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«OIL & WATER: THE ATTACHMENT DISORDERED CHILD AND SCHOOL CHARACTERISTICS OF SCHOOL THAT DO NOT MIX WITH CHILDREN WITH ATTACHMENT DIFFICULTIES 1. The ...»

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LAWRENCE B. SMITH LCSW-C, LICSW

9305 MINTWOOD STREET

SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND 20901

TEL & FAX: {301} 588-1933 E-MAIL: lbsmith@md.net WEBSITE: attachmentdisorderdc.net

OIL & WATER:

THE ATTACHMENT DISORDERED CHILD AND SCHOOL

CHARACTERISTICS OF SCHOOL THAT DO NOT MIX WITH CHILDREN WITH ATTACHMENT

DIFFICULTIES

1. 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. The school's objectives will truly engage the child with AD mostly in those moments when the child perceives the information to be relevant either to his immediate desires or to his longer-term survival.

Otherwise, learning is often of little interest to AD children- it is just another of the adults' annoying agendas.

2. A second block to learning comes from AD children’s emotionally-based belief that they already know everything, a belief that they need to retain to manage their anxiety. Obviously, a necessary condition for learning is the recognition that one does not already know. This, AD children generally won’t acknowledge, just as they won’t ask for assistance. They have little or no interest in engaging with an environment that comes to them with a presumption that their knowledge is incomplete.

3. School typically expects students to organize their behavior around external factors, such as the schedule, curriculum, and demands for performance. This clashes with the AD child's behavior being primarily based on an internal need for control in order to feel safe. Hence AD children tend not to perform on others’ terms just as they tend not to show affection at home on parents’ terms. In addition, due to early trauma and attachment disruptions, AD children’s skills for regulating their feelings, thinking, and behavior are usually weak. This compromises their ability to adjust to external factors.

4. Much of the motivation for participating 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.

5. 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 behavioral attempts to re-establish a sense of control.

6. Most of the sources of gratification offered by school (parent and teacher approval, public recognition of achievement, grades on tests/projects/report cards) are delayed gratifications.

AD children's relentless focus on gratification in the moment, and distrust of the future and of authority figures, leaves these gratifications stripped of most of their appeal, and hence, minimally motivating.

7. Teachers have a dual role: that of dispensers of “educational goodies” (instruction, attention, recognition for effort / achievement, granting of requests, etc.) and that of limit-setters. This dual role will inevitably conflict with the AD child's personal priorities sooner or later. As occurs at home with parents, no matter how many times a teacher has been an ally or 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 eyes. Authority which the AD student sees as unfair, deserves no respect. 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 to AD children 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 concept of “the common good”.

 Understandably, teachers may feel attacked and unappreciated themselves at these moments, particularly given their degree of investment; and because these feelings can run very strong, it can be 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.

CHARACTERISTICS OF SCHOOL THAT THE AD CHILD “WELCOMES”

1. 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 an 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.

2. In general, teachers change every year. This provides a model of “short term attachment” which makes minimal to no demands for emotional honesty and intimacy. This circumvents AD children’s area of greatest vulnerability thereby avoiding provoking much of the problematic behavior typically seen at home. This can lull educators into seeing the AD child as more functional than is truly the case.





3. SCHOOL / HOME SPLIT: AD children frequently seek to pit school vs. home in the spirit of dividng and conquering the adults. Typically this takes the form of attempting to set the teacher up as a preferred parental figure and may go to the point of asking the teacher to adopt them away from their parents. These approaches can be quite seductive in their presentation and teachers need to be aware of not forming an opinion of the parents based on such interchanges with the child.

BEHAVIORS COMMONLY DISPLAYED BY AD CHILDREN IN SCHOOL

1. 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, and the outburst is a desperate attempt to ward off the perceived threat. AD children can get to this level of anxiety in as little 1-2 minutes if they perceive a danger of sufficient magnitude.

2. 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 preventively minimize or avoid behavioral deterioration.

3. REGRESSIVE BEHAVIORS: AD children can exhibit a wide range of immature behaviors in the classroom, including: use of a 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 lessen the child's anxiety. Though these behaviors can appear bizarre, they usually do not mean that the child is psychotic at that moment.

4. NUISANCE BEHAVIORS: These are frequently occurring minor infractions, such as interrupting, noisemaking, 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 others' 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 k nows how to maneuver the teacher, the “honeymoon” will be over.

5. PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR: Like all passive-aggressive behavior, the passive-aggressive behavior of the AD student presents a compliant appearance that packages a defiant spirit.

With assignments, it may take the form of doing some parts while leaving others undone or doing some parts correctly and others purposefully incorrectly. The name may be left off the paper or the wrong date used. Problems might be numbered improperly or done out of order.

When given a certain number of problems or sentences, the AD student may do more or less than the specified number. When speaking, words may be transposed or omitted so as to distort meaning and confuse listeners. When asked to sit, the AD student may choose to kneel on the chair or slide down into a near prone position. And on and on it can go. Passiveaggressive behavior is designed to allow the AD student to hide in the “appearance of compliance”, and then challenge any confrontation by authority as “persecution”. This allows the child to maintain a view of adults as untrustworthy and justifies the child’s strivings for control.

6. PROVOCATIVE BEHAVIORS TOWARDS PEERS: AD children are deliberately provocative towards peers for a variety of reasons. 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 responsiveness to the provocations. Provocative behavior, from an AD child towards peers, is almost impossible to eliminate solely by working with the AD child.

7. TEACHER 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”, haphazard work, outright defiance, or complaints of boredom and disinterest. Patterns of task incompletion and completion typically reflect rising and falling levels of anxiety in the AD child. This fluctuating pattern of receptiveness to instruction then, is one more way the AD student seeks to remind the teacher that he doesn't readily submit to outside authority, particularly when anxious.

8. 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 her quiet, and prove to her 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 her control, then "yielding to the teacher" by doing the task won't be a problem. However, if the AD child isn't feeling so in control, then she is apt to choose to resist the task in order to "defeat the teacher".

9. 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.

 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 there is more going on than just stubbornness. This is just one more part of the AD child's ongoing need to perceive he is in control to feel safe.

 The AD child's never completing work on a consistent, longer-term basis serves a selfprotective 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 intact that he is the smartest, most knowledgeable person in the classroom. Protecting this perception in school is important for the AD child to maintain his cornerstone belief that others are not smart enough to outmaneuver him, no matter

where he is.

10. 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.



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