The successful integration into a community at any level is crucial for mental health of everyone. For the kids with PTSD, relationships are matters that are fraught with difficulties. The development of techniques to establish significant connections with others, at all levels takes place in early childhood. The different types of relationships are established in a sequential order. That is from the exclusive attachment to their mother up to the affiliation with peers.
The most powerful adult relationship is that to an intimate other. Part of fulfilling the evolutionary demand to reproduce in our society is most often with a significant partner. The power of this type of relationship is made obvious by the initial intensity of the establishment of a loving relationship and the emotional pain when that love ends. This is the last type of connection developed in our species and it is a strong echo of the first intimate relationship with the significant care-giver at birth.
The structure of this intimate connection is first established at birth when the child attaches to the parent. At this time the child is totally reliant on their carer(s) for all their needs, their very survival depends on an adult taking care of them. Attachment theory is a major field of psychology and beyond the scope of this essay but it gives a great illustration of this process. Secure attachment occurs when the care-givers meet the needs of the infant. Not only are the physical needs met so are the social and emotional ones satisfied.
Within the description of the course of development there is a consistent correlation between early childhood abuse and neglect and disordered attachment. And the children with severe behaviours are invariably those with insecure attachment.
It is obvious that if you leave a child alone to fend for themselves, they will die. So, the dysfunctional children who have made it to your classroom have had some support in these early years but not enough. The example of an extreme form of neglect is illustrated with children who were in the found in the orphanages of the Eastern European countries at the end of the Cold War, particularly one in Romania. At one level they were fed and clothed but had little, or no emotional/social bonding or mental stimulation. They just lay in their cots all day. The outcomes are horrific.
The kids causing trouble in our schools may not be so damaged however there are plenty of individual kids have suffered a range of abuse. These kids will not have a secure attachment to their primary parent and as this early failure is the template for future relationships. The difficulty continues throughout development.
When they get to school they should be on the way to developing the next level of relationships and that is the ability to affiliate with other children. In an ideal situation this occurs in preschools or supervised play where the carer givers teach skills like sharing and cooperation.
As said, kids who are unable to form primary attachments are already at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing these affiliations and they are very likely to have parents who do not teach them how to appropriately respond to the inevitable conflict between kids or they don’t even provide the opportunity to learn.
To address this relational deficit in a classroom is an enormous challenge for the teacher but one that must be faced. The outcome we want for these kids is to be a valued part of their community so the task is to make them a valued part of your class.
The first skill is for them to recognise the social norms of mainstream society that should be reflected in the classroom. Initially this is achieved by teaching social skills through classroom discussions on topics about sharing and relationships that have struggled. Stories about fictional kids who are experiencing difficulties in their life, say the break-up of their parent’s marriage are a great class discussion.
Providing negative consequences to the students when they break the social expectations is an appropriate response but only if there is an accompanying explanation about why the actions were inappropriate. Early on this might seem to be a waste of time. As pointed out before, these kids will have little empathy in the first instance but by teaching them not only what is not appropriate but also why it is inappropriate you are front-loading the brain with connections that may bear fruit in the future.
As the development of the child’s sense of self is enhanced through smart cooperative learning and volunteering class activities these programs work well in developing the ability to form healthy attachments.