We adopted our son when he was 10, before we knew he had developmental trauma disorder (currently diagnosed as reactive attachment disorder). I knew from his records he’d always struggled in school, behaviorally and academically.
My parents are both educators, who earned their doctorates, and my sister and I also went to graduate school. Education is important to me, and I feel a high school diploma plus trade school or college is necessary for most of today’s decent jobs. With this background, I felt it was imperative to make sure my two adopted kids had what they needed to succeed in school, whether that was an IEP, a 504, tutors, etc.
As soon as that first school year started, I realized school would be our No. 1 drama. A teacher or administrator called me at work or emailed me nearly every day. Our son threw things at other kids, told teachers off, left class or school, charged up sweets in the cafeteria, “borrowed” other kids’ electronics, “found” cash, refused to do classwork or homework, got into fights, etc. I would give him consequences. I told him school was his job like work was my job, and he couldn’t have privileges unless he did his schoolwork. This meant near-daily battles over school.
Those battles lasted for six years. He never found internal motivation for school, and after he left our custody at age 16, he dropped out and was sent to a National Guard Youth Challenge Program. So, all those years of struggle didn’t change the outcome; they only made our home life miserable and impeded our bonding.
Situations like ours is why developmental trauma disorder expert Forrest R. Lien, LCSW, ACSW — an experienced therapist and consultant — emphasizes that parents need to focus on their family’s mental health and attachment over academic success. Lien is the keynote speaker at the Navigating RAD experience, to be held April 19-21, 2024, in San Antonio. There, Lien will present on “'Why Am I Feeling Crazy?': The Life of RAD Parenting."
All those years of struggle [over school] didn’t change the outcome; they only made our home life miserable and impeded our bonding.
“The key issue is that for some parents, education becomes more important than the emotional connection of the family,” Lien says. “Kids won’t learn when they’re dysregulated and anxious anyway. For them to be successful in school, they have to be successful at home in their relationships because that makes them more motivated to achieve. It’s a balancing act.”
For many years, Lien was the director of a specialized developmental trauma treatment program. After their out-of-home treatment, the youth often gained 10-15 points on their cognitive scores. They hadn’t gained intelligence while in treatment, but could better focus and apply themselves afterward.
“Parents need to take care of emotional health and safety within the family before education,” he explains.
Because of this, Lien doesn’t recommend homeschooling children with developmental trauma disorder. With this disorder, the primary caregiver is seen as the nurturing enemy; the child pushes this person away and can be physically or emotionally abusive. School can provide a necessary mental health break for the primary caregiver, and the child will often take direction better from a non-parental adult.
“You have to separate school from home,” Lien says. “It’s not the school’s job to make them family kids, and it’s not the family’s job to make them school kids.”
How to Communicate with Educators About Developmental Trauma
It’s still important to cultivate effective communication with your child’s school, but this can be tricky. Often those outside the home do not see the same child we see. While my son acted out at school, most children with developmental trauma disorder display more severe behavior alone with the primary caregiver. Telling the school everything your child does at home often isn’t helpful or necessary. However, the school does need to understand the disorder in terms of its academic impacts, and often our kids have several other diagnoses as well.
Further complicating things is the fact that many parents in the thick of dealing with developmental trauma disorder are overwhelmed and appear angry (because they are unsupported, judged, and misunderstood). With all that in mind, Lien recommends having an advocate attend team meetings at the school. The advocate could be your family’s counselor, a family advocate from the district, or an advocate from RAD Advocates.
When it comes to explaining developmental trauma disorder to school personnel, the RAD Advocates website also offers many resources, including this educator’s guide.
It’s still important to cultivate effective communication with your child’s school, but this can be tricky. Often those outside the home do not see the same child we see.
When you get those calls from the school, try to remain calm and professional. Remember that you’re all on the same team, but their realm is school, and yours is home. Listen, and let them know you support their plans for handling school issues at school.
Handling School Issues at Home with a Child with Developmental Trauma
At home, provide your child time and space to do their homework, and use a love and logic approach to school issues, Lien recommends. “If your child comes home from school and has had a hard day, ask what’s going on,” Lien suggests. “Ask if they want you to help brainstorm ideas or ask how they’d like you to support them. If they don’t want your help, then let it be.”
When you get those calls from the school, try to remain calm and professional. Remember that you’re all on the same team, but their realm is school, and yours is home.
Public school districts in the United States are required to provide a "free appropriate public education" to each qualified student with a disability who is in the school district's jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. If the school or classroom your child is in cannot meet their needs, the district needs to work with you to find a more appropriate placement or offer your child additional resources. However, parents need to understand their rights and options. For example, our son was at a public charter school. The regular middle school in our district would have had much more to offer our son in terms of special education and behavioral support, but no one ever told me about those offerings at the time.
Put Mental Health and the Family First
With the understanding that mental health must come first, if your child does need out-of-home treatment, it’s often best to seek such treatment when available versus waiting until the end of the school year. We had to do this just after winter break in our son’s eighth-grade year.
I strongly believe the advice Lien offers would have made a huge difference in our home life, and I wish I’d known then what I know now.
“Education is a huge issue for families dealing with developmental trauma disorder,” Lien says. “Most families are academically oriented, and how their kids do in school is very important to them. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be important, but we must consider the timing. Parents also need to think about what they will do to take good care of themselves as they go through this journey.” For the mental health of the entire family, an academic focus may need to come later.
About the Author:
Micaela Myers and her husband adopted a pair of siblings from foster care in 2015, when the children were 9 and 13. Since then, she has become an advocate for foster care reform and the support and education of adoptive parents. Micaela earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works as a professional writer and editor.
*name changed to protect identity