Do you have a child with attachment disorder in your classroom? Here are strategies for teachers of students with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).
Are you trying to support a child with RAD? These strategies are intended to help you understand what may help this student and your classroom environment as a whole. The typical teaching methods will not work. You need a new strategy!
- 7 Ways to Manage RAD in the Classroom
- 1. Line of Sight Supervision
- 2. Listen to the Caregiver
- 3. Plan for a Power Struggle
- 4. Have Strict Personal Space Boundaries
- 5. Watch for a Shift in Behavior
- 6. Give Other Students Special Instructions
- 7. Realize that the Child’s Attitude Toward You Will Shift
7 Ways to Manage RAD in the Classroom
Here are specific methods to implement when you are teaching a child with insecure attachment, attachment issues or a RAD diagnosis.
1. Line of Sight Supervision
The most important thing to consider when supervising a child with RAD is safety. A child with attachment disorder can present as cooperative but can make highly unsafe choices. For example, a child with an attachment disorder is often terrified of rejection. They believe that others will reject them and they often have a very strong response when they feel left out, betrayed or rejected.
When a RAD child is triggered they can become a danger to themselves and others. Some common behaviors to expect are throwing things, stealing, hitting, and other “payback” behaviors.
This payback mindset allows the RAD child to save face and gain some level of control. Additionally, they will often feel justified in their payback actions and show a lack of remorse or insight.
Children with RAD may perceive just about anything as a rejection, so it is not always clear when the payback may be coming or who will be the victim. To minimize the danger to other children you must maintain line of sight supervision. A responsible adult should maintain a visual observation of the child at all times.
Strategies for Line of Sight Supervision
Here are ways to manage light of sight supervision while teaching.
- Request extra support staff for your classroom and review IEP to be sure the student has the necessary support.
- Put up mirrors to ensure you can see all around your room from your desk location.
- Provide different passing times in hallways.
- Do not allow children to go in groups to the bathroom or other less supervised areas of the building.
- Do not send a child with RAD to the nurse or office without an adult in the hallway to observe.
2. Listen to the Caregiver
It is important to understand that a child with attachment disorders come from a perspective of self-preservation. Because children with RAD believe they will be rejected and are not good enough, they will not feel remorse or badly for being dishonest.
Typically, the primary caregiver of a child with an attachment disorder is the person the child fears rejection from the most. (This is often the mother but can also be a foster mother, grandmother, father, or other caregiver.) This also means the caregiver is the person the child will exhibit the most testing behaviors with.
In other words, expect the child to show the least compliance and most aggression towards the caregiver they feel most bonded to. This behavior is confusing for the caregiver and the child. The child feels their caregiver is trying to care for them and connect. The child will often respond by testing the limits of the caregiver or projecting past traumas onto the current caregiver.
As a teacher, you are a mandated reporter. We suggest you follow your school’s policy on reported allegations or observations of abuse and neglect. However, we also strongly recommend you trust the caregiver. Look for inconsistencies in story or outright dishonesty.
Understand that the caregiver of a child with an attachment disorder is likely isolated from their supports, exhausted and needs your support.
Strategies for Listening to the Caregiver
Here are ways to support the RAD child’s primary caregiver.
- Communicate your support. Let them know you are here for them and non-judgmental.
- Ask the caregiver what rules are important to follow at school. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you, believe them and support their rules.
- Expect the child to complain about home, family members or anyone the child believes is trying to make a loving connection. These are the people the child will test the most.
- Don’t blame the caregiver for the child’s behaviors. The caregiver is likely doing all they can to provide support and guidance to their child. Cut them slack in areas where you may press other parents.
- Communication and documentation are extremely helpful to caregivers. Expect that the child will be dishonest with you about what is going on at home and dishonest with their caregivers about what is going on in school. If you can document and support behaviors at school, it can help the treatment team develop a plan for service continuation and reduce triangulation.
3. Plan for a Power Struggle
A child from hard places is used to living a life where they lack control. The child often feels out of control and they are desperate to gain a sense of control. A typical student will look to adults for guidance and direction. A child with RAD believes adults will not make good decisions, thus they want power and control of all situations.
In a classroom, your goal as the teacher is to be in control of the environment. Expect that a student with an attachment disorder will resist and push back if they believe they are being controlled.
Remember, this child may have learned that adults can not be trusted. If that is the case, they do not believe your instructions are in their best interest. This is going to look like non-compliance, defiance, aggression or even delinquent behaviors. The key is to look beyond the behavior and understand what the student is trying to communicate.
Strategies for a Power Struggle
Here are strategies for managing power struggles in the classroom.
- Expect the student to ask a lot of questions about rules. Give short, confident explanations then move on. Don’t get stuck answering endless questions.
- Expect the student to say rules are dumb (or other negative comments).
- Understand that this child needs you to be the one in control. They need you to stick it out and be consistent. This is the only way they will eventually learn that adults can be trusted.
- Have a strategy to implement rules or additional restrictions. For example, if you cannot allow your student with RAD to have scissors while the other children can, expect to have to explain why to them. Focus on wording such as “safety” and “good choices”. Let the student know your rule is a way to help keep them safe and it is for their benefit.
- Above all else, you have to maintain control. If the child is allowed to gain control, their behaviors will become more intense and they will learn that manipulation is how they fill their needs. Be kind but be firm and consistent.
4. Have Strict Personal Space Boundaries
A child with attachment disorder does not understand healthy relationships or boundaries. This means the student can be overly familiar, ask for special treats, or otherwise violate social norms. For this reason it is important that the school work alongside the caregiver to support and enforce boundaries.
A common example of boundaries violated by a child with attachment disorder is excessive physical touch. A child with an attachment injury may seek out strangers and hug, kiss or hang on them. This is a maladaptive behavior that comes from their attachment issues and can be harmful to the child.
When a child hangs on, touches or otherwise invades the personal space of others, they are making themselves open to victimization. They are often rejected by their peers or other adults who are made uncomfortable by the excessive touch. This child may be physically touching you as a trauma response, not for normal physical comfort.
If you set clear boundaries and stick to them, you are another adult in their life who is teaching them social norms. This is what sets them up for healthier relationships in the future.
Strategies for Having Strict Personal Space Boundaries
Use these methods to maintain strict physical boundaries.
- Do not give hugs or physical touch as a reward. This can create a mixed message for a child who already struggles with understanding healthy touches.
- Do not allow the student to excessively touch their peers.
- Have rules about touch such as, “In my classroom, we ask permission before we give hugs,” or, “In my class we do high fives and not hugs.”
- Observe the boundaries that the student struggles with and try to incorporate ways to teach a healthy boundary without shame or judgement.
5. Watch for a Shift in Behavior
Children with attachment issues often have a difficult time verbalizing or expressing emotions. This means that behavior may be the most common form of communication when feelings change for the student.
A shift in behavior can mean that the student is reacting to a stimuli in the environment. Be aware and monitor changes in behavior. This can be an increase in anxiety-driven behaviors such as skin picking, nail biting or hair pulling.
Another notable shift can occur when a special event or holiday is approaching. Children with a trauma history can often be triggered or overstimulated on field trips, class parties or other unstructured times.
Strategies for Watching for a Shift in Behavior
Pay attention and use these methods for behavior shifts.
- Watch for a change in behavior at times of holidays or special events.
- Take note of a change in behavior around adults or other students.
- Documenting what occurred before or after a meltdown may help you determine the trigger.
- Notice if changes is routine occurs, or if new behaviors appear, throughout the school year.
6. Give Other Students Special Instructions
It can be difficult for other students in your classroom to understand the needs of a classmate with RAD. Being sensitive to this will help the child with attachment issues and will make overall classroom management go more smoothly.
While you must keep confidentiality, it’s fair to explain differences in a factual way that students are able to understand. Be forward-thinking and plan to give instructions in advance about differences students will see. This helps prevent the “no fair” chorus from happening when the student with RAD needs different rules.
Children with attachment issues struggle to make friends. They can be demanding, manipulative, and controlling. They want friends but don’t understand healthy give-and-take relationships.
Continue to monitor peer-to-peer interactions carefully and supervise all situations, because children with more severe attachment issues lack a conscious. They will hurt their peers and lack remorse for doing so.
While you can encourage friendships, do not force them either. Part of what a child with RAD needs to learn is the natural consequences of their unhealthy behaviors. When you are mean, other children don’t want to play with you.
Remember that all the students in the class will benefit from learning to manage every person’s individual needs, and these are important life skills that will better them for growing up and adult life.
Strategies for Giving Other Students Special Instructions
Here are ideas for giving other students in the class additional instructions.
- Provide a separate place for RAD students to put their bookbags/personal items. This way it is obvious if the RAD child is near belongings of others.
- Provide a quite place in the classroom where students can get a break.
- Expect that children with RAD can have difficulty reading social cues. You may need to provide classmates with a strategy to alert the adults if a child is violating their boundaries or other inappropriate interactions.
7. Realize that the Child’s Attitude Toward You Will Shift
Deep down, we all want to be liked. You as a teacher are no exception. While we know that we are the authority figure and not the student’s friend, it’s still normal to want positive back and forth interaction. This is the basis for all human behavior. You are a teacher, but you are also person and not a robot.
As such, managing RAD is especially difficult. Children with attachment issues lack empathy, and in more severe cases they lack the ability to love. When children heal from their attachment problems, they are more open to healthy relationships.
Recognize that the child’s attitude and behaviors toward you may have wild swings as the child struggles with their trust issues. This isn’t a reflection on you as a person but rather shows the child’s lack of healthy sense of self.
Expect that you might get triggered by the child’s back and forth behavior and learn to manage your own emotions. You are the adult and your job is to continue to have emotional regulation no matter where the child is emotionally or behaviorally. This is a tall order but we know you are up for the task.
The more you can step back and look at the situation without becoming overly emotionally engaged, the better teacher you will become. Give yourself breaks when needed and recognize that teaching children with RAD is extremely difficult. Even the most gifted, experienced teachers struggle with managing kids with attachment problems.
Strategies for When the Child’s Attitude Toward You Shifts
Use these ideas for when you see a shift in the child’s attitude toward you.
- Do not take it personally. It is common for a child with an attachment disorder to begin a new relationship with over the top affection. As the adult sets limits and boundaries. Don’t be surprised if affection turn quickly into negative behavior.
- Expect that as you set limits and boundaries, a child with attachment issues will become frustrated and may begin to say hurtful things or accuse you of disliking them.
- Understand that a sudden shift in attitude can be an attempt to manipulate or gain control.
- A shift in attitude can also indicate that the adult is getting to close to the child or the child is worried they may get rejected. It is scary for a child with RAD to become attached to others. Familiarity is a source of anxiety because it opens possible avenues to attachment.
- Recognize that a change in attitude will occur and that it should not impact your consistent response.
- Give yourself breaks when needed and step back emotionally. Teaching in a class with a student with RAD is some of the toughest teaching you will do.
Classroom management is a difficult skill to develop in a typical school setting. It is made even more difficult when you have a student with an attachment disorder. The strategies you found helpful with other students will not work for a child with RAD. We hope this resource has provided you with some helpful strategies.
Don’t give up and don’t lose heart. Your impact on this child will be important for them this year and will have lasting benefit for years to come.
Have you taught in a classroom with a child with RAD? What strategies worked? Share in the comments below.