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Nurture the Roots


Laura Porter’s research supports increasing three capacities that allow people to thrive.  They are: building capabilities, increasing attachment and belonging, and supporting the culture and spirituality in communities.  When working with organizations and communities, she warns that if the focus is solely on building capabilities, we make the process into an “individual fix.”  

Building individual capacities is very important to help people thrive, however we cannot deny the biologically driven need for attachment and a sense of belonging that can only occur within safe, trusting interactions, relationships and communities.  As discussed in a previous blog, safety provides an environment that fosters healthy attachments and the sense of belonging.  To continue down the growth continuum, healthy attachments and belonging provide the strong base that allows capabilities to develop and strengthen.  We work, go to school, and live in communities.  The belonging experienced in those communities nourishes our ability to grow and thrive.

Resilience requires relationship, not rugged individualism.  

-The Center on the Developing Child

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has completed extensive research showing the importance of relationship and regulation in our lives. Children growing up need a strong attachment with at least one competent, caring adult to fully develop capabilities.  These capabilities include executive functions (working memory, flexible thinking and inhibitory control) needed for planning, decision making, goal setting and task initiation.

Despite the widespread yet erroneous belief that people need only draw upon some heroic strength of character, science now tells us that it is the reliable presence of at least one supportive relationship and multiple opportunities for developing effective coping skills that are the essential building blocks for strengthening the capacity to do well in the face of significant adversity. -The Center on the Developing Child

Our brains are built for survival.  We are constantly scanning the environment and comparing what we sense and feel to past experiences of danger or threat.  In fact, science has revealed that without a sense of safety and belonging, our pre-frontal cortex cannot develop or use the executive functions needed to carry out decision making, goal setting, planning, task initiation and self-control.  As Bruce Perry wrote, “…being connected is the most efficient and effective way to get information up to the cortex.”

Yet, we often choose to ignore what research is telling us.  We invest in programs or ideas that simply work to increase capabilities in people.  Without safety and belonging, our brain cannot prioritize thinking and skill building.

I recently spoke with a 6th grade student about his experiences at school.  He said that he does not feel safe.  He fears physical fighting and does not talk much or engage with others for fear of being pulled into verbal or physical confrontations.  He feels like most teachers and students do not even try to build relationships because they do not have time or worry that the conversation will lead to turmoil.  The school processes make relationship building incredibly difficult; recess is sitting outside on the grass or in the auditorium and at times in assigned spaces.  If a student stands up, they receive detention. In an environment so stripped of relationships and safety, it is no wonder that there is excessive fighting and lower academic achievement in some schools.  The brain cannot prioritize building capabilities when fear is present and trusting relationships are absent.

Similar scenarios are replicated in work communities.  Staff may feel they have no voice in decisions or fear humiliation when talking with peers or leadership.  Without a sense of safety and support, it is difficult to enhance capabilities and thrive.

Communities (whether a family, work or geographic community) must genuinely ask and listen to others and discover what is needed to feel safe.  This requires time and effort. Individual interactions, as well as overall processes, have to be examined to ensure they are strengthening relationships, allowing for collaboration, and therefore helping empower voice and choice for everyone.  This also requires time and effort.  Once people feel safety and connection then they are more likely to ask for help and also offer assistance in ways that promote reciprocity and increase a felt sense of belonging. Strengthening capabilities in this environment will flourish.

     Of all the factors in human life that predict the best positive outcomes, supportive relationships are number one.  -Dan Seigel

Without a strong root system of felt safety and belonging, the branches that embody many capabilities cannot develop to their full potential.  We must nurture the roots to sustain healthy growth.

Written by:

Cheryl Step, MS, LPC, NCC


Creating Resilience, LLC

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Comments (2)

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Amen!! Everyone; helpers, parents, grandparents, foster parents, teachers, child care workers...all humans, need to understand this. What a wonderful world it could be. Thank you Cheryl for this insightful, profound post!!

As usual, wonderfully said! Everyone in a helping profession should read this and work to build safety and belonging in their relationships with colleagues, organizations, and the communities they are embedded.  NO program or "strategy" will work unless this is present first.

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