggers. Be honest and give examples. Explicitly list and define the triggers with specific ways for teachers to respond in a trauma-informed way to help with behavior management and de-escalation. Ask for them to include those triggers and responsive trauma-informed strategies in your child’s IEP or 504. If included, they have a legal obligation to respond to the behaviors as indicated. It is your child’s right so don’t be afraid to ask. The law is on your side.

  • Describe how your child uses lies and manipulation to maintain control. Explain how a teacher can respond when faced with those situations. Give examples of strategies that have worked for teachers in the past. Also, provide suggestions from your child’s therapist. Suggestions from a therapist, psychologist or doctor may hold more weight than from a parent.

  • Help your child’s teacher understand how the strategies that work with children with reactive attachment disorder can feel counterintuitive. Our natural inclination as humans is to cuddle, coddle and soothe the “hurt out of the child” with love and attention. This works well for a neurotypical child with a scraped knee but not for children with reactive attachment disorder.

Children with reactive attachment disorder pull on heartstrings to manipulate and gain control of others. Most are extremely precocious in their manipulation skills.

Children with reactive attachment disorder often lie to gain sympathy and triangulate educators and parents. You may consider creating a quick teacher’s reference guide with trauma-informed responses to these manipulative behaviors. Example: When my child does A, he/she is probably trying to obtain B. If you do D instead of C, you will be able to keep teaching instead of getting into a power struggle.

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Tip 2

Keep lines of communication open and as positive as possible. Check-in with the teachers and keep them abreast of changes in medications or home life that might affect their school life. Let your child know you are checking in with the teachers regularly. If you communicate consistently, your child will know that lies and manipulation will be less effective. This may add an additional layer of accountability that is needed to support appropriate behavior and boundaries.

Tip 3

If things need adjusting or your child is starting to triangulate you and the teachers, schedule a conference to try to get back on the same page. If accommodations need to be made or modified in the IEP or 504, request a special review to do so. It is your right as a parent.

Tip 4

Explain why behavior charts, sticker charts and other positive behavioral intervention reward systems do not work. Teachers who rely heavily on behavior modification techniques for classroom management are not a good match for a child with reactive attachment disorder. Plain and simple, these systems do not work with children with reactive attachment disorder. Rather, they present just another system for the child to manipulate. An effective alternative to positive behavioral interventions for children with the disorder is strong structure and a consistent schedule and behavioral expectations in all settings. These strategies allow the child to know what to expect and reduces his or her need for control.

Tell your teacher to allow your child to consistently experience natural and logical consequences. Children with reactive attachment disorder are

wired to act a victim because they were constant victims in early childhood. They experienced so many unfair and illogical experiences that they have little understanding of the cause and effect relationship between behavior and consequence. This must be explicitly taught to them.

Tip 5

Kindly remind your child's teachers to focus strictly on teaching through a trauma-informed lens, not counseling or parenting, your child. Their responsibility is to uphold the academic standards and behavioral expectations of the school.

Though they may naturally feel compassionate or understanding of your child's background, educators must avoid the inclination to “save” or “rescue”. Educators show the most compassion and understanding of your child's need through clear and consistent boundaries. Otherwise, the teacher unknowingly interferes with the child's healing process, ability to form healthy relationships and counters the goals of the therapies in which the child participates.

Reactive attachment disorder in the classroom, whether virtual or brick and mortar, requires everyone to work together.

Parents must communicate consistently and build relationships with their child's teachers. Teachers need to learn about the effects of trauma on the brain and implement trauma-informed teaching in the classroom.

I wrote this piece because I have made mistakes both as a parent and an educator. This is what I have learned from those mistakes. Parents, forgive yourself for your mistakes. When you learn better, you do better. Don’t beat yourself up. There is no manual for raising a child with reactive attachment disorder. Trust me, I’ve looked.

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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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