Friday, January 6, 2012

Dear Teacher: About My Child in Your Classroom

Dear Teacher,

Thank you for your willingness to spend your days inside a classroom with two to three dozen energetic children.  You must certainly be an exceptional person.  While each of your students is exceptional as well, a child who has suffered from significant, complex past traumatic stress (C-PTSD) and reactive attachment disorder issues (RAD) is enrolled in your class this year.  This child is indeed “exceptional.”

Children suffering from C-PTSD and RAD, or “RADish” issues, can come from various walks of life and live in different family structures.  My child was adopted in 2007 at the age of 12.  Until his adoption, my son lived in an orphanage for special needs children located in a former Soviet state.  His birth country is now its own independent and proud nation, but its child welfare system is still much as it was decades ago throughout Eastern Europe.  Specific details of my son’s story are private, but in order for you to understand what this child has been through, there are some specific things you need to know.  These things are to be discussed only with me, or with professionals you work with at school, and on a confidential basis only.  These things are never to be discussed in the classroom.  There is never a need to announce to your class that my child was adopted.  (Yes, there are teachers who’ve made that mistake.)  Don’t do it.  Not ever.  It’s common knowledge for many, but it is not a topic for classroom discussion.

In the orphanage, my son slept in a room with a few dozen other boys ages 7 to 16.  He saw things that boys do who are unsupervised during much of their time.  These things would put children into rehab programs for child predators here in the states.  Some of those things he may have seen – he probably did see – they may have happened to him, too.  We will never know the full story.  Our son was abused and neglected by orphanage workers.  He had belongings stolen from him.  He stole (and sometimes still steals) things, too.  He learned to lie and to act as well as any award winning movie actor.  He was beat often by both adults and other children.  The scars you see on his body were not put there because of normal childhood accidents.  Those scars are from things that happened to him both in the orphanage and in his first family, years before we ever knew him.

My son may seem pretty “normal” to you most of the time.  He wants very much to “just be normal.”  The fact is, the trauma of his past and the abuse and neglect he suffered during the first 12 years of his life have altered the way he thinks and the way he functions in the world.  These are not things that are healed with time or love.  C-PTSD and RAD are not curable.  They are not miracles just waiting for God to heal.  They are life-long challenges for which my son needs to learn skills in order to navigate this life and be productive in society.  He has the potential to lead a life far different than the life he knew as a young child, but please understand his brain is FOREVER changed because of those early years.

The Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children ( defines attachment as a “reciprocal process by which an emotional connection develops between a baby and its parent.”  Attachment influences the child’s physical, neurological, cognitive, and psychological development.  It is the foundation of the development of basic trust and shapes how the child relates to the world, how he learns, and how he forms relationships throughout life.

When a child’s needs are not met, or if his needs are only met on a sporadic basis, his brain is forever changed.  He operates from a systemic need to fight or flee.  Fear and shame are his base emotions.  Survival is his base motivation.  He must gain control.  Otherwise, he feels, quite literally, like he will die.  This is the nuts and bolts of C-PTSD and RAD.

His reactions can appear in several ways.  Unless you know what to look for, you might even miss a reaction to something that has triggered his trauma and caused him to go into that “flight or fight” mode.  Kids who deal with C-PTSD and RAD are often either very inhibited (withdrawn, passive/aggressive, sneaky) or very dis-inhibited (hyper-active, talkative/argumentative, superficially charming).  And sometimes, a kid who is usually inhibited, can display himself as very disinhibited, or visa versa.

You can read about things to look for in traumatized and attachment disordered children at this blog post:  If It Walks Like a Duck

You probably learned in your Child Psychology class in college that babies learn to regulate themselves emotionally and behaviorally in the arms of loving parents.  When a baby cries, the attentive parent soothes the child through rocking, feeding, singing, touching, and lovingly gazing into that baby’s eyes.  This helps the child learn to self-sooth in an emotionally healthy way and to cope with strong emotions such as rage.  Children who are not held or comforted when distressed learn to self-sooth in other ways, some of them very destructive.  Rage is not something that they can cope with easily and for this reason, many children with RAD or C-PTSD have difficulty regulating their emotions and behavior.  They’ve learned to survive.  Some of the behaviors they employ to survive do not serve them well in society or at school.  However, hurt kids are not “bad.”  They are not acting out because they are “spoiled.” 

Another thing to understand as my child’s teacher is this:  I did not cause this hurt for my children.  My children came to me deeply hurt.  I need to parent my hurt children with methods that are very different than the traditional parenting methods I used to raise four healthy, well-adjusted and productive biological sons.  I am not coddling my hurt children.  I am not spoiling them.  They are not “getting away with murder.”  Any behaviors you see or report you may hear (true or false), you would see or hear no matter in what good family my child was placed.  My child is a resilient survivor.  His survivor instinct is well-ingrained into his very psyche and he continues to use strategies that enabled him to cope through multiple traumatic events including his mother’s abuse and prostitution, his father’s neglect and suicide, his parents’ and extended family’s drinking, and his placement into a very corrupt and abusive orphanage system.  There is no glossing over the trauma of his past.  I will not make it “pretty” to protect you because it will serve neither you nor him to do so.  Please don’t pity my child.  Understand he’s been through much more than we will ever fully imagine.  But, his survival strategies are no longer effective.  We are working hard as a family, together with our child’s therapist and other support services, to help our child learn how to have his best life now that he is safe.  We also need your help and cooperation.

I am one of those parents that teachers are always saying they wished there were more of, but then complain about as “helicopter parents” soon after.  It is true that I am intensely involved in my child’s therapy and healing.  My child is not – cannot – be parented by the traditional parenting methods that helped me before I adopted.  I have spent a graduate degree’s worth of time researching, learning, writing about, counseling, teaching, and practicing methods to help my child and other hurt children.  I am not na├»ve.  I know what you have to deal with in the classroom every single day.  I’ve been there.  I know now, however, I am not meant to be in a classroom every day.  But I also know my child is not your only student.  In fact, I know on average, you have five attachment disordered and traumatized children in your class, though you may not be fully aware of it, as they may be undiagnosed.  Helping a child who has suffered the kind of trauma my child has suffered is hard.  REALLY hard.  It’s hard as his teacher.  It’s many times more hard as his parent.

There are some VERY IMPORTANT things you can remember to do in your classroom in order to help my child:

1.  Remain calm.  Even when you feel like letting my child really have “it,” stay calm.  A child who manages to upset or anger you is in control of the situation.  Model and verbalize desired behaviors:  calm voice, open and relaxed arms and stance, attentive eye contact, friendly face.

2.       Stay in contact with us – the child’s parents/family.  We are excellent sources of information about our children’s strengths and current challenges.  Many of us are very well educated and can provide you with resources that will help you better understand our children, as well as other children with traumatic backgrounds.  And this is really IMPORTANT:  Remember children with RADish issues often attempt to maintain control by creating chaos with triangulation.  “Crazy” is what feels “normal” to them.  Triangulating all individuals – especially the adults – is a favored way to create chaos.  (For example a child trying to triangulate adults may tell his teacher, “My mom said I didn’t need to do my homework at all.” Or “My mom wouldn’t let me study for the test; she was too busy making me clean the bathroom/give her a backrub/cook her dinner/pick up dog poop in the yard.”)  CHECK WITH the child’s parents, other educators, youth ministers, coaches, etc. before believing what a traumatized child says.  Maintain a respectful and professional relationship with the child.  Remember you are not their primary caregiver.  Parents are to be where the child receives hugs, cuddles, food, and treats.  Don’t buy into the “poor me” or “poor orphan” mentality.

3.  Traditional methods of discipline do not work for traumatized children.  Avoid the use of punishment as a negative motivator for the behavior you’d like to see.  It produces resentment, retaliation, or retreat into sneakiness.  A week of missed recess or a missed activity is meaningless in terms of changing behavior.  It will escalate.  Make consequences natural results of choices.  STAY CALM.  Do not raise your voice.  Say, “Oh, how sad for you that you’ve not done your work on time.  You’re lucky to have an awesome teacher who will give you the chance to practice these skills while the rest of the class is doing computer time.”

4.      Avoid those behavior management plans that everyone at NEA tells you to use.  They’re based on consistency, and that makes them easy targets for manipulation for kids with C-PTSD and RADish behaviors.  These plans also let students know just how much you value certain behaviors.  My hurt kids love to “question” (a.k.a. ARGUE) and get into useless discussions about valued behaviors and rules.  It’s not that they don’t need to know the rules.  They do!  It’s just that children with RAD have difficulty figuring out cause and effect.  Remember, they need to feel in control in order to feel safe.  The “rewards” of behavior management plans (candy, prizes, etc.) mean little to attachment disordered kids.  In fact, little gifts and prizes that are often part of behavior management plans can set them off into really crazy triggers their parents wind up having to deal with at home later.  You may never see it, but your actions caused it.  So don’t go with this old standard when it comes to hurt kids.  It’s harmful, not helpful.

5.      Provide natural consequences the first time.  Do not give the child a second chance.  Keep consequences as logical outcomes to the behavior, but ensure the child “makes things right” the first time.  Otherwise, you give the message that the behavior is “okay.”  (Also, never say, “It’s okay” when it’s not.)  Attachment disordered children are black and white thinkers.  Second chances and warnings are perceived as threats and will force hurt kids into that fight or flight mode of thinking.

6.      Establish eye contact.  Attachment disordered kids – especially those who display inhibited attachment disorder – dissociate from others and from situations when they feel threatened.  Keep them in the here and now – in the moment.  Remind them they are safe.  Say it out loud to them!  “You are safe.  You are not going to be hurt.  You are in Mrs. Smith’s classroom and we work together here.”  Remember to stay calm.  Be matter-of-fact even as you are firm.

7.      Ask “what” questions such as “What are you feeling?”  or “What happened?”  Avoid “why” questions.  Our hurt children mean it when they say, “I don’t know” in answer to a why question.  Why questions are fruitless.  Ignore obvious lies in the heat of the moment.  Remember the child is in survival mode and confronting the lie will only escalate the situation.  If the child is unable to tell you what happened, give yourself and the child a “time in” where the child stays nearby until he is ready to talk.  Do not shame the child with a “time out.”  This will send him further into withdrawal and reinforce the feelings of neglect and worthlessness so ingrained in him due to early neglect and abuse.

8.      Use actions.  Not so much words.  If a child continually tips his chair, remove it.  Let him sit on the floor.  If a child refuses to wear a jacket, don’t force the issue.  Let them experience the natural consequence of being cold.

9.      Use one-liners when you do need to use words.  They make kids think, instead of tuning you out.  They place responsibility on the child.  They let the child know you will not be provoked and are effective tools for you to use to avoid power struggles and additional trauma triggers.  The fewer the words, the better.  Remember to use a CALM, matter-of-fact voice.  Sarcasm and anger counteract the good one-liner.  Some of my favorites:

a.       “Sucks for you.”  (Probably not appropriate in the classroom, but you can modify it.  Besides, I was going for the laugh.  Did you laugh?)
b.       “Bummer, Dude.”
c.      “What do you think about that?”
d.      “What are you going to do about that?”
e.      “How are you going to handle that?”
f.       “How would you handle that next time?”
g.      “Hmm, and how did that work for you?”
h.      “Thanks for your honesty.”
i.       “I respect you and myself too much to argue with you.”
j.       If he/she whines, “Why?”  Say, “If you don’t figure it out by [time], I’ll explain it to you.”
k.      “I listen to one person at a time. . . Thanks.”
l.       “I’ll be glad to listen when your voice is as soft and as calm as mine.”
m.    When a child tells you that “you never do” or that “you don’t do” like another teacher say, “That’s right!”
n.      When the child tries to argue say, “I know.”  (Student:  Math rots!  Teacher:  I know.)
o.     When a student degrades himself and says, “I can’t do this.” Or “I’m too stupid,” you say, “Aren’t you glad I don’t believe that.”  Then walk away.

For more information about post-institutionalized children, RAD, and C-PTSD visit websites such as,, and

Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have about older child adoption, international adoption, post-institutionalized children, post traumatic stress disorder or attachment disorder.  I look forward to partnering with you this year so that my child learns all he can in your classroom.

Your Student’s Parent


just me said...

Excellent informative letter. I hope you actualy sent this to your sons teacher?

Trauma Mama T said...

just me - I actually do a book on CD at the beginning of the school year for each of my kids' educational teams. It's an "All About Me" kind of e-book that educates them about my kids' backgrounds, what PTSD and RAD are, how they NEED to protect my child and be mindful of triggers, how they can use me as a resource, and where they can find more information.

There are times I need to remind certain teachers throughout the school year of my childrens' needs. Each child has a 504 plan. These are educational plans to make accomodations in the classroom to help my children manage their disabilities (mainly their traumatic past and how it affects their ability to learn). 504 plans are not as legally binding as IEP's. However, teachers do need to make accomdations when a child has a 504 plan, and if they do not, they can have to deal with the office of civil rights -- which can be a much bigger "dog" than the state's education department.

It's tiring to stay on top of this all the time. But I need to do it. It's about my kids. I can come off as a big pain in the butt to some teachers because of it, but thankfully, most in our district have seen the opportunity to learn from me and have welcomed the education.

Karon and John said...

Outstandingly put. I am a middle school teacher with two PTSD adopted kids of my own. Last year I had a confrence with an adpotive mother who shared much of what you stated here. When I explained to the other teachers what RAD stood for, and PTSD, she looked on my desk, saw the pictures of my boys, and started to cry and hug me. She confessed that it was the first time she was going to have a teacher who "got" it. We worked closely and at the end of the year the girl wrote me a simple thank you note, saying "you were my favorite teacher I have ever had. I have never had a favorite anything until now."

Unfortunately now, I am on the parent end of the table, and I was told the other day by my son's principal that our over protectedness was the cause of our son's "issues" and that all children in the class were not going to miss out on the "fun of playing with food for math," because of one kids problems.

Joanne said...

My husband and I recently discovered your blog and we LOVE it. It really gives us insight into our four adopted children from Ukraine. Thank you for your brutal honesty and wealth of knowledge. Can you tell us more about the book on CD at the beginning of the school year you make for your kids' educational teams? As a classroom teacher for more than 19 years and an adoptive mother of four beautiful but post-traumatized children, I can tell you a CD is much more intriguing and engaging to a busy educator than the lengthly outline I provide them. I also think it will paint a clearer picture. Thank you so much for all that you do. - Joanne

Trauma Mama T said...

Joanne - once again, I'm sorry to have taken so much time to answer your question.

I make my book on CD read like a children's book with lots of pictures and with as few words as possible to explain my child's needs. I based my books upon those that a friend (Diana) did for her boys, but I found the teachers I worked with found them too long, so they didn't read them. Now, I do short and third-grade (or so) level reading.

I start out with, "Hi. My name is Youngest Son. I am 18 years old and I am going to be a student in your classroom this year." One page. One picture.

Next page, I have a picture of the country where my child was born. I say, "I was born in Eastern Europe. I have been home in the USA for six years. Before I was adopted, my life was hard. The things I've been through affect the way I learn and behave. You need to know about some of those things."

I then go on to explain my child has been through severe trauma experiences (I do not necessarily spell those experiences out.) I tell the teacher the experiences are more than most people could handle and be doing as well as my child. Everything is written in first person.

I have a page with a stock photo of a meddling mom. I say, "Teachers talk a lot about wanting involved parents. My mom knows a lot about C-PTSD, ADD/ADHD, RAD, and a bunch of other alphabet letters." (I insert humor.) I tell them, "My mom is a good resource. Don't be afraid to consult her with your questions."

I then explain my children's diagnosis - one page each. Just a few lines. I give links to the Kansas Dept. of Education fact sheets on those diagnosis.

I have a page telling the teacher my child has a 504 plan. I say, "This plan is not just a suggestion. It is important to remember I have a 504 disability plan. It is your legal responsibility to follow that plan. It helps me learn what you want to teach me."

I end the book with a thank you in advance for "helping me learn, making me accountable for my behavior and following the 504 plan.

The last page is a list of resources, including a link to the civil rights act for people with disabilities.