How best to balance classroom discipline with the goal of encouraging young learners to explore was the primary topic of the Cheshire Board of Education’s “elementary school showcase” on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 3.
Local educators, trained as facilitators in a program called Circle of Security, presented their insights to an audience at Darcey School.
Circle of Security (CoS) draws on decades of international research conducted by physicians, psychologists, and other experts on how and why children form life-long attachments. It has revealed effective methods for supporting young learners while building their life-long emotional skills.
The techniques derived from these studies can be applied not only in the classroom or on the playground but also at home, according to Darcey Principal Kim Dessert, who introduced the speakers. Along with the District, Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families has been supporting the initiative through training and grants, she said.
Moira Aitro, a speech pathologist at Darcey, described CoS as “a program designed to help caregivers in supporting the secure base for children and to enhanc(ing) the development and attachment which correlates strongly with increasing social-emotional learning.”
Local interest in CoS began in about 2015 when “many of our children were struggling,” said Aitro.
“This became an avenue for us to introduce a program so that we could help parents, we could help staff and we can also help the children of Cheshire Public Schools,” she said.
In 2015, according to a handout prepared for the meeting, the first groups of families completed an 8-week experiential training course. There were four facilitators and 14 participants. It has grown over the years to 23 trained facilitators and 150 participants. Next year, even more regional outreach and participation are anticipated.
Donna Notti, program coordinator at Cheshire Birth to Three, remarked how Aitro’s daughter, while in nursing school at Yale University, introduced the CoS program to one of her professors, who has subsequently brought the group in to present to a graduating group of pediatric nursing practitioners.
The CoS training program has participants meeting three times over eight weeks for sessions of one or two hours. According to Highland School kindergarten teacher Stacey Lopez, these parents have children between seven months and 17 years old.
Regardless of the age, Lopez said, everything starts with parents and caregivers providing a secure base or safe haven for the child. She provided an example of a high-school student “visiting different colleges and they come back and they say, ‘I’m a little bit nervous.’ As a caregiver, we’re there for them and we support them in their discomfort.”
Other key concepts of the program were summarized in a slide. “Being With is a central concept. Always be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind. Whenever possible: follow the child’s needs. Whenever necessary: take charge.”
Gina Morrisroe, a kindergarten teacher at Darcey, elaborated on the concept of “time-in” versus “time-out.”
“Often we’re asking kids to regulate and organize their feelings, and they don’t have the capacity to do that. So if we’re sending them off to go be by themselves, they’re not going to really build those capacities. There has to be someone there to help facilitate that regulation, they can’t do it on their own,” she explained.
“If we’re telling the child to go away from us, we’re telling children that we’re not comfortable with the way they’re feeling and we’re not comfortable with those kinds of emotions and as we go through the circle they’re going to learn to not trust us with those kinds of things and that’s what we don’t want,” she continued.
“Shark music,” alluding to John Williams’ famous theme from “Jaws,” is another key term in the program. Morrisroe described it as “that feeling of uncomfortable anxiety” that people experience repeatedly in the same situations, such as a child acting out at bedtime, for example.
“Really tough, difficult kids are the ones we know best and give us the most ‘shark music,’ but I would say put the time in on the front end and it will pay off,” advised Notti.
“(Parents and teachers) have a choice on how to respond,” Morrisroe said, either “the way (they) always respond or (they) could pause, sit with that discomfort, and choose to meet the child’s needs.”
The concept of “connection seeking versus attention seeking” was one that Morrisroe said resonated with a lot of CoS participants. Describing a common feeling that children are acting out because they’re looking for attention, Morrisroe offered a different mindset: “They’re trying to connect with me.” She quoted a saying: “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”
Another explanatory slide summarized the CoS philosophy: “Beneath every behavior there is a feeling. And beneath each feeling is a need. And when we meet that need rather than focus on the behavior, we begin to deal with the cause, not the symptom.”
Aitro highlighted some additional benefits of CoS, insisting that “it builds resilience in children and it increases effectiveness in all relationships.” Perhaps most importantly, she added, research has shown that “it only takes one person to create a positive attachment with a child. So if you’re that one person that can create that relation and help that child, that’s enough for that child to make it in many situations.”