Ideas for Showing Up & Being Present using the 4 Ss
Updated: Jul 8
This blog post is looking at the 4 Ss outlined in the most recent book from Dr Dan Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson – “The Power of Showing Up”. This is a really lovely book for parents and professionals alike. Dan and Tina provide four essential ingredients for being truly present with children and young people. We can help to nurture and shape positive mental health and well-being by seeing the child for who they are and being mindful of who they see when we show up for them during difficult moments.
The first step towards healthy and stable attachment is a sense of both being and feeling safe. Every child has a built-in survival instinct, learning about themselves and the world at large with the knowledge that they can seek comfort through a sensitive and responsive relationship with a caregiver. When safety is established, less time and energy are devoted to being vigilant for threats; therefore, the child has more coping resources for interacting with the environment in a positive and rewarding manner.
Within school, physical safety can be created by making a learning environment structured and predictable. Routines become less anxiety-provoking when they are consistent and familiar. We can use visuals to communicate what is happening now and next, where to find specific resources and who to speak to when there is a problem. Some children may need a safe space which can be accessed with a key adult when they feel stressed or overwhelmed. Our choice of words can convey relational safety – “I’m here for you”; “You can rely on me”; “We’re going to get through this together”. When we can’t be physically close with a child, a transitional object can provide safety by representing the enduring relationship when separated from parents or from a trusted member of staff.
Dan and Tina emphasise that we need to prevent ourselves from becoming perceived as a threat. Our own style of approach and communication needs to convey safety. We are less likely to instil panic or shame when we slow down our movements, make ourselves smaller, keep our distance when necessary and lower the pitch and tone of our voice. Let’s be mindful of rigid body posture or facial expressions which may be misconstrued as anger or disappointment. When we get things wrong – and this is inevitable – it’s important that we are willing to apologise and take responsibility. We can say “I’m sorry I shouted at you the way I did. I know it must have been scary” or “I realise what you were trying to tell me. It must have been upsetting when you felt that I wasn’t listening”. Repairing ruptures enables the child to return to a sense of safety, as they learn that the relationship can weather moments of disconnection.
This S is concerned with being curious and seeking to understand the child’s inner experience, enabling us to respond in the most appropriate way. Truly seeing the child for who they are and what they are thinking and feeling requires us to put aside our assumptions and suspend judgement. Take the classroom example of a child who refuses to participate in a learning task. They might ignore instructions to take out their materials or continue talking to their peers instead of getting started.
This kind of behaviour may be seen as “defiant”, “disobedient”, “attention-seeking” or “lazy”. These perceptions may lead to an adult responding with warnings, sanctions or a heated conversation in front of the other students. But what if the child’s behaviour may be explained by low confidence, due to difficulties with a similar task in the recent past? What if they are afraid of making a mistake and appearing less capable than their peers? When we see the child’s behaviour in this light, we may be more inclined to use statements such as “I know this is tough” and “It’s ok to be nervous about this, but we’re going to give it a go”. With this mindset, we will be more sensitive in how we present the task, more reassuring in how we encourage them to make an attempt and more supportive as we celebrate their effort.
Spending time observing behaviour and wondering what may be happening underneath not only allows the child to feel understood, but it also enables us to recognise our own mindset and choose our response more carefully. The above examples are the difference between seeing a child who “won’t” do something and a child who “can’t” do it at the moment. Dan and Tina recommend creating time and space for deeper conversations where we can ask questions such as “What was it like when…?” and “How do you feel about…?”. Striving to connect and empathise with their experiences will allow for richer attunement and reduce the likelihood of words and actions which can induce shame.
This aspect of the formula is about responding to distress by showing the child that someone is going to be there for them and help them to calm down. Dan and Tina outline the dual concepts of inter-soothing and inner soothing. The former is based in the adult-child interaction; it develops the child’s “upstairs brain” so that the capacity for self-soothing is gradually developed. Co-regulating with an adult enables the child to feel accepted for who they are and what they’re thinking and feeling in the moment, even if they need to be redirected from a particular behaviour.
Every child will favour different strategies for soothing. Some may respond well to “brain breaks” where they can play with toys, read, colour in or make things with Lego. Others may like opportunities to listen to music or engage in physical movement. Perhaps my favourite part of “The Power of Showing Up” is the concept of P.E.A.C.E. – five elements to think about when offering a soothing interaction.
· Presence: This creates the conditions which invite the child to connect with us. We withhold judgement and help them to understand that they are not alone. They will feel kept in mind when they know that we’ll be there for them and when we recognise that they need space.
· Engagement: We truly engage through active listening and reflecting back what the child says to us. But the non-verbal elements can be even more important. How we nod our head intermittently. The way we make meaningful eye contact, if even for a moment. How we keep our face animated and our shoulders relaxed.
· Affection: This is about communicating, with both words and actions, our compassion for the child. Being playful, humorous and affectionate enables us to show our unconditional positive regard.
· Calm: We won’t be able to facilitate soothing if we don’t appear calm ourselves. We can only teach emotional expression and regulation when we keep our own feelings in check and look beyond the impulse to correct, challenge or confront. The same elements from SAFE - about making sure we don’t appear as a threat - apply here.
· Empathy: Even when we haven’t personally experienced what the young person is coping with, we can help them to “feel felt”. Empathy is about truly understanding their perspective and showing that we are willing to walk in their shoes when other adults in the past haven’t been able to for one reason or another.
The three Ss above are integral to creating the conditions for secure attachment and a positive sense of self-worth. The importance of being a secure base for the child cannot be over-stated. It has important implications for how they relate to others, how well they can reflect upon and adapt to situations and how resilient they are in the face of stress and uncertainty. Over time, security enables independence; the ability to keep themselves safe, share their inner thoughts and feelings willingly and self-soothe during tough times.
Dan and Tina talk about how showing up for the child builds trust. In a classroom context, this involves observing and being attentive to the child’s needs. We can give reassuring comments such as “I know this is scary, but I’m going to be right beside you and we’re going to try this together”. When we tell them that we’re going to check on them in 5 minutes or we’ll see them at break time, we need to follow through on these promises. On occasions where boundaries need to be reinforced, we need to avoid being dismissive or shaming and communicate that we understand their feelings – “You’re so angry that we had to move on to a new activity when you were enjoying the last one so much. But when we throw things, people can get hurt. I know it seemed unfair, but we need to share our feelings in a way that keeps everyone safe”.
Teaching children memorable and relatable concepts also facilitates security, by helping them discover that thoughts and feelings are not permanent and that they can learn to control and change this experience over time and with practise. Here’s some examples to consider:
· Dan and Tina’s hand model of the brain, helping children become aware of when they are about to “flip their lid” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFTljLo1bK8.
· Teaching different emotions using the characters from “Inside Out” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOkyKyVFnSs
· The Turtle Technique from The Incredible Years programme, which features puppetry, a visual feelings thermometer and techniques for breathing and positive self-talk when going into the “shell” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8SSvQ0O93Y
· Using storytelling to talk about separation anxiety and how connections remain intact. Here’s a lovely reading of “The Invisible String” by Nicola Stewart (@sch_counsellor) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=21&v=ix6DcgbIbCQ&feature=emb_logo
· The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique, which helps the child to anchor themselves in the present moment - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lM8pgMgjEs
· Learning how to apply belly breathing using a fun song and a little help from Elmo - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mZbzDOpylA
References and Further Reading
· Siegel, D.J. & Bryson, T.P. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 proven strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. London: Robinson.
· Siegel, D.J. & Bryson, T.P. (2015). No-Drama Discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind. London: Scribe Publications.
· Siegel, D.J. & Bryson, T.P. (2020). The Power of Showing Up: How parental presence shapes who our kids become and how their brains get wired. London: Scribe Publications.