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Circle of Security and Attachment Theory

Circle of Security and Attachment Theory

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August 1, 2017 | Carmen Choi

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“


INTRO: Everyone in early childhood education knows that it’s all about the relationships. Parents and teachers have relationships with the children under their care, but the quality of that relationship can’t be understated! Babies use their relationships with their main carer to create expectations about themselves and how they relate to others as they grow. Our guest, Melissa Grant, tells us about the Circle of Security framework and how parents and teachers can come together to better read the emotional needs of children and respond appropriately.


Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Melissa, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.


Melissa GRANT: Thank you. Thanks for having me.


SPREEUWENBERG: It's our pleasure to have you on the show. Let's start off by learning a little bit more about Circle of Security International, whom you work with. Can you tell us a little bit about who they are and what they do?


GRANT: Definitely. Circle of Security is really a framework that was developed by three therapists that were originally working with vulnerable families. Glen Cooper, Bert Powell, and Kent Hoffman came together and really saw a need to help develop a road map that made things a little bit simpler for parents and educators to understand the relationship between parent, carer and child. And it's all really formed on the basis of attachment theory and the importance of building resilient children, children with a strong sense of emotional security.

And it's really… the easiest way to sum it up is that it's the relationship between parent, carer and child is all based on a circle. So at the top of the circle is the child's need to explore and go out. At the bottom of the circle is the child’s need to be protected and cared for. And so parent are carer needs very much at the top and the bottom of the circle and supporting that child to feel the confidence to go out on the top of the circle in school, and then feel that they can come back in and be nurtured and cared for by their parent or carer if they are scared or worried or upset for any particular reason.

So I think the beautiful thing about the roadmap or the framework of Circle of Security is that it really helps carers understand and interpret the behaviors of the children and their cues, and then can help them respond appropriately to what's going on. So it's a really beautiful way I think, as I said, for parents and carers to say, “Okay, hang on, let's take a step back and really look and think about what's going on for this child. Where are they, in terms of the circle? Are they at the top of the circle or the bottom of the circle? And I can now respond appropriately to their needs.”


SPREEUWENBERG: And so you said this was developed initially by three therapist. So is this based on some research that they've done?


GRANT: Yes, decades of research. And it goes back to the secure parent-child relationship and how it can be supported and strengthened. So the three founders have done, as I said, decades and decades of research in their various different fields and have seen gone on to work with parents directly through the program, and then now go out and train educators to then be able to deliver this information and work with families. So it very much forms the core of what we do in terms of training the childhood educators that we work with around responsive sleep and settling. It very much forms the basis of our training. And as I said it's really that that listening and understanding where the child's at and responding appropriately.


SPREEUWENBERG: So you've explained sort of the high-level concept of what the attachment theory is with the Circle of Security. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that works, or why that even is what it is?


GRANT:Attachment theory has been around for a very long time, and it has gone through of this research and study. And in terms of more recent developments in terms of the neuroscience finding that… John Bowlby was one of the original theorists that some attachment theory. He found that there is a very unique and important relationship that an infant will develop with their parent or their primary caregiver. And it's one that absolutely critical to their emotional and cognitive growth and development. So we know that babies are born with this innate, biological behavior that really drive them to form a relationship with their caregivers, because they need to. And those relationships and how they’re responded to by those primary caregivers in their lives really helps them learn about what a relationship is. And so it's so important that how we respond to a child… it's one; it's gentle; it's nurturing; it's consistent, and it is responsive. So the child then understands what a relationship looks like from that relationship that is formed within from that very early age. So as I said it then goes on into their relationships.

So what happens in those first few years of life and how a child is responded to will affect them going into the rest of their life. And so what we know through research is that more securely attached children feel confident that they are going to be responded to when they need help or support, will then go on to form better relationships in life; they’ll be more happy. They know that someone is there to get them out of trouble. They'll get along better with friends; they’ll have better relationships into their adulthood. So it’s such a important piece of the puzzle, those first few years.


SPREEUWENBERG: And so in terms of the Circle of Security, if you're an early-childhood educator – let's say in the classroom – would you, as a first step sort of on an ongoing basis, assess where the child is on that circle? Is that part of the process?


GRANT:Yes, absolutely; that's absolutely priceless. And so that's why we go and break it down, making something that is so complex so simple. So iit all goes back to that looking and listening, taking a step and thinking, “Okay, is this child is on the top of the circle or this child on the bottom of the circle?” And then adjusting your behaviors to respond to them. You're going to have a much better outcome if you just kind of go in and star thinking, “Okay, this child’s got this going on. I need to just quickly step in and get them out of trouble.” They're out there, and children, want to and need to explore, and we need to give them the opportunity to do that. But we also need to let them know that, if they want to come back, then when they come back into that circle that we're there for them. So it's all giving them that sense of security.


SPREEUWENBERG:And what are some of the signs that might tell you, “Okay, this child is in the bottom of the circle right now, with needing some more protection and care?”


GRANT: Often some of the most obvious signs: a child that’s upset; a child that’s literally looking [for], seeking someone’s assistance; be crying and asking for help or for whether it's a cuddle or just crying and not really knowing why… you will find very quickly just with the body language that if you try and comfort a child that is, say, at the top of the circle might just be frustrated with what's going on. They’re at the top of the circle; they came to explore; what's going on for them isn't working. You go in; you try and fix it for them, and they're just going to get more frustrated. That's not what they need right now. They saying, “Help me, support me, [to] go out and explore the bottom of the circle.” They will very quickly fold into your body and respond to that nurturing and that call for help. And when you come in and you cuddle then, you help them out, you talk them through it and they will respond very quickly by folding in and saying, “Yeah, this this is exactly what I need,” instead of getting frustrated and saying, “No, I actually wanted you to help me out with something I was struggling with.”


SPREEUWENBERG: And with the Circle of Security, is it sort of an immediate diagnosis, for lack of a better word, of whether the child's at the top or the bottom of the circle? Or is it more of a longer-term thing? Or is it both?


GRANT: It definitely takes practice. And the beautiful thing about the Circle of Security program that professionals can go through is that there is lots of examples. So they will show you lots and lots of video footage over and over again so that you can begin to identify, “Oh, that's what's going on, okay. I can see the child’s at the top of the circle.” Like with anything you get better at identifying where the child is at over time. And then sometimes it’s obviously going to be really, really clear and obvious where the child is seen and what they need. But absolutely, I think it's important to look, listen… it really goes back to [how] it's very easy for us [to] see something going on with a child and you very quickly want to respond, and you might going in and just try to fix that situation for them. What we try and teach carers is to just step back, take a moment to look, to listen [to] what's actually going on for that child. What are those keys? What are those behaviors?

Particularly [with] babies it's really important to remember that they have a slower transmission of nerve impulses. So sometimes that can be quite a lag, so it is really important to spend that time looking and listening, and don’t just jump in and want to seek something straight away. It’s about being patient, and then feeling confident that you are doing a great job of reading those cues and behaviors.


SPREEUWENBERG:Interesting. And what is some of the feedback that you've gotten from educators or parents who have gone through the process of learning more about the Circle of Security, in terms of how it's helped?


GRANT:Huge. It’s a wonderful program. I've never seen anybody come out of the program and say, “I didn't learn anything.” There's a lot of “A-ha!” moments, I think, for educators and for parents, even health professionals saying, “Wow, I've been working with some of these families for however many years. And it wasn't until I went through these program and things were simplified in a way that made me really realize that it gets complex in some respects, but it can be really simple if you can just understand where that child is sitting. And then you can understand how to respond.”

So it provides wonderful results for people. And as I said, many of these health professionals, too, that we see who have been working with our children and families for years and years and years learn something after going through the program. So it really is a fantastic framework.


SPREEUWENBERG: Very interesting. So you're in Australia – is this something that's primarily just in Australia? Or is this international? What's the take up of this?


GRANT:It's an international program. So the three founders are actually based in the U.S., in Seattle, but they travel internationally. We support their program here in Australia, or in Melbourne, and we bring them out at least once a year for one or two programs. But [the programs] all over Australia; they’re all over North America; they go beyond North America internationally. And so they have worked in many different countries. They even had the framework translated into many different languages. So it is truly an international program.


SPREEUWENBERG:Wonderful. And yourself, do you work primarily with parents, or do you work a lot with educators or childcare programs, health care workers? Or all of the above?


GRANT:All of the above. In terms of working with parents we provide very much one-on-one support, consultations in terms of sleep and settling struggles that they may be going through specifically. And we work with them over a period of time to help them with their specific needs. I would almost say that we do a lot of predominantly work with health professionals and childhood educators. So going in and really helping from the very beginnings. So talking particularly in terms of childhood education, because a lot of this isn't necessarily covered in their core training.

So we start from the very beginning about, “What is importance of the emotional security? What is attachment theory?” The concepts of Circle of Security, before we even get into how to help respond to a child that is struggling with sleep and settling, specifically, which is really our core. We feel that that core part of understanding a child, how their brain works and how that impacts their behaviors and how that impacts potential sleep challenges is a huge focus of our training with professionals and educated before we get into tactics of sleep and settling, which in many respects we do the same for parents. It's much easier to help a child with sleep challenges if we can understand what's going on for them first.


SPREEUWENBERG: And what would be the primary differences in the training of a parent for example versus a childcare worker or early-childhood educator who is not necessarily the primary giver caregiver? Is there a difference there?


GRANT: A lot of the fundamental training is very similar, [in] that what what's going on for a child, that understanding of their capacity [and] what's going on with their brain, that's all similar in terms of how we position things for educators, specifically. One of the key messages we have is consistency. So, what's going on? Building that relationship with the parents. So, how can you build that solid relationship with the parents so you can understand what's going on at home so that there is a level of consistency?

However we also work with them to find a broad language that they can then use to help educate the parents. So we see them as such an important… One, they're a huge influence on the child's life, being a significant carer in their lives. And Two, they have a huge amount of influence on helping parents with what's potentially going on. So developing the relationship, [ensuring] there's consistency, helping them use some strategy. So with their knowledge how can you translate that knowledge and pass it back to parents so that there is a consistent response happening for the child at home and whilst they’re in care? So there’s some of the differences.

The other thing that we also focus on, particularly with childhood educators, is there [are] some parameters that exist – particularly around sleep and settling – that are going to be very different at home as to when they're in room [where] there’s multiple children. So how do you deal with some of those challenges, such as settling multiple children in a room? How do you deal with the challenge of a parent coming and saying, “I want you to rock my child to sleep,” and there’s 15 other children that need to be settled to sleep at nap time? How do you deal with some of those challenges? So we spend some time working with some of the common scenarios that come up in a childhood educator setting, and how to help address those with parents and make sure that any change is slow and gentle and working for both family and child.


SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. I mean, that makes a lot of sense. And just sort of changing topics a little bit here: You're spinning a lot of time obviously with young children and people who are working with young children, both parents and educators. What's exciting you most in your work right now, related to early-childhood development?


GRANT:I think educators are finally being recognized as having such a huge influence in the child's life. I think there was a time where educators were seen as the glorified babysitter of the day, and now they are finally being recognized as having such a huge impact in a child's life, and particularly in those early years. So we predominantly spend time with babies, with infants and toddlers up to three years. And we know that they’re the formative years. So I think having that recognition, and also being able to go in and work with these educators, train these educators and have them walk out of training and having those “A-ha!” moments and going, “Great! I was never kind of exposed to that or taught that.” Or, “I've been working with children for so many years, and now that it’s sort of put in that perspective that makes so much more sense to me.” And to see them go back and be able to make positive changes both for child and family that they're working with I think it is super exciting. .


SPREEUWENBERG:Awesome. And if people want to go to learn more about your work, Melissa, where can they go to find out more information, or perhaps even get in touch with you?


GRANT: In terms of our educator training you can go to www.SafeSleepSpace.education. We have a wonderful online program, which is really easy for anybody around the world to participate in. So we talk about a lot of these series that I've been talking about today. We have three courses: One course very much starts with that foundation of understanding the child. We talk about the circle of security concepts, and then we got wanted to help educators understand what's going on in terms of specific sleep and settling challenges, all the way through from birth to three years. And we break it down even further: birth to four months; four to eight months; eight to twelve months, because lots of different things happen over those periods of time. So I think that certainly applies to find out more about a lot of the work that I've been talking about.


SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. Well, Melissa, it's been a really interesting conversation about the Circle of Security and attachment theory. I think, again, it just goes to show the complexity of the work that both parents and early-childhood educators have to do in their work with children. And I love the fact that it's very much research-based, and it's moving that research into a practical form that we can apply in a class or at home. So thank you again for sharing all this excellent knowledge with our audience, Melissa.


GRANT: It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.


SPREEUWENBERG: It's been our pleasure.


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