The Secure Base Model with Dr. Gillian Schofield

Safety and Security are at the heart of any meaningful relationship, especially the relationship between caregiver and child. In this episode, Cassie talks with Professor Gillian Schofield PhD about the Secure Base model, which provides a framework for building positive relationships and promoting security and resilience, not only in foster care, adoption, and residential care, but also in schools, workplace teams and a range of diverse settings. The Secure Base model, used widely in the United Kingdom and abroad, draws from attachment theory and proposes five dimensions of caregiving, each of which is associated with a corresponding developmental benefit for the child.

Guest Info:

Professor Gillian Schofield PhD is a member of the Centre for Research on Children and Families, hosted by the School of Social Work at the University of East Anglia in England. Before beginning her academic career at UEA in 1990, she was a qualified teacher and social worker, who specialized in child and adolescent mental health and child protection in the courts.  From 1997 she worked on a series of funded research projects to improve outcomes for children in state care.  It was from this research, and drawing on attachment theory, that the Secure Base model was developed, in partnership with Dr Mary Beek, a practitioner and Research Fellow at UEA. Though initially focused on family foster care and adoption, the Secure Base model has also been used in child protection, residential care and schools.  The model has since 2006 been the focus of a series of publications which, together with the Secure Base model website with free to access materials, have been instrumental in enabling practitioners and caregivers from around the world to support vulnerable children in becoming more secure and resilient and in fulfilling their potential. In 2021 she received the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for her services to children and families.  

Host Info:

Cassie Gillespie, LICSW is the host of Welcome to the Field. Cassie is the Workforce Training Team Lead at VT- CWTP and a former Vermont Family Services Divison worker. Cassie is also a part-time faculty member in the Social Work Department at the University of Vermont.


Cassie Gillespie (00:02):

Hello, I’m Cassie Gillespie and you’re listening to Welcome to the Field. A podcast produced by the University of Vermont’s Child Welfare Training Partnership and the State of Vermont. Welcome to the Field is designed for child welfare workers, caregivers, and community partners. However, this season, we will be talking all about uncomfortable conversations and each episode will touch on a different type of uncomfortable conversation. So even if you’re not working or caregiving in the child welfare field, this season might be for you. Over the next two weeks, we really have a treat in store for you. Today we will be talking with Professor Jillian Scofield coming to us all the way from England and the school of social work at the University of East Anglia. And Professor Scofield will be talking to us about the secure base model. Next time we’re gonna go deeper into the secure base model and talk with Dr. Laura Biggart about the team as a secure base model, and that’s a way that we operationalize that model at work. All right, here we go. Welcome Jill.

Gillian Scofield (01:07):

Hi Cassie. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Cassie Gillespie (01:09):

It’s a pleasure to have you, would you mind introducing yourself to our listeners?

Gillian Scofield (01:13):

Okay. So before becoming a professor of child and family social work, beginning my academic career. I was a qualified teacher and social worker specializing in child and adolescent mental health and child protection in the courts. And at UEA, I taught attachment and child development to social workers for, for 30 years. But in my research since 1997, I’ve led a series of funded projects to improve outcomes for children in state care. And so over the years I’ve worked with government policy makers, practitioners, caregivers, and of course, young people and with rising numbers of children in care and growing concerns that we have in the UK for placement stability and mental health, for all young people, we feel that having a, a framework like the secure base with materials on websites and so on can, can really help promote emotional wellbeing. And, and that’s been, that’s really been my ambition for the last 25 years.

Cassie Gillespie (02:08):

Oh, wow. Well, we’re so grateful to have you with us. Let’s start kind of at the very beginning and give us a brief overview of what the secure base model is and how you came to it.

Gillian Scofield (02:18):

Okay. So the secure base model is a practical therapeutic caregiving framework based on theory and research. And it’s been designed to help practitioners in family support and child protection, kinship, and foster carers, adoptive parents, residential care staff and teachers too, to build positive relationships and improve outcomes for vulnerable children. So the secure base model was first developed about about 20 years ago when Dr. Mary Beek, a friend and colleague of mine at UEA, and I were trying to make sense in our research of what the more successful foster cares were offering to children. So we turned to classic attachment theory in the work of Mary Ainsworth and Ainsworth back in the 1970s identified the caregiving qualities that helped infants build secure attachments. And we applied these to our foster care research and went on to develop those findings into a therapeutic model that is relevant for infants, but also older children and young people who are often the subject of our research.

Gillian Scofield (03:17):

And we made connections in five caregiving dimensions with key aspects of children’s development, so that practitioners could focus on and set goals for addressing children’s difficulties and promoting their strengths. And we chose to focus on the term secure base because in attachment theory, a secure base is provided for a child through a relationship with one or more caregivers, which provides a reliable, safe haven that reduces the child’s anxiety and promotes security and resilience. So it’s important to bear in mind that the emphasis here is on a secure base for exploration, which was John Bowlby’s original term. So the real evidence of success is not only the child being able to seek comfort from a caregiver. It’s what that relationship enables the child to do. So trying new activities, enjoying play education and so on. I remember a foster carer saying to me, she wasn’t sure if her foster child had a secure attachment to her. And I asked her what the child could do now that they couldn’t do when first placed with her. And she said, oh, he’s completely different. He sleeps well at night, he’s made friends, he’s joined a football team and takes pride in how he looks, and those are the changes that matter. And of course that was a simple answer to give her and what can be quite a difficult area.

Cassie Gillespie (04:37):

So if I were to summarize, is it accurate and correct me if I’m getting this wrong here, that what the secure base model really does is operationalize traditional attachment theory for foster caregivers and children involved in the, in the child welfare system. It provides a framework for caregivers to lean on and kind of guide their relationships and their interactions with those children.

Gillian Scofield (05:00):

Yeah, that’s exactly how I would, I would describe it. So I think what it does is it identifies those key elements that carers, birth parents, foster carers, adoptive parents, residential workers can understand in the child and try to then make sense of, so you are absolutely right. It does draw on a wealth of attachment theory and developmental psychology research and attachment, which I think over the years has broadened our ideas about what attachment is. It’s not just about infants and mothers in intact families. It’s much bigger than that.

Cassie Gillespie (05:35):

I think that’s fascinating. And one of the questions we hear sometimes from caregivers, they are kind of all related to attachment, right? I think that there’s a, a desire when you’re a caregiver to ensure a secure base, a attached relationship with the children you’re caregiving for, and there’s also a desire to preserve their attachment with their primary caregiver, you know, in case they return home. So this model is so rich, I think it really helps give lots of discussion points to all the different ways that you might be thinking about attachment relationship as a caregiver.

Gillian Scofield (06:08):

Well I think it was always the case, although it’s, it’s often been misinterpreted that John Bowlby talked about children having multiple attachments and attachments growing for older children, as well as babies. So I think it’s really important that we think about attachment theory in, in this new way.

Cassie Gillespie (06:25):

Oh, that’s super helpful. Thank you. So can you describe the dimensions to our listeners and I’m gonna make an extra request. Could you describe the visual that goes with it? Because one of the things that I adore about your work is how straightforward it is when you start to hear words like attachment theory and, and we’re thinking about John Bowlby right. And all, all those prior kind of researchers, I can sometimes get a little bit intimidated about what that means, but what I love when I look at your work is it is so visually compelling. It’s so clear the way you’ve laid out the dimensions.

Gillian Scofield (07:00):

Yeah. So the, the, the five dimensions in, in the model can be represented as a star diagram, which is in itself a very positive image, but what it’s doing really is something very fundamental, which is showing the way in which different aspects of caregiving and different aspects of children’s development work together and interact. And you’re quite right, the star diagram in itself has been quite powerful because in a sense

Cassie Gillespie (07:23):

It’s so powerful.

Gillian Scofield (07:25):

well, when I was teaching in in Norway on one occasion somebody turned up with the star diagram on their t-shirt and gave me a t-shirt with it on it and had team secure base Norway, which I think was very exciting. OK, so just to describe some of the five dimensions, so to everybody. So each dimention has a caregiving quality. So for example, availability is linked to helping the child to trust. So these dimensions need to be understood in terms of the child’s history behavior, age, and stage, and what we’ve called the caregiving cycle, which is the interaction of the caregiver’s thinking, feeling, and behavior and its impact on the child’s thinking, feeling and behavior, which in turn affects and needs to be understood by the caregiver. And these cycles are going around many, many times in the course of a day.

Gillian Scofield (08:21):

And what we’re trying to do is to shape those into sort of positive, positive cycles. So if we use this first dimension in a bit more detail, as an example, I think that will make it clear how the model works. So availability helping the child to trust focuses on the caregiver’s ability to convey to the child a strong sense of being physically and emotionally available to meet their needs, both when they’re together and when they’re apart. So when the caregiver can do this in a range of circumstances and reliably, the child begins to trust that their needs will be met warmly and consistently. So as anxiety is reduced, and over time, the child gains confidence to explore the world safe in the knowledge that care and protection is there if needed. And that’s this secure base for exploration idea. But if we think about what availability means for a three month old for coming into foster care and using the caregiving cycle is clear availability means the carer tuning in very carefully minute by minute, to what helps that particular baby to relax and to trust the carer to feed and to hold them.

Gillian Scofield (09:18):

And when the baby starts to build trust, this will appear in their acceptance of closeness, but also their ability to engage with sensory pleasure in the world of toys. And for a teenager, availability also means tuning into that young person. But it’s important to think about how the carer signals they’re there for them and can be trusted to look after them, because that’s gonna depend on a much longer history of the young person’s experience of trust, distrust, trauma perhaps. Oh yeah. And availability may mean holding the young person in mind, making sure your mobile phone is switched on texting them at the school lunch break to see how their day is going and so on.

Gillian Scofield (10:10):

So you need very practical ways of communicating or availability.

Cassie Gillespie (10:14):


Gillian Scofield (10:16):

Being available telling the child you’re available is not, is not enough. So if we then look at that connected to the other dimensions, it can see that tuning into the individual child is closely connected to what Answorth called sensitivity, which is about helping the child in this model to manage their feelings. And it’s about thinking about what the child is thinking and feeling, being curious about what’s going on in their mind and how that might be affecting their behavior. And this is a, a key dimension as our research and others has shown because if you are sensitive to what’s going on in the child’s mind seeing a world from the child’s point of view, it’s likely you are also gonna be able to understand their need for connection with their birth family, for example, or to work extra hard, to find exactly what it is that will help them to relax and, and, you know, feel successful.

Gillian Scofield (11:11):

And then that brings us on, if you like to the third dimension, which we’ve called, which Ainsworth called, and we’ve also called acceptance. Building the child’s self esteem is the developmental outcome that we’ve added to this. And it tackles a common and fundamental problem for children from troubled backgrounds. So acceptance is accepting the child for who they are, even when they need help for their behavior to change. And it’s essential for children to feel that there is something about them that is lovable. And that they can start to take pride in themselves, but also cope with setbacks. And that dimension of acceptance in turn contributes to what we’ve called cooperation, which helps the child to feel effective. So it’s about helping a child to feel more confident and often children that we are talking about may have felt powerless in other situations.

Gillian Scofield (12:05):

So for them safe boundaries, being able to make choices about foster carers have talked about the first thing we do is try to make sure they have a choice of breakfast cereal or right. The color of their duvet cover or whatever it might be. Quite small things, but nevertheless, contributing to that experience for the child. And then the fifth dimension doesn’t come from attachment theory. Family membership, helping the child to belong. And we were doing research for foster care. So for us belonging in a family was a crucial element of any child’s sense of security. But I think it’s true for all children, whether they’re in their birth family, whether they’re in residential care, the need to have a sense of belonging is crucial for them to be able to build new relationships and also establish an identity. So I think a sense of identity is a key part of the model really. So I think the message here is that children that, that need our help are likely to have a number of relationships and we need to help them get the best they can for all those relationships. So it’s not just the key attachment relationships, it’s all their relationships that can make them feel more secure.

Cassie Gillespie (13:19):

It’s lovely because that offers so many different opportunities for children that engage in these positive relationships. Right? Takes a little bit of the pressure off for some of those primary caregivers in some ways.

Gillian Scofield (13:30):

Yeah, I think that’s, that goes back to that idea of the secure base, really. So I think that we know for some children, for example, actually the most difficult relationship they can build is a new relationship with somebody in the role of a mother or father, if they’ve had difficult relationships with people in that role before. And it may be that it is a teacher or a grandmother or an older child in the placement who actually helps them relax for the first time. So I think it’s incredibly valuable for social workers and, and psychologists to think about a network of relationships that, that surround a child and they all have something to offer without them necessarily becoming attachment figures.

Cassie Gillespie (14:09):

Right. Oh, that’s fascinating. So I know that it’s been some years since you developed this model and it’s, it’s very widespread at this point in the UK and in some other places, can you tell me a little bit about some of the ways this model has been used?

Gillian Scofield (14:24):

Okay. I think, I think the best way to start thinking about it is, is the different stages. If you like of the child’s journey. Whether it’s through in their birth family, through receiving a helpful intervention, that’s gonna help them stay with their birth family or indeed a journey through placement. So initially the, the model can provide a framework for assessment of the child’s needs. So the focus that that point is on, on the child’s needs, and that can in turn, be built into that assessment can be used for deciding on an intervention. It can be used in the court report, but it can also be used for matching a child with foster carers or with adopters or residential placement perhaps, or indeed a kinship carer. So trying to think about using the dimensions, both the child development and also the caregiving dimension, can these prospective carers or parents really help that child to develop self-esteem.

Gillian Scofield (15:23):

And, and particularly what support they might, they might need. And then of course, going on into a subsequent placement or subsequent experience in, with a kinship family how can professionals get involved in helping the child to achieve goals in these different areas? I think that that’s a very important idea that you are trying to all the time to think about what’s your future ambitions for the child? How can we be ambitious for each child in these different areas and help them to achieve their best? So there’s the child’s journey side of it. And then there’s the, you feel like the caregivers journey? Yeah. So the model used a lot for both assessing and training foster carers, and adopters in the UK and, and also in residential care not just in the UK, but, but elsewhere as well, which I’ll, I’ll say something about in a moment.

Gillian Scofield (16:19):

So all the time, you’re trying to think about what are these carers potential to provide a secure base. If you’re recruiting a new foster carer, that could be, if you like for any child, or if you are doing a matching it’s for a specific child. And then you can think about different ways along the journey, if you like. So for example, we have annual reviews of foster carers. So at that point the dimensions might be looked at to think about where this carer strengths. Are they particularly good at managing and supporting birth family contact that maybe need a bit more nuance about sensitivity and so on.

Cassie Gillespie (17:00):

Oh, how neat. I would love someone to come into my home and and give my partner an I an assessment. I bet. I bet we have very different strengths. .

Gillian Scofield (17:10):

Yeah. I think the other element is that is just to say something about that. And then perhaps we can reflect on all of this is the international uses of the model really. And that’s been very very exciting, really. So sort of a range of countries from Norway to Australia who have systems that are quite similar to the UK who have been able to feel like, sort of put the model into their existing practice. Attachment theory is quite familiar on the whole. So it’s not too difficult to find ways of, as you said earlier using the model as a way of explaining attachment theory of making it sort of practical, but the model’s also been adopted in, in very diverse countries where there’s been a very different drive if you like, and that has been to reduce the institutionalization of children.

Cassie Gillespie (17:55):

Oh yeah.

Gillian Scofield (17:55):

So again, my, my close colleagues who worked with me all these years, Mary B. She actually did some work with voluntary organizations who were helping countries to implement foster care for the first time. So she particularly worked in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and in fact, Ukraine. And there’s so many countries in the world with so many children in institutional care who are looking for ways to develop foster care as, as really a new service. And they need a fundamental set of ideas about child development, about the quality of relationships that foster carers can offer. And so having training that uses something, you know, the diagram that you talked about using something quite straightforward that people can translate into their own languages can use directly with carers. You don’t need a 30, 40 PowerPoint slide talk, actually, you can talk your way around the model, quite, quite straightforwardly. So I think that’s been that’s been very important and it’s also helped us confirm the fact which we had hoped that the model can be translated into different cultures and contexts. Which is often a question that’s asked about attachment theory.

Cassie Gillespie (19:08):

Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. And as a parent of young children, I would say it also feels very intuitive. You know, when you’re watching your kiddos have big feelings and really need something from you it’s, it’s not difficult at all. I find to translate to like, oh, she really just needs me to hear her. Right. Like she doesn’t need me to tell her it’s gonna be okay. She just needs me to hear her and be here. Or she needs to be invited into the problem solving right here.

Gillian Scofield (19:32):

Yeah. Yeah. So I think like empowering children and empowering of carers is very much part of what we would look for in practice. But I think some of the magic of attachment theory in research is that it, it makes sense of what doesn’t make sense. So very often children appear to be provoking rejection when rejection is what they most fear.

Cassie Gillespie (19:54):

Oh, I see. Yeah.

Gillian Scofield (19:55):

So actually you’re trying to very often help particularly foster carers, residential carers, and so on adopters to try and make sense of behavior, which common sense doesn’t actually help you with common sense would tell you that child’s deliberately trying to upset you, that maybe they’re not happy in your family. And that could be the case, but more commonly it’s because they’re going to be testing out. They’re going to be trying to see what it takes really to find out if you can really be trusted.

Cassie Gillespie (20:27):

Yeah, if they’re safe here.

Gillian Scofield (20:29):

So, you know, and, and I think that, I mean, that can happen in some ways, in all families that children can test out their parents’ limits if you like, but for children, who’ve come from very difficult and backgrounds of trauma where they, where they genuinely haven’t felt able to trust. And they felt the need to kind of control situations so that they don’t get hurt or they don’t get upset actually. Their behavior can be quite paradoxical. I think we know that from what we know about trauma and children’s development. So I think the model, I think, although it seems quite simple also trying to engage with some of that nuance and complexity about children’s behavior.

Cassie Gillespie (21:07):

That makes really good sense. So what would be the most important thing for caregivers to know about this model, if they wanna try to utilize it?

Gillian Scofield (21:14):

I think the connections really between their caregiving and the child’s experience. So this may seem a simple thing to say, but it is about the power of the relationship to in itself be therapeutic. People often, when I say a therapeutic model of caregiving, they think, oh gosh, I’m not, I’m not a therapeutic caregiver. I’m just a foster carer. I’m just a parent. I’m just an adopter. But basically what we know is that for children who are vulnerable have had troubled backgrounds, troubled experiences, actually, how they’re gently and warmly greeted when they wake up in the morning, how they’re helped to make that difficult transition into over breakfast and into school, how they’re helped to settle securely at bedtime. Actually every point in the day that caregiving cycle is going around and messages need to go to the child about their loveability the potential for them to change and feel more comfortable.

Gillian Scofield (22:13):

And so I think in terms of the most important thing to know is both the power of those relationships, but also the importance of really stepping back, thinking about where that behavior comes from in the child, where their own reactions come from. So being sensitive also to the impact that child has on them. And I think a lot of that thinking about the potential of their therapeutic role as caregivers really does need somebody to bounce that idea off those, be ideas around with, you know, supervision, somebody needs to be available really to explore quite why, what this child does makes you feel particularly loving or indeed particularly angry or sad and what you then do with those feelings. So I think this is a, a mixture of what seems like every day caregiving but with that extra element of reflection and tuning into this child’s needs and, and your own reaction. So I think that’s the power of it really.

Cassie Gillespie (23:20):

Yeah it is incredibly powerful. In the Vermont system, we call some of that reflection and, and your own reactions and kind of your own stuff as the caregiver, as your shark music, when it comes up.

Speaker 3 (23:29):

Yes. Do do, do, do, do, do do .

Gillian Scofield (23:32):

Yeah. I mean, I think actually that shark music comes from circle of security. And I think circle of security is something that is often linked to this model. So in Norway, when they teach secure base model, they would often talk about circle security first because that has that process of understanding the meaning of secure base. And, and shark music and being alert to those things. That’s, that’s a nice connection Casie.

Cassie Gillespie (23:57):


Gillian Scofield (23:57):

It’s a good connection.

Cassie Gillespie (23:58):

So we’re starting to kind of run short on time, but I have two more questions if we can fit them in. So I wanna know in the many, many different places and different groups, you’ve talked about this model with, what has most surprised you in your work with the secure base model?

Gillian Scofield (24:14):

I suppose it’s the fact that so many so such diverse range of organizations and countries and individuals have been able to take it up for themselves. And that that’s been very exciting for us. So a former student of ours was working with UNICEF in Northern Iraq and there on the table of the project leader for a project for displaced young people was our model translated into Arabic and Kurdish. So I think that that’s been wonderful actually. That has made us feel, first of all, that we have got it right in terms of its accessibility. But again, also the fact that it can be taken up and used in many different cultures and contexts. So that’s been both pleasing and surprising.

Cassie Gillespie (24:56):

Yeah. It really speaks to the power of it. Okay. And then this is often a question we ask as we close, but if our listeners only walk away with one thing from listening to you talk about the model. What is it you want them to carry with them?

Gillian Scofield (25:08):

Well, I guess in addition to the transformational power of secure base caregiving, if you like, I think it’s also very important to remember that we all need a secure base in our relationships to reduce anxiety and help us to fulfill our potential. So trouble children need to find a secure base in that caregivers. Caregivers need to find a secure base in their own networks and in the professionals who support them. And organizations need to provide a secure base for the committed practitioners who work so hard on behalf of children and families. So I think that that notion that this is not just about infants or babies or children, it’s really about a fundamental human need and understanding how that works. I think secure base dimensions can help with that. That’s

Cassie Gillespie (25:51):

Lovely. And, and you really set us up for kind of a promo here, because our next episode, we’re gonna welcome your colleague, Dr. Laura Biggart and we’re gonna talk about team is a secure base. Or utilizing the secure base model in a professional setting. So thank you for that. that perfect opportunity.

Gillian Scofield (26:09):

Yes, well, I think it’s, it’s it’s important to have that overlap, but it’s certainly true for, for secure base model as fundamentals as well.

Cassie Gillespie (26:17):

Absolutely. So I’m sure the folks who are listening now are dying to see the star and are looking for more resources. So where, where can they find you and, and how should they get more information?

Gillian Scofield (26:28):

Well, the secure base model has a website and certainly over here, if you Google secure base model, you come up with it, which is great. So we can send, yeah, you can send them a link, send, put a link on the site or whatever, but that website has got, so it’s got everything where it’s got explanations, but it’s also got video material. It’s got training programs ready to go. And we are very happy for people to use them. You don’t have to pay to license them. We just ask that you acknowledge UEA in the use of them. But other than that, we’re really keen for people to use them. And I’m also happy to have people email me If they have any extra queries, but, enjoy the website, everybody.

Cassie Gillespie (27:12):

That’s marvelous and listeners will link to it all and show notes on our site so you can access it with one click.

Gillian Scofield (27:18):


Cassie Gillespie (27:19):

Marvelous. Okay. Well, thank you so much for coming today. It was a real pleasure to get to chat with you. And I know this information will be really important for lots of folks.

Gillian Scofield (27:27):

Thank you, Cassie. Thank you very much.

Cassie Gillespie (27:32):

Welcome to the Field is produced by the University of Vermont’s Child Welfare Training Partnership and the State of Vermont. Our theme music is composed and performed by local band Brick Drop, and our sound production and engineering is brought to you by Egan Media Productions. We’d also like to give a special thank you to our in-house technical production assistant Emma Baird. For Welcome to the Field, I’m Cassie Gillespie, and we’ll see you next time.

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