The Attachment Disordered Child in School
OF SCHOOL THAT ARE PROBLEMATIC FOR THE
ATTACHMENT DISORDERED CHILD
primary focus of school is to impart
information about the external world. Children
with Attachment Disorder (AD) are focused on
keeping themselves safe as they see it. Thus
there is a basic disconnection at work. The
school?s objectives will truly engage the
child with AD only in those moments when the
child perceives the information to be relevant
either to his immediate desires or longer-term
survival. Otherwise, learning is usually of
little interest to AD children ? it is just
another of the adults? annoying agendas.
typically expects students to organize their
behavior around external factors, such as
schedule and curriculum. This clashes with the
AD child?s behavior being almost solely based
on internal considerations.
of the motivation for participation in school
rests on assumed desires to interact
collaboratively with others and to foster
one?s own individual growth and learning.
These factors carry little weight in an AD
of the activities in a school setting are
group-based. Having to deal with multiple
people simultaneously increases the chances of
stimulating the AD child?s anxiety, which will
lead to behavior attempts to re-establish a
sense of control.
of the primary defensive maneuvers that AD
children rely on to maintain their
psychological safety is that of projection.
The many people present in the school context
offers the AD child and abundance of targets
for their projections. Because of their
hypervigilance, AD children are generally
quite perceptive of others? vulnerabilities
and skillful at striking at those
vulnerabilities with their projections. This
can make the projections seem very believable
to the receiver, which can put that person on
of the sources of gratification offered by
school (parent and teacher approval, public
recognition of achievement, grades on
tests/reports cards) are delayed
gratifications. AD children?s relentless focus
on gratification in the moment, and distrust
of the future, leaves these gratifications
stripped of most of their appeal; and hence,
unmotivating in the end.
demands performance, and AD children usually
don?t perform on others? terms. Refusal to
perform is one method AD children will use to
demonstrate to the teacher that they are not
under the teacher?s control. This parallels
the AD child?s refusal to show affection at
home on the parents? terms.
have a dual role: that of the dispenser of
recognition for effort/achievement, granting
request, etc.) and that of limit-setter. This
dual role will inevitably conflict with the AD
child?s personal priorities sooner or later.
As occurs at home with parent, no matter how
many time a teacher has been an ally/support
to an AD child in the past, the first time
that teacher blocks the AD student?s desires,
all those past occasions will be forgotten and
the teacher will be instantaneously
transformed from an ally to a persecutor in
the child?s eye. Authority which the AD
students sees as unfair, deserves no respect;
and so now the AD student will feel entitled
to be disrespectful to such a ?morally
bankrupt? authority figure.
teachers must deal with the numbers
presented by a classroom, as opposed to a
family, the authority of teachers can appear
even more arbitrary and persecutory than
parental authority. When teachers set limits
for the greater good of the whole class,
this will seem more arbitrary still, as AD
children have no conception of ?the common
teachers may feel attacked and unappreciated
themselves at these moments, and because
these feelings can run very strong, it is
tempting to react. Reacting, however, will
only worsen the situation, for the AD child
will see the reaction as ?evidence? that the
teacher is, in fact, a punitive authority
figure out to get the child.
COMMONLY DISPLAYED BY AD CHILDREN IN SCHOOL
onset of behavioral difficulties with an AD
child in the school setting can be very rapid
and often without any ?seeming apparent
trigger?. However, there is ALWAYS a trigger ?
it just may not be very apparent. It often
takes both close observation and ?thinking on
one?s feet? to figure out some of these
triggers. The more a teacher figures out about
an AD student?s triggers the more effectively
that teacher will be able to work with that
behaviors: AD children can exhibit a wide
range of immature behaviors in the classroom,
including: use of babyish voice, crawling
around on the floor, curling up under
furniture, pretending to be an animal,
noisemaking, perseverative verbalizations,
speaking nonsensical language, making graphic
sexual and/or excretory remarks, giddyish
forced laughter, and others. These regressive
behaviors usually signal an upsurge of anxiety
in the child, and they function both as a way
to get away from the anxiety as well as to
remove the child from the teacher?s immediate
control, which serves to further lessen the
child?s anxiety. Though these behaviors can
appear bizarre, they usually do not mean that
the child is psychotic at that moment.
Behaviors: These are frequently occurring
minor infractions (such as interrupting or
asking excessive questions) that disrupt the
simplest of everyday interactions. These
nuisance kinds of behaviors serve a dual
purpose. First, they serve as ongoing
reminders that the AD student is not under the
teacher?s domain. Secondly, they are ?probes?
that the AD child sends out into the
environment to acquire information about the
situation. From other?s reactions to these
?behavioral probes?, AD children begin to
piece together who is punitive and who is
supportive; who will respond and who will
ignore; who has a short fuse and who has a
longer fuse, etc. The AD child uses the
responses to his probes to figure out how to
?work? the adults. When the AD child feels
confident that he knows how to maneuver the
teacher, the ?honeymoon? will be over.
Tantrums: AD children are quite capable of
full-blown temper outbursts at school. Such
outbursts can consist of any or all of the
following: screaming, shouting, throwing
objects, use of obscene language, verbal
threats, physical threats, physical
aggression, and running out of the classroom
and sometimes all the way out of the building.
Such extreme outbursts usually indicate that
the child?s anxiety has escalated to
near-panic levels, and the outburst is a
desperate attempt to ward off the perceived
threat. AD children can get to this level of
near panic in as little as 1-2 minutes if they
perceive a danger of sufficient magnitude.
Behaviors Towards Peers: AD children are
deliberately provocative towards peers for a
variety of reasons (emotional hot potato).
Peers are vulnerable to react, and AD children
will see the reaction as proof of their power
to control others. Peers will need support and
suggestions from adults to learn to minimize
their response to the provocations.
Provocative behavior, from an AD child toward
peers, is almost impossible to eliminate
solely by working with the AD child.
Instruction: AD children often accept
curriculum instruction from the teacher on an
erratic basis. One day, the AD student can be
focused, taking in information, and on-task.
The next day, he may seem completely
unworkable, which can appear as ?spaciness?,
?forgetfulness?, ?distractibility?, calling
out, outright defiance, or complaints of
boredom and disinterest. Usually this
fluctuating pattern of receptiveness to
instruction is one more way the AD student
seeks to remind the teacher that he doesn?t
readily submit to outside authority.
children presume to know the teacher?s
intention in assigning work: it has nothing to
do with learning. To the AD child, academic
tasks are given out simply as a way to control
the child, keep them quiet, and prove to them
that the teacher is in charge. Task completion
is usually a reflection of how secure or
insecure the AD child feels at a given moment.
If the child feels confident about their
control, then ?yielding to the teacher? by
doing the task won?t be a problem. However, if
the AD child isn?t feeling in control, then
she is apt to choose to resist the task in
order to ?defeat the teacher?.
Production: the AD child most often either
refuses to do assignments outright or does
them in a haphazard, perfunctory manner.
Occasionally, these children will apply
themselves and often turn in a credible
product when they do so. These seeming
?lightning bolts? of intelligence, motivation,
and effort are generally all too appealing to
the adult world of teachers and parents ? AND
THAT IS PRECISELY THEIR PURPOSE. The AD child
dangles these moments of production in front
of the adults to tantalize them into a game of
trying to figure out what to do to get the AD
student to perform like this more often.
Taking this bait and entering this game is
exactly like stepping in quicksand. The more
the adults struggle to get the child to
perform, the deeper the adults sink into the
muck. Meanwhile, the AD child is ?laughing all
the way to the bank?.
teachers and parents often view the AD
child?s unpredictable work production,
despite having the ability, as pure
stubbornness. This is partially correct, but
because there is more going on than just
stubbornness. This is just one more part of
the AD child?s 24/7 need to maintain control
to feel safe.
AD child?s never completing work on a
consistent, longer-term basis serves a
self-protective function for the child in
addition to its maddening impact on the
adults. By not turning out enough work so
that it can be measured reliably, the AD
child cleverly avoids having to confront the
disturbing reality that there is ability,
knowledge, and power greater than his. In
keeping his true ability elusively
unmeasurable, the AD child can keep his
personal illusion that he is the smartest,
most knowledgeable in the room. Protecting
this belief in school is critical for the AD
child to maintain his cornerstone belief hat
he has the ability to be in control of all
people in all situations in all places.
AD children commonly have one of three
responses to receiving support and/ or praise
in the school setting: 1. Accept the support
without any clear overt reaction; 2. Reject
the support outright; and 3. Accept and then
denigrate the support. The AD student will
recycle these three responses in an
unpredictable sequence that defies any
pattern. The teacher is left in the
uncomfortable position of never knowing what
will come back should support/praise be
offered. Meanwhile, the child strategically
creates the appearance of being immune to
praise and support, which is yet one more
aspect of retaining control.
children rarely, if ever, express any
gratitude for offers of support, as
gratitude implies dependence and dependence
is seen as dangerous by the AD child.
Knowing this up front can be a buffer for
teachers against feeling unappreciated and
resentful when their extra efforts go
unrecognized by the child.
Behavior Management Plans/Level Systems. Such
plans are based on consistency, and this
consistency makes these plans easy target for
the strategic thinking of an AD child. AD
children will see a behavior management plan,
not as a way to change behavior, but as simply
one more thing to learn ?how to work? for
their own purposes. Their movements up and
down the levels has all to do with their own
purposes at any given moment, and little or
nothing to do with success/failure or earning
adult approval. AD children may even use
behavior management systems as bait to draw
the adults into useless discussions about how
to sustain progress. The end result can be
that it is the teacher?s behavior, rather than
the child?s, that ends up getting ?managed?.
the AD child?s perspective with ?objective
evidence? in order to persuade them that their
thinking is somehow incorrect. This approach
assumes that the teacher and child share a
common view of ?reality? ? not true (remember
that AD children live in a parallel universe).
The teacher?s view will make little or no
sense to the AD child. In fact, the AD child
is apt to see this approach as a manipulative
attempt on the teacher?s part to set the child
up in some way.
problem solving questions such as:
was your part in it?
could you have done differently?
children will learn to spin off the ?desired
answers?, but they will be meaningless
answers. The time spent on this exercise will
be wasted time.
taking AD children?s behavior or statements
personally. This usually takes some practice,
as AD children are skilled at discovering
adults? tender spots and going after them.
emotionally to AD children?s behavior. This
only reinforces the AD child?s sense of being
in control of the adult?s emotions (a goal
they generally pursue). Judging or criticizing
the behavior and reactive consequences all
fall into this category. This really takes
some practice, as AD children?s behavior can
be relentless, day in-day out, as any parent
just about anything the same way every time.
somewhat unpredictable on purpose. Such
unpredictability is necessary to get past the
AD child?s vast array of avoidance maneuvers.
An adult an AD child can predict is an adult
an AD child can ?work?.
in the concept of ?choice?. Choice is an idea
that is often absent in AD children?s
thinking. It is not simply that they refuse to
accept responsibility ? the ideas of people
making choices and having responsibility makes
no sense to AD children. They need to have it
pointed out, matter-of-factly, over and over,
that they are making choices all the time.
Then discussion can begin to move towards
making better vs. worse choices.
questions never to ask AD children:
did you say??
children can compose eloquent answers to adult
questions that mean absolutely nothing. A
question to an AD child is simply an
invitation to trick an adult. It works much
better to phrase statements as guesses and let
them react to the guess. Their reaction to
guesses will tell you much more than their
answers to questions.
guesses in order to unmask the AD child?s
hidden agenda (example: ?It looks like you?re
feeling more worried today so you?re CHOOSING
to not do your work to try to show me that
you?re in control).
of the word ?trick? to describe AD children?s
strategic behavior works better than the more
loaded words like ?manipulative?, ?lying?,
a good observer of AD children?s nonverbal
responses (facial expressions, body position
and movements, eyes, voice tone, etc.). These
are the most accurate signs of what is going
on inside the child. If you listen only to
what they say, you will go in circles
repeatedly, getting nowhere.
as historian for the AD child. As AD children
live in the moment, they need adults to remind
them of past events that can help maintain
more perspective on the present.
with permission of:
B. Smith LCSW-C, LICSW
9305 Mintwood Street
Silver Spring, Maryland 20901