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Circle of Security in the Community

Investing in Early Relational Health

A Secure Start in Connecticut, USA

United Way of Greater New Haven, Connecticut’s Secure Start Network

portrait of Barbara Stern

Barbara Stern, Secure Start Consultant

When I heard that our local United Way was launching an initiative to support “secure attachment between caregivers and their children” in our region, I was puzzled. Attachment? This seems like such an abstract concept. I knew secure attachment was absolutely vital for people to thrive in life, but how would a large organization like United Way go about improving the quality of attachment in low income, stressed communities? Well, I was about to find out.

Launched in 2013, the goal of the Secure Start initiative is to impact the quality of early relationships between young children and their caregivers in the twelve-town region in the state of Connecticut, USA that United Way serves. The United Way is a large charitable organization that has reach all across the United States. Many employers invite their employees to contribute part of their paycheck to support local United Way initiatives and our Secure Start initiative was, like many such initiatives across the United States, targeting an area which includes a high percentage of young children living under the US poverty level.

Barbara Stern discusses the importance of attachment in supporting childhood literacy and math.

With the understanding from attachment research that attuned early relationships between children and their caregivers can buffer the stress of poverty and challenging environments, while helping to put children on the road to school success, it was decided that impacting these early relationships could be an important lever in improving outcomes for children in the region. Circle of Security Parenting was chosen as the intervention because of its accessibility, non-judgmental stance, and its relationship-focused orientation. There were, of course, many models focusing on changing children’s behavior. However, since 2010 many people had been receiving training in COSP in and around the small city of New Haven (where Yale University sits) and there was already wide acceptance and appreciation for an attachment-based model.

Our Team initially identified five organizations for receiving staff training and funding support to offer COSP groups through a written grant process. The grantees were required to participate in an evaluation conducted by the Yale Child Study Center. In addition, they were required to participate in quarterly meetings with other COSP facilitators and our leadership team. The first year of implementation focused on shoring up agency capacity post-training and creating a learning lab for facilitators to share best practices, challenges and solutions. As a result, the Secure Start Network (SSN) was established, which continues to meet quarterly and in 2023 now includes 10 grantee agencies as well as representatives of other agencies in the greater New Haven region who are offering COSP. Ten years into our project, as reflected in the table below, the impact can be seen in the growth of the number of agencies involved, the total number of groups offered and the number of caregivers and early educators who have participated. We’re excited that the agencies in the Network currently include a community behavioral health center, a homeless shelter, Family Resource Centers in public schools, early childhood programs, social service agencies and a post-incarceration workforce preparation agency. Fifty percent of our groups are now offered in Spanish.

Editor's Note: Both the early childhood program, called All Our Kin, and the prison-based agency (EMERGE) are featured in other COSP in the Community Pages: You can read about All Our Kin’s work here and EMERGE’s work here.

Secure Start Network

Implementation to date 2013-2023

# of agencies

From 5-10

# of COSP groups offered


# of caregivers served (parents and early care professionals combined)


# of coaching groups for educators


For more information on the early years of the Secure Start Network, see: Maupin, A., Samuel, E., Nappi, S., Heath, J. and Smith, M., 2017. Disseminating a Parenting Intervention in the Community: Experiences from a Multi-Site Evaluation. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26(11), 3079-3092.

Lessons Learned

Our team learned much in the first years of the initiative about the challenges and solutions regarding implementation of COSP and how best to support the agencies who received grant funding to implement COSP. Our Network evolved to address barriers to implementation and we offer the following lessons learned–most of which had to be addressed in our first few years.

Implementation Barriers

Secure Start Network Solutions

Concrete and logistical barriers to COSP implementation:

  • An appropriate space and the technology (laptop, projector, etc) for groups
  • Transportation and childcare;
  • A strategy for recruitment of parents and getting an 8-week commitment;
  • To find the right time both for the facilitators and the parents or early educators to hold groups.

Spur interagency collaboration:

  • Share space and technology for COSP groups
  • Allow funding to pay for transportation and childcare
  • Share recruitment of parents for groups: “Go where the children are”--each agency serves families at various sites:
    • Childcare centers
    • Preschool programs
    • Health and mental health centers
    • Home visiting programs
    • Schools
  • Flexible workdays so groups can be held at ‘parent-friendly’ times

Challenges regarding the expertise of facilitators to deliver COSP:

  • Not all the people trained had the skills to facilitate a group and manage the emotions that surface during sensitive discussions;
  • Some facilitators lost confidence the farther away they got from the training;
  • The model itself was sometimes a hard sell due to its relational approach rather than a prescription for improving children’s behavior. Facilitators sometimes needed support to make that sell.

Build facilitators’ expertise to deliver COSP:

  • Share space and technology for COSP groups
  • Allow funding to pay for transportation and childcare
  • Share recruitment of parents for groups: “Go where the children are”--each agency serves families at various sites:
    • Pair experienced Facilitators as mentors for those who are new or uncertain.
    • Meet every quarter to discuss implementation
    • Offer reflective supervision with a consultant from the Yale Child Study Center after each quarterly meeting.
    • Specifically discuss how to “pitch” COSP and make the case that it can successfully address children’s behaviors.
  • Flexible workdays so groups can be held at ‘parent-friendly’ times

We have learned that supporting agencies who implement COSP means supporting providers so they can support caregivers. In the end, it is Hands holding Hands holding Hands! Practically speaking, this means we need to meet with providers and support them in a Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind way on a regular basis.

Following My Own Passion: COSP in Educational Settings

I left the four-day COSP training in 2013 convinced that what I had learned held great promise for educators who struggle daily with children presenting challenging behavior in classrooms at all levels- children who I began to realize probably had attachment difficulties and may have experienced trauma. I knew from my many years in the field, and several advanced degrees, that attachment theory was not in the educational toolbox and needed to be. I had pictures in my mind of many children I had encountered in my career that still kept me up at night who fit this description. I started reading every book I could find about attachment theory, and came upon the books of Louise Bomber and Louis Cozolino, among others, regarding attachment-aware teaching. To help spread this message, I designed a full day workshop for educators.

As I delivered the workshop on attachment in various parts of the state, a subset of participants would ask me afterwards if they could participate in a COSP group. I was asked to provide COSP to groups of early educators in addition to the parent groups I was already doing. The teachers told me that they benefited greatly from the opportunity to reflect with their colleagues about the task of understanding and responding appropriately to children’s behavior by considering where children were on the Circle and what needs their behavior was communicating to them. They also appreciated the opportunity to reflect on their own behavior in the classroom, the “shark music” that emerges in classroom settings, and to realize that they aren’t alone with these struggles.

I’m so pleased that Circle of Security-International now has the COS in the Classroom Approach available to all those, like me, who see how the Circle can influence any learning community.

Editor's Note: Barbara’s early efforts are one factor in COS-International’s expansion of the Circle of Security Classroom Approach; our team, since our Co-Founder Glen Cooper piloted the use of COSP in early childhood care settings more than 20 years ago, has always felt that early care professionals would benefit from learning about the Circle of Security so that they might focus on children’s attachment needs in childcare and school settings. Barbara’s work with the Secure Start Network only underscored the utility of the Circle in early education settings. Since 2021, COSP Facilitators have been formally trained to deliver COSP to early care professionals, including classroom teachers using a manual for COSP and a series of handouts that are specifically designed for early care professionals. We also offer a pathway to becoming a Classroom Coach allowing professionals to work directly in classrooms using a host of materials that help teachers apply the Circle in their work. Find out more here (link to COS Classroom approach overview page).

Going Forward with Secure Start

We’ve learned a lot in 10 years. What I thought was an abstract and impossible task–taking steps to improve the quality of attachment in low income, stressed communities–no longer feels so difficult. Our grantees are a creative force and COSP is a tool that is engaging providers and parents alike in Connecticut. Some of the current efforts are the following:

  • Offering COSP to the partners of post-incarceration participants;
  • Offering COSP to Family Coaches and frontline Program Directors working at a homeless shelter;
  • Offering a “refresher course” for parents and educators who have participated in COSP to reflect on applications of the attachment concepts in their parenting or classroom practice;
  • Creating a set of attachment-aware text messages that facilitators can send out periodically to previous COSP participants to keep the concepts alive;
  • Continuing to improve and strengthen evaluation efforts to best capture the impact COSP is having on the lives of the participants.