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Reactive Attachment Disorder: Writings: Professionals: Lawrence Smith

Oil & Water
The Attachment Disordered Child in School


  • The 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.
  • School 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.
  • Much 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 child?s thinking.
  • Many 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.
  • One 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 the defensive.
  • Most 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.
  • School 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.
  • Teachers have a dual role: that of the dispenser of ?educational goodies? (instruction/information, attention, 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.
    • Because 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 good?.
    • Understandably, 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.


  • The 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 student.
  • Regressive 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.
  • Nuisance 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.
  • Temper 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.
  • Provocative 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.
  • Teach 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.
  • AD 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?.

  • Work 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?.
    • Understandably, 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.
    • The 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.
  • Support/Praise: 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.
    • AD 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.


What Doesn?t Work

  • Conventional 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?.
  • Challenging 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.
  • Traditional problem solving questions such as:
    • What happened?
    • What was your part in it?
    • What could you have done differently?

    AD 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.

  • Teachers 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.
  • Reacting 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 can testify.
  • Doing just about anything the same way every time.

What Does Work

  • Being 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?.
  • Drilling 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.
  • Four questions never to ask AD children:
    • Did you??
    • Why did you??
    • Do you remember??
    • What did you say??

    AD 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.

  • Take 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).
  • Use of the word ?trick? to describe AD children?s strategic behavior works better than the more loaded words like ?manipulative?, ?lying?, etc.
  • Become 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.
  • Act 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.

May 1, 2000

Used with permission of:

Lawrence B. Smith LCSW-C, LICSW
9305 Mintwood Street
Silver Spring, Maryland 20901
301-589-3780Fax: 301-588-1933



Last Modified on: Saturday, August 08, 2009


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