School in an Attachment-Focused RTC: Script from Dr. Burroughs? Interview with the Attachment & Trauma Network

Can you start by telling us a bit about Calo's overall relationship-based treatment model and how academics/your school fits into this? 

At Calo, we summarize our treatment model as CASA, which stands for Commitment, Acceptance, Secure, Attune. Because this the foundation of all that we do, I’d like to go through with you step-by-step. We begin with Commitment on the care-giver’s part. For us, that is the parent, guardian, or primary attachment figure that commits to sending their child to us and commits to working with us in the goal of reuniting at treatment’s end. It begins also with our commitment as caregivers to treat the child, to “go the distance,” as we say here. That Commitment needs to be coupled with Acceptance. Acceptance by the parent and by us can be a complicated process, but at its fundamental level it is a recognition that developmental trauma and attachment is driving the child’s behavior, not attitudes, laziness, or narcissism.

We have to accept that it is not a matter of “trying harder” for our kids, but of learning how to trust others and ultimately themselves. Once our kids feel accepted, they can begin to feel secure, or safe, both physically and emotionally. With that feeling of safety, they can begin to Attune with us and begin a relationship. That’s important because we learn just about everything about ourselves and the world around us through relationships: we learn how to speak a language, how regulate our emotions, how to get along others, how to tie our shoes. I’ve made this seem more linear in theory than it is in practice. In action, this tends to be a recursive process of progress and regression, rather than a straight line of progress.

This is important in school as well. In general, our students don’t trust teachers, so we have to Commit and Accept them, before they can feel intellectually or emotionally safe in a classroom. As they feel secure, they can begin to develop relationships with us and begin to learn. This process is not fundamentally different from some of the current theories in contemporary educational thought. The Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky stressed the interdependent nature of education and the social basis of learning, unlike Piaget who seemed to stress the unfolding of “stages” within individuals’ as they learn. (By the way, I don’t think Piaget really stresses that, but American educators with our focus on individuals has tended to stress that.) With our students, it is easier to see this interdependent nature of learning.

So most of the students you see have also had trouble in traditional school, right?  Do most qualify for IEPs?  Do most have just emotional disorders or are there other learning challenges and disorders?

Yes, just about every student here has struggled in school. About 1/6 of our students have IEPs when they enroll with us, but most of them certainly could qualify for an IEP. Just about every student at some time here has trouble regulating their emotions enough to attend class or to stay in class. So most of our students could qualify for IEPs with an emotional disturbance. But we also see the full range of learning issues and learning disabilities: ADHD, auditory processing, Autism spectrum, language-based disabilities. We know that adopted kids have LD diagnoses at a great frequency than the population as a whole, so we aren’t surprised by this. My own observation through the years as an academic director, education consultant, and father of adopted boys is that adoptive kids’ heightened sensitivities and heightened anxieties in general are magnified in a classroom. Such hypervigilance can look a lot like ADHD or other learning issues. So, to the extent that we can soothe those fears and anxieties through trusting relationships, we can help with some of those learning issues.

What does school success look like for children with Attachment Disorder?

This is really the crucial question, isn’t it? So many of the parents I talk to as they are enrolling their child at Calo are exhausted with school—the marathon homework sessions, the endless calls from school administrators, the gyrating grades, the tears and school refusal. So many parents have run the gamut of emotions from hope to despair concerning school that by the time they reach us, they speak of school success in very modest terms: learning how to behave in a classroom, getting a high school diploma, learning how to count money and live independently are all markers of success that parents have given me.

So the answer to the question is “It Varies.” But again, we can look to our model to help parents and to help us answer this question. Acceptance is a huge part of the answer. If we accept that students really are trying their hardest, then we can take our clues about success from them. As they begin to feel safe and to build relationships, they will begin to tell us what they want and we will begin to see what their strengths are. So many of our students have interests and aptitudes for hands-on experiences that college may not fit their talents, but vocational programs might.

As parents, it is often difficult for us to really see the child we have in front of us. We are tempted to see our hopes, our fears, our expectations, our projections—anything but the child herself. My own feeling is that many adoptive parents have been traumatized themselves through the adoption process and put more emphasis on school because it is something they understand, and more times than not, were fairly good at themselves. It is easier to focus on what you know and think you can control than on the messy reality of developmental trauma.

For most kids with Attachment Disorder, school success looks something like this: Can I be in a classroom without jumping out of my skin. When kids can reach that goal, then they have lots of further school-based or training-based options. Until they more or less have that, school will always be a place of further traumatization.

At Calo, the focus is obviously on treatment first – where does school fall into that priority?  Where should school fall into the priority when children are struggling with attachment and building primary relationships?  Sometimes parents (or the professionals advising them) struggle with the concept of "keeping the child out of school" or "not focusing on academics" in favor of pursuing other therapies or focusing on family time. 

Yes, treatment is the priority at Calo. Still, students spend about 5 hours per day in school-related activities. 4 of those hours, 4 days a week are spent in actual classrooms with peers in small numbers. Some of their other activities during the day such as working with our canines, or group therapy, or adventure therapy also provide some academic credit. So, that represents a number of hours, but not the majority of hours.

Yet, because the focus of our treatment is trusting relationship, school provides another venue in which students can experience relationships. When our teachers work with students, this is the basis of their work. Our first priority is establishing that relationship. As I tell my teachers: it is not about the content of the curriculum, but the content of our relationships.

So school becomes another venue that we seek to provide experiences that are repetitive, relational, rhythmic, relevant, and rewarding (as Bruce Perry says). But because our students often have had such deep difficultly with school, providing those 5 Rs is effective but not efficient. And it’s messy, as students struggle to connect with each other and with teaches. Unfortunately, public education seeks efficiency.

Let me illustrate how messy this process can be by telling you a story about one of our students. Let’s call him Fred. Fred came to Calo in a wheel chair, following an accident he had. Fred had been through a number of schools, some of them boarding schools, where he had not done well. Adopted from Russia at 7, he had some language and processing issues, but mostly a deep distrust of teachers. So, even though he spent his first 10 weeks with us in a wheel chair, we could not physically roll him into a classroom. He used all of his considerable upper body strength to push himself back from the classroom door. He would not go to school.

While he was refusing to go to school, however, he was developing a relationship with one of the coaches who worked with his team of boys. So, I invited Fred and this coach into my office and proposed that the coach help Fred 1:1 with his assignments for just one class. Fred chose science because he liked the subject matter, and worked with the coach for just that one class. The teacher worked with Fred to produce PowerPoints as Fred’s assessment piece, because Fred liked Powerpoints. After a few weeks of Fred working 1:1 with the coach, we asked if Fred could go to the science class with the coach and sit in the class. Fred agreed, and we slowly moved him into other classes, and finally into all of his classes. So, after just about a year Fred is attending all his classes and getting passing grades.

You can see how inefficient this is, yet about 5 months ago, when Fred had just started to go to all his classes, his mother came to visit Calo. When we laid out samples of Fred’s work for her, she cried. She hadn’t seen him do this much work in years. So, for her this looked like success and it looked effective.

Why was it effective? I think it was effective because we:

  • Committed to helping Fred become more comfortable with school, even when he didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
  • Accepted his fear and anxiety about school
  • Made it safe for him by shrinking down the task and giving him a safe relationship to work within
  • Attuned with him and guided him into other experiences when he was ready for them.


Let's recap about how our listeners, who are probably not building a school within an attachment-focused RTC, can learn from your model by:

Understanding how disordered attachment (and a child's self-image/world-view) can impact their core beliefs about school

I’m glad you used the words “core beliefs” because those are important words for us. Because of developmental trauma, our kids have not developed secure attachments and that has affected their core beliefs about the world and themselves. For example, many of our students don’t believe that the world is a safe place, so they approach the world like the Lone Ranger. They rely only on themselves and shun relationships. They also believe they are flawed human beings, and that’s why they’ve been abused or neglected. Within the context of school, they explain their school failure as “stupidity. I’m stupid.” That’s why they don’t ask for help. They don’t think it will do any good. That’s why they are reluctant to try in school. It won’t do any good: they’ll just spend a lot of time spinning their wheels and they still won’t “get it.” School can conflate two powerful negative core beliefs that make them feel hopeless: School makes me feel stupid and unsafe.

Recognizing school's importance and priority in the grand scheme of the child's emotional health.

The developmental trauma and the disordered attachment are created in a lack of relationship—abuse, neglect, inconsistency—and can be treated only in relationship. So, it’s that creation of a trusting relationship with teachers or parents that will treat the trauma and rebuild attachment. But that is a messy and inefficient process. If schools can’t or won’t engage in that messiness, then parents and teachers need to find ways of doing that. Perhaps that is pruning the task so that it is more emotionally manageable, as we did with Fred. Perhaps it is by spending more time on building relationships than on content. Perhaps it is listening more sensitively to students’ fears and anxieties before plunging into schoolwork. Whatever we choose, we have to realize that without challenging or treating those core beliefs, we will only make the problem worse. So, in a sense, we have to approach these students as Hippocrates advises us: first do no harm.

Understanding the role relationship has in learning 

Relationship is the heart of learning. I mentioned Vygotsky earlier, and the central role that he gave to the social nature of learning. For Vygotsky, learning only occurs within the relationship of teacher and student. My guess is that we’ve all had that experience of a great teacher that changed the way we looked at something. We wanted to see it, because we trusted that the teacher believed in us. In that shared experience, a great teacher spurs something new in you by coaxing you to think or feel differently. That can only happen if you are open to the experience or the ideas: unafraid, not anxious, not self-conscious, and not self loathing. Our students can’t engage in that relationship because they are afraid, anxious, self-conscious and self-loathing. Only by first helping them with that can we help them with learning.