The C in PACE: Curiosity
For my third post about Dan Hughes’s caregiving formula of PACE, I’m going to look at Curiosity. We are curious individuals from birth. Not only do we want to explore and learn about the world, but we learn about ourselves and our own thoughts and feelings based on how others experience us. For caregivers and other adults working with a child, Curiosity is a process of discovery. It is also a powerful means of helping children to make sense of their inner experience, following adverse and traumatic events in their life.
The “I don’t know” approach
Let’s imagine you have a friend who says that she feels unattractive. Or a nephew who tells you that he’s stupid because of a recent test result in school. Your immediate reaction might be to dismiss their perspectives and tell them the opposite. “Are you kidding me, you’re gorgeous!” “You’re not stupid. Don’t say that. I know you’re really really smart”. This instinct often comes from a good place; a desire to protect them from negative perceptions and painful emotions. But it’s the opposite of Curiosity.
When we are truly curious about another person’s inner experience, we put aside our own assumptions and expectations. We approach the person in an open and engaged manner, with a genuine interest in what they are thinking and feeling. Curiosity is non-judgemental – it’s about exploring and understanding, as opposed to trying to change or correct the other’s person experience of a situation. Fundamentally, it enables us to gain new perspectives on the reasons behind a person’s words and actions.
The toxic effect of trauma on Curiosity
Early relationships which are characterised by sensitive, responsive and positive interactions will help the child to feel noticed, wanted and worthy of love. He will feel confident and capable in exploring the world and tolerating frustration and discomfort in later experiences. If a child’s relationship with a caregiver is characterised by neglect, inconsistent attention and stressful or abusive interactions, then this will lead to much more negative self-perceptions.
Kim Golding and Dan Hughes talk about how the natural curiosity associated with early childhood development is significantly impacted by adverse experiences. The drive for exploration can be replaced with avoidance. New and challenging situations will seem impossible because the child has lacked the nurturing experience of an adult helping them to organise their thoughts and feelings. Kim and Dan also outline the difficulties posed for future relationships, such as with a teacher at school. Some children with a background of trauma may become overly fixated on being connected to the teacher. Others may be more withdrawn and preoccupied with keeping themselves safe rather than trusting someone to help them.
Undoing perceptions of being uncared for and unworthy of love seems like a big ask for a teacher or a teaching assistant. When we see these children appearing anxious, sad or angry, it’s understandable that we want to try and convey completely different messages. However, this assumes that the child even understands why they feel the way they do. It also assumes that they believe that their self-perceptions can be changed. The best way to develop the trust necessary for believing our positive messages is to start with Curiosity about the child’s inner experience.
Examples of Curious Questioning
Louise Bomber promotes a lovely technique known as “wondering aloud”. This involves us saying out loud what the child might be feeling, based on what we observe. Let’s think about a girl in the playground who has been approaching you for a chat while you’re on duty. You’ve realised that this is happening more often than usual. It could be for any number of reasons. But we can take a curious stance and say “I’ve noticed that you’ve been coming up to me for a chat over the last few days. I usually see you running around with your friends. I’m thinking that you might be worried about something”.
In a different scenario, you’ve noticed how the child you’re working with is asking to go to the toilet more often during a new maths activity. You can be curious about what you see. “I’m wondering if you’re finding this work difficult and that’s why you’re asking to go to the toilet more often this morning?”. There are times when the child’s teacher is off sick and a substitute teacher takes over for a few days. You might realise that the child isn’t her usual bubbly and chatty self. Try wondering about this out loud. “I’m thinking you’re a little nervous about the new teacher in our class today and this is why you seem a little quieter than usual”.
When a child lacks the skills for self-reflection, they need our Curiosity to open their minds to new ways of thinking. Take the example of a child who tells you that their friend is being really mean. We can be curious about their view of the situation and gently introduce other perspectives to reflect upon. “When she didn’t sit beside you in the dinner hall, I’m guessing that you thought she didn’t want to be your friend anymore. But I wonder if there were some other reasons? Maybe she had agreed to sit with someone else that day? Maybe she saw you talking to someone else and thought that the two of you were going to sit together?”.
Even when we have no idea why a child is behaving in a particular way, Curiosity gives the child an invitation to talk about it and validates the thoughts and feelings underneath the behaviour. “I’m a little confused. Usually you love going to PE but today you don’t want to take part. I’m wondering what’s different about today? Maybe it’s confusing for you too and that’s ok”.
We can also be curious simply by describing what is happening. I remember a teacher who worked with a child in foster care. This child was always really anxious about changes to the normal routine, particularly fire drills. So when it was time for the pupils to leave the classroom and go to the designated area, the teacher gave a running commentary during the journey. “We’re going to stay together and walk down this big corridor. Now we’re going to turn left. I can see the big green doors up ahead. They’ll take us outside to the playground where you like to play football”. All of this descriptive feedback helped to alleviate the anxiety surrounding this unfamiliar routine, allowing the child to know exactly what to expect.
A health warning about Curiosity
Curiosity is a powerful means of developing relationships with children who have experienced trauma. But it’s not easy. There are times when we may think we know what is best for the child and must withhold our opinions in order to help them come to terms with their own thoughts and feelings. The exception would be behaviour which would pose a serious risk to their own or someone else’s safety.
We have to be mindful that a curious stance may be met with initial mistrust and rejection. The child may not believe that we are truly interested in what is going on inside them….because no-one has shown this interest in the past. The child may become annoyed or offended if our “wondering aloud” comes to the wrong conclusion. It’s important that we go at the child’s pace and not bombard them with curious questioning if this quickly becomes uncomfortable. And when we make a mistake, we need to hold our hands and admit it. “Hey I got it totally wrong. Thank you for helping me understand what you were really feeling”.
Curiosity also has an impact on our thoughts and feelings. When we allow ourselves to experience some part of what the child is experiencing, this can be stressful and tiring. Our own curiosity and ability to objectively reflect on situations can be restricted as we struggle to regulate our emotions and inhibit our judgement. This is why I feel that school staff working with children who have experienced trauma need protected and dedicated time for professional supervision. This should be a safe space for them to vent about a difficult day, describe how they were affected and keep in mind the positive qualities of the relationship. A member of the senior leadership team or perhaps an independent professional should act as an active and curious listener, co-creating new narratives in much the same way as the teacher or teaching assistant does for the child.
Key References and Recommended Reading
· Bomber, L.M (2007). Inside I’m Hurting: Practical Strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in Schools. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
· Hughes, D.A. & Baylin, J. (2012). Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
· Golding, K.S. & Hughes, D.A. (2012). Creating Loving Attachments: Parenting with PACE to Nurture Confidence and Security in the Troubled Child. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.