Attachment - Insecure/Reactive

General Information

Children whose early life experiences have left them with the belief that adults cannot be trusted to keep them safe and that they have only themselves to count on are at risk of suffering from attachment-related difficulties. Sometimes these children have been victims of long-standing neglect and abuse, without a consistent and nurturing primary caregiver, or have had to endure multiple moves. Understandably, these children may find it very difficult to form healthy relationships with those around them.

Children who have had to figure out how to manage their world on their own, without having been given the requisite care and instruction about how to do so, are at a clear disadvantage. They often seek out the attention and approval of teachers and peers, only to “ruin” what they have tried to secure.

General Characteristics To Look For

  • inappropriately demanding and/or clingy
  • indiscriminately affectionate with strangers
  • manipulative—superficially charming and engaging
  • lack of cause and effect thinking
  • demonstrates little or no capacity for empathy
  • hypervigilant/hyperactive
  • learning gaps/delays
  • speech and language problems
  • intense control battles, very bossy and argumentative
  • destructive to property, self, and/or others
  • incessant chatter and/or questions
  • stealing
  • sexual acting out
  • lies about the obvious for no reason
  • poor peer relationships
  • denial or lack of accountability—always blaming others
  • may appear to swing back and forth between high anxiety and high self-reliance

Impact On Student Success

  • Students can suffer delays in motor, language, social, and cognitive development.
  • Their behaviours may leave them isolated from peers, and they may withdraw from the social growth opportunities afforded by school life.
  • They may gain but then quickly lose the trust of teachers, administrators, and other adults, leaving the adults around them feeling defeated.
  • They may not always feel motivated toward success.
  • They may not be motivated by some of the more tried and true strategies used to engage students at risk.
  • Students dealing with attachment issues who are in the care of the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) may have to contend with placement changes, and this in turn may affect their ability to commit to school life.
  • Become a good observer of children’s non-verbal responses (facial expressions, body position and movements, eyes, voice tone, etc.), the most accurate signs of what is going on inside the child.
  • Avoid power struggles—present requests in a light and matter-of-fact style. This reduces the child’s desire to control the situation.
  • Consider the child’s behaviour as his/her attempt to solve a problem that he/she cannot express in words. Try to give it words for them—for example, “Maybe you broke your pencil so you didn’t have to finish the work you are worried you can’t do well today”.
  • Consistently reinforce the concept of choice—the idea of people making choices and having responsibility is not something these children have experienced. 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.
  • Ask questions to unmask the child’s hidden agenda. His/her non-verbal reactions may say much more than the answers to the questions.
  • Teach appropriate social behaviours, One of the best ways is to model the behaviour and then narrate for the child what you are doing and why.
  • Make sure rewards are absolute and not contingent upon anything so that the student’s success is under the control of the teacher. This effectively subverts the student’s strong tendency to self-sabotage and thereby “prove” that the authority figures in his/her life can’t “make him/her succeed”.
  • Identify a supervised place for the student to go to regain composure during times of frustration and anxiety.
  • Create the best possible fit between student and teacher—this is essential for these students to settle and make gains.
  • Provide resources for teachers and support staff.
  • Probe directly and factually to process larger issues with the student and look for non-verbal cues, rather than asking open-ended questions.
  • Investigate whether other learning difficulties are masked by the difficult behaviour.
  • Inform the school team that the child may have attachment difficulties.
  • Work in collaboration with the school team to prevent the child’s “divide and conquer” manoeuvrings.
  • Establish a consistent routine.
  • Treatment for attachment problems is available and takes commitment from parents/caregivers.
  • Consult with schools and parents/caregivers to help them contain and manage a child with attachment difficulties.
  • Support recreation and mentoring to help build a child’s sense of capacity and accomplishment across environments.
  • Be mindful of the need for consistency for children dealing with attachment problems—consider how to maintain relationships with therapists, coaches, former caregivers, and other significant people in the child’s life.
  • Increase communication to clarify roles, responsibilities, and limitations of each service’s mandate and resources.
  • Engage in ongoing joint training initiatives.
  • Focus on “UPSTREAM” prevention initiatives.