Secure Base

Secure Base

Research from the School of Social Work is having international impact and improving the lives of children in Europe, China and Thailand.

A secure base is at the heart of any successful caregiving environment - whether within the birth family, in foster care, residential care or adoption. A secure base is provided through a relationship with one or more caregivers who offer a reliable base from which to explore, and a safe haven for reassurance when there are difficulties. A secure base promotes security, confidence, competence and resilience.

With this in mind, social workers and academics at UEA’s Centre for Research on Children and Families at UEA have developed the Secure Base Model, designed to help those working with children and families to understand the strengths and difficulties of caregivers and their children. Originally developed to apply to foster carers, this ground breaking model can be applied to a full range of caregivers from birth and adoptive parents all the way to workers looking after children in residential care.

A model for all cultures

Developed through a range of projects led by Gillian Schofield and Mary Beek from the School of Social Work, the innovative model can apply to children and young people at any stage of their development. And, as pioneering recent work in China and Thailand shows, it can be successfully adapted to different cultures too.   

Drawn from attachment theory (a psychological model that attempts to describe the dynamics of long-term interpersonal relationships) and original research into the experiences of children in long term foster care, the Secure Base Model outlines five dimensions of caregiving, each of which has a developmental benefit. These dimensions, such as sensitivity and acceptance, overlap and interact to create a secure base for a child from which they can develop and thrive. First developed for use in foster care, the model is of particular benefit for children and young people with a history of neglect or abuse. Its use in China and Thailand demonstrates its strength in tackling the challenges associated with providing foster care for institutionalised children with no experience of family life.

Government approved

The model launched in 2006, when the team published a DVD, training programme and book called the Attachment Handbook for Foster Care and Adoption. The following year it was recommended in the Government White Paper, Care Matters, before being included, in 2008, in Skills to Foster, the UK’s core training for new foster carers produced by the Fostering Network.

As the model took off in the UK, it was also embraced across Europe. It has been included in Norway’s national training programme for foster carers since 2007. It has been launched in France and Italy and been the focus of practice development workshops in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Spain, Scotland and Sweden. Gillian has spoken about the model at meetings in Australia and New Zealand.

Widely accessible

One reason the model has proved so successful is that it is easily understood by foster carers, not just academics and social workers. Nevertheless, it is an important tool for social workers. Gillian says: “a lot of social workers know about attachment theory. The model is a way of translating it into practice.”

The model’s phenomenal success can also be attributed to its ability to easily cross cultures. Not only has it won over social workers, psychologists and foster carers in Europe, it is also making a difference in China and Thailand. Gillian says: “There’s nothing specific to our culture that means babies need carers who are available. But how that looks to a Thai foster family, or a child that’s grown up in a dormitory might be different to how it looks to families and children in the UK.”  

Mary Beek, researcher on the project and also a practitioner, is spearheading the model’s introduction to China and Thailand. She is working with Care for Children, a project that helps children transfer from institutional care to foster care in countries with no history of formal foster care. The Secure Base Model forms the core of their training programme for workers and foster carers.

Cultural sensitivity

Mary says: “The implementation of the model in these very different contexts and cultures involves a very careful process of knowledge transfer. This includes sensitivity to differences regarding concepts of childhood, parenting and the family, and adapting the presentation of the model to suit Thai and Chinese norms and preferences in terms of teaching and learning.”

For example, attention is paid to the transferability of metaphors, which can be inappropriate or even offensive when translated. “We also check the meanings of key words and phrases, adjusting case studies and examples to fit with social and religious cultures,” says Mary.

Cartoons for carers

Together with local workers, she has had to get creative in order to find ways to effectively communicate the model. “In Thailand, cartoons are used to convey concepts and ideas in many aspects of life. The Care for Children Thailand training team includes an artist who has developed cartoon stories to represent the five dimensions of the Secure Base model,” says Mary. “Training exercises and case studies have also been developed using cartoons. The artist is currently working on a cartoon animation of parent/child interactions which summarises the Secure Base Model in a way that is readily accessible to a wide range of audiences.”

By regularly sitting down with policy makers, training organisations and practitioners, and thinking creatively about how to disseminate their research, Gillian, Mary and their team have ensured their ideas are translated into real practical change, across the globe. However, for Gillian, the success of the model isn’t just about maximising international impact. She says: “It is extremely rewarding to sit down with a social worker and hear that a foster carer is now better able to help a child with his difficult behaviour. Or to hear about a child who is now able to trust their foster carer and accept their love and care. For me, the notion that even one child has benefited is very inspiring.” 

The Expert

Professor Gillian Schofield

Head of School
School of Social Work

Gillian Schofield is Head of the School of Social Work and Professor of Child and Family Social Work. She was an experienced Social Worker and Guardian ad Litem before joining UEA in 1990. She teaches on the qualifying and post-qualifying social work programmes and supervises PhD students. Her research interests are in foster care; attachment; looked after children and offending; care planning and the role of the Independent Reviewing Officer. With Mary Beek, she has developed the Secure Base model an attachment and resilience based framework for caregiving in foster care and adoption.