School Strategies for Kids with Attachment Issues

September 1st, 2010

School Strategies for Kids with Attachment Issues

By Wendy Kovacs, LMFT
HCC Senior Clinician

It is well known that all children are born with both the ability and the desire to learn. Yet children with attachment difficulties often have a hard time with both. Adoptive and foster parents often ask me: “Why is school so difficult for my child?” The answer lies in early brain development. Every time a caregiver interacts with an infant/ young child, he/ she shapes the brain of that child. When interactions are positive, the brain is stimulated, promoting growth and an openness to new knowledge and experiences. In this way, positive interactions with caregivers help prepare children’s brains for academic work. In contrast, when children’s early interpersonal experiences are negative— for example, if they are unpredictable or traumatic— the brain goes into survival mode. Early negative experiences, especially if they are prolonged, have a profound impact on children’s ability to take advantage of education by wiring the brain for survival, not learning. Children who have experienced trauma have high levels of stress hormones which impair the growth and development of both the brain and body, affecting their ability to think, retrieve information, and manage their behaviors.

Because the brains of children with attachment difficulties are focused on survival, these children tend to regard new experiences as threatening. It is often difficult for them to understand that teachers and other adults are trying to help them. In order to take advantage of education, children with attachment/ early trauma issues need to learn how to manage their emotions, behaviors, and thoughts, which is a very challenging task for them. The good news is, it is possible to rewire the brain from survival mode to learning mode! It starts with attachment-focused therapy and therapeutic parenting, but getting the school on board with the treatment process is also profoundly beneficial. The more consistency and predictability in the lives of children with attachment difficulties, the better their treatment outcome!

Louise Bombèr, in her 2007 book titled Inside I’m Hurting, outlines school strategies for working with children who have attachment difficulties. She recommends that children have one key adult in the school that they have consistent contact with throughout the day and year. This person’s role is to help the child regulate his/ her emotions and to cope with daily struggles. This key person attends to the child to prevent emotions from becoming uncontrollable, and also works to contain the child’s emotions if they do become uncontrollable. The key adult provides verbal and non-verbal feedback to the child in order to increase his/ her ability to understand emotions and experiences.

Bombèr also provides a number of general guidelines for teachers working with these children; for example, that the tasks given to the child match his/ her developmental age (versus chronological age), that tasks be engaging to the child, that tasks be simplified, and that only one-step directions be given. Teachers and key adults in the school setting should help children solve problems before they become overwhelming (to teach them self-control), show pride and pleasure when they accomplish tasks (to help them learn empathy and hope), help them practice new skills in controlled environments (to prevent them from being overwhelmed), explicitly explain situations (to prevent them from becoming confused or scared), and help them get organized. Bombèr stresses that, in school especially, acting out behaviors should be viewed as ways that children are trying to communicate their fears, worries, and attachment difficulties with adults. The four main goals that Bombèr identifies for the child with attachment problems in school are: to develop trust in adults, to learn to manage feelings, to develop a sense of self-esteem, and to feel that they impact the world.

If you would like more information on how to work with schools, or if you would like House Calls Counseling to work with your school, please call the intake line at (847) 256-2000.