Circle of Security Parenting expands with new educator candidates


September 28, 2017

SUNY Oswego psychology professor Matthew Dykas and a team of certified parenting educators have gained critical momentum in a five-year effort to address one of society's great challenges -- reducing abuse and neglect of children by providing mothers and fathers with vital parenting insights and skills.

Not-for-profit agencies -- Oswego County Opportunities, Catholic Charities, Child Advocacy Center, Hillside Family of Agencies and Pregnancy Care Center -- will be sending 15 employees to become certified Circle of Security Parenting educators, thanks to a $26,100 grant for scholarships from the Richard S. Shineman Foundation.

They will join a handful of other educators whom Dykas has recruited over the past several years, including SUNY Oswego alumni such as adjunct instructor of human development Craig Gilkey and special education teacher Karly Babcock of Franklin School in the Syracuse district.

Dykas, a developmental psychologist, said the internationally recognized, 20-year-old Circle of Security program puts almost 75 years of attachment theory into direct practice, providing parents with practical tools to recognize their children's needs -- even amid screaming, tears and other challenging behaviors -- and to respond with understanding, reassurance and affection. It also provides ongoing support in a strength-building, non-judgmental manner.

Parents learn the Circle of Security over eight weeks by joining other parents in 90-minute sessions with a certified group educator.

To achieve certification to work with these parents, group educators receive introductory training in attachment theory -- the lasting psychological connections between humans -- with Dykas, then attend four days of intensive sessions with Circle of Security (COS) experts. The next COS workshops will take place at the end of October in Hamilton, Ontario.

'There's momentum'

Dykas, with support from SUNY Oswego, the Shineman Foundation, AmeriCorps, Stop Child Abuse NY and others, formed the not-for-profit Prevention Support Partners of Oswego County to deliver COS training. But he said he realized that expanding the program to accommodate more parents could be increased significantly with additional buy-in from area agencies.

After working closely with community stakeholders and the Shineman Foundation, Dykas recently greeted the new parent educator candidates for their first class in Rich Hall. Each trainee will be asked to conduct at least two parental trainings a year with three to eight parents each, then attend annual reunion-style training sessions.

Dykas' academic credentials include a doctorate from University of Maryland, where he worked closely with leading scholars in attachment theory, and a post-doctoral fellowship in family violence and maltreatment from University of New Hampshire. He has met and worked with Seattle-based Circle of Security International's founders, clinical psychologists Glen Cooper, Kent Hoffman and Bert Powell. Dykas has continued to publish his research on attachment during 10 years at Oswego.

Deciding it was time to take his training to the community, Dykas started working with the Oswego County Family Court and Department of Social Services on breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect. "Over the years, I've shown people that the COS has street cred," he  said. "We want to take attachment theory and research out of the ivory tower and help the decision-makers and stakeholders use this material to help families in the county. And now there's momentum."

Through these efforts, Dykas said, his proposals have been endorsed widely in Oswego County; Legislator Roy Rehill, for example, has proclaimed their potential during meetings of the Oswego County Anti-Poverty Reduction Task Force.

While research-based, the program's principles are relatively easy to grasp. "It’s practical and user friendly," Dykas said. "It whittles down a dense amount of science into something all parents can understand and use in their lives." 

The program starts off with a judgment-free approach. "It normalizes parenting: 'Welcome to the club -- none of us had an instruction manual.' It's strengths-building. We don't judge. We focus on what parents do well," he said.

The heart of the training is the circle, which starts with encouraging parents to develop a secure base of love and understanding from which children can explore their world, as parents who are aware of their needs watch over them and help them as necessary. Children then can return to the safe haven of parents who will delight in, comfort and help them understand their feelings when they are sad, scared or need protection.

'Develop trust'

Gilkey, who besides his position on the human development faculty, works as an embedded counselor for "Let's Talk" sessions with campus residents and at the college's Counseling Services Center, said he has come to strong self-realizations as a result of his COS work.

"Anyone who has been touched by this can see how really influential it can be," said Gilkey, who will soon be a father. "I really got to see the theoretical side come together with the clinical. This can break the intergenerational cycle of bad parenting behaviors. I'm hook, line and sinker into this."

During trainings, Gilkey said, he's been excited to see "the light bulb go off" for parents who themselves were victims of abuse or neglect. "We build on that. We develop trust and build confidence," he said.

Babcock, who earned her bachelor's degrees in psychology and childhood education and her master's in literacy education at SUNY Oswego, said she learned about Circle of Security when she was helping run another Dykas-initiated community program, SOAR, which helps schoolchildren develop strong social values.

"(COS training) last summer in Washington, D.C., was a wonderful experience," Babcock said. "It is so parent friendly and the concepts make it so real, so common sense. As the authors (of the program) say, the principles 'are hidden in plain sight.' It sounds so simple, yet it tied together so much of what I had learned in my undergraduate years."

Karen Merrill, transitional services coordinator at Oswego County Opportunities, said she has worked with Dykas for years on COS. "I would do whatever I could to encourage other providers to do it. Besides the parents, trainers learn skills they can use in their own parenting, she said.

"We are dealing with people who have a lot of barriers," she said. "We are nonjudgmental and whatever their past, we say, 'You can still be a good parent. You don't have to be a perfect parent.'"

Dykas said he's "in awe of all of the good work these agencies already do for the community. And I’m really happy that they will begin using the Circle of Security. Many children and families will benefit. As a whole, our community will benefit."

Widening the Circle -- SUNY Oswego psychology professor Matthew Dykas (left) gathers with prospective certified educators for Circle of Security Parenting. They represent Oswego County Opportunities, Catholic Charities, Child Advocacy Center, Hillside Family of Agencies and Pregnancy Care Center. From left in front are Brittany Dinelli, Meghan Allison, Jamie Eipp and Jen Woodward. In back, from left, are Dykas, Rebecca Brown, Joan Soule, Ken Dennison, Brooke Foster, Eileen Ensworth, Katelin Kingsley, Melanie Proper, Daphne Brown and Jessica Westberry. Not pictured: Carol Gazitano and Lido Alverio.