The following is an extract from an article published in the Human Givens Journal in December 2013. It explains the development of the project so far.
“Flourishing Together”: A Whole School Approach to Emotional Health
Richard Rowland describes an original take on using human givens ideas to create an extended school culture of individual and shared responsibility for emotional wellbeing.
“WE had all the bits of the jigsaw; it’s just that we were in the room with the lights off, so we couldn’t put it together!” enthused one parent, after attending a Flourishing Together workshop. To use yet another metaphor, I think he hit the nail on the head. That was exactly how it had felt to me, too, when I first heard the human givens explanation of human nature: ideas so clear that they immediately connect with what we have already come to know; ideas so powerful that they can transform our lives and the lives of others; ideas so convincing that I decided that I could give my life a renewed purpose by helping anyone who would listen to turn their lights on! This was the starting point for what has now become the Flourishing Together project.
Thirty years as a police officer had long convinced me that most of the problems we were dealing with as a public service were the result of the poor life circumstances of our fellow humans. Meeting with many ‘bad’ people over the years, I had come to realise that they were all simply seeking to stay alive in the only ways they knew how. They were the products of the environments within which they lived, the sons and daughters of parents who had raised them the only way they knew how. I now realise that they were all “in the room with the lights out”, so to speak. It now appears so clear to me that the true source of the overwhelming majority of antisocial behaviour, substance abuse, violence, mental disturbance and criminal activity is our environment: our upbringing and life experiences.
It was my own personal experience that led me, after retirement, to want to try to do something to help before the damage became too deep. A few years before I retired, I had become very ill – no one’s fault, just circumstances: a severely autistic daughter, two younger sons with their own challenges, a not surprisingly highly stressed wife and years of working in an extremely intense occupation caused me to crumble. I had read many self-help books, just about every parenting book available, and I was an ‘expert’ on autism, but still I broke. I had counselling; I took medication; I had time off work; I even went on a retreat, but I remained broken. Penny Fuller, head of occupational health for Wiltshire Police and now a qualified HG therapist, had heard of human givens before me, and she, together with our enlightened force doctor, suggested that it might help me. I read the book, Human Givens: a new approach to emotional health and clear thinking,1 and thought that, finally, I was on to something. I had some therapy and felt better. I attended some seminars and workshops and gradually my brain started to rewire. I finally felt more in control of my own life, able to understand myself and others more completely, and had the skills to get my needs better met and to help my family. I have come to realise that I, too, had been in the room with all the jigsaw pieces but the lights out.
Bringing HG to a local school
After my retirement, through my network within the police service, I met Kathy Clarke, an extraordinary woman who is an assistant head and special needs coordinator at Red Oaks Primary School in North Swindon. Kathy cares passionately about the children at the school and works tirelessly and creatively, along with other committed staff, to get the very best for them. But at the end of the day, very many of the children go home to a family environment that is less than ideal, where parents are doing the very best they can but with the lights out. Consequently, and with no one at fault, children are being ‘nurtured’ in environments that are controlling, critical, chaotic, without boundaries, too rigidly boundaried, have complex family structures, no play areas, no local friends or community, and are sometimes an emotional and spiritual desert where no one really seems to care.
I described the human givens ideas to Kathy and she immediately connected with them, so I suggested that we might together explore how they could be used within school. Taking an enormous leap of faith she agreed, persuading then head teacher Terri Menham to buy into this, too, and I ended up addressing their annual teacher-and-governor conference just a few weeks later. With very high expectations raised in the audience by Kathy, I had two hours to convince 60 professional people to join us on this journey of discovery – the first spent explaining human givens ideas and the second using the ideas as a tool for school improvement planning. This tool proved extremely successful, and in essence consisted of examining how well met everyone’s needs at the school were at that time and imagining what improvements could be made and how they could be brought about. The resulting document collected together over 250 good things already being achieved, including an excellent physical environment, good staff relations and happy children who accepted constructive criticism and had a voice. Desired improvements, viewed through the lens of the human givens, included training for all staff in dyslexia, sensory needs and motor difficulties; a more balanced merit system; and greater support for parents.
One of the earliest human-givens-driven initiatives was a whole school enquiry that was to last one term, entitled “Are we one world?” Terri intended this as an opportunity for children to explore for themselves whether all human beings have the same needs. To start this enquiry off, I delivered two one-hour sessions to all pupils in years 3,4,5 and 6 (aged 7-10) and their teachers, which we called “A Flourishing World”. An hour on the first day covered why we have a brain (enter Brian, my model brain) and what our needs are. I started straight in with guided imagery, wanting the children to experience for themselves observing the thoughts that pass through their minds and how these thoughts are associated with how they feel. I then explained our needs and how these are linked with our feelings, showing a video of an ant colony to demonstrate how even simple animals are driven to belong, find food, mate and so on. The second hour on the second day covered our resources and, in particular, the role of our imaginations and emotions and using our thinking brain to make good choices. I used the metaphor of a very tall building with rooms and rooms of filing cabinets to represent all our memories, most of which are subconscious until we need them, and a tiny room at the very top to represent our thinking brain, which could contain only one or two thoughts at a time, sent up in the lift, along with an emotion. The children so enjoyed these sessions that Brian and I were invited back for a catch-up refresh later.
Kathy Clarke and I have recently been developing another programme called “Knowing About Ourselves”. Originally commissioned to help children with anger issues, we now feel it has huge potential to help all children, and will be piloting the approach as this journal goes to press.
The mistakes process
It had been agreed, in the school improvement plan, to revise the school behaviour policy along human givens lines. Drawing heavily on the mistakes process, as described in Miriam Chachamu’s excellent book, How to Calm a Challenging Child,2 we reframed misbehaviour as mistakes – the feelings driving them needing to be understood so that mistakes can provide opportunities for better problem solving. The policy has two essential elements built in: that it applies to all in the school community – teachers, support staff and parents as well as children; and that good behaviour should be noticed and given positive attention, such as a smile or a nod and appreciative descriptive comment. There is an endless amount of good attention that can be given and received, resulting not only in learning but in connection and sense of status and achievement – and, unlike rewards like stickers or points, doesn’t pit one child against another and lead to poor self-evaluation if sticker-less or point-less. Instead of calling this a behaviour policy, the school decided to term it the Red Oaks Behaviour Charter, with the whole process described to children, school staff and parents at its launch. Going far beyond misbehaviour, the charter seeks to create a culture at the school in which honesty, taking responsibility, making things better, forgiving and learning from mistakes permeate everything. Asking ‘how’ questions is key, instead of jumping in with judgements and punishments.
Shortly after its launch, Kathy and I were at school when a member of staff brought in two boys who had been fighting in the playground. Kathy took one boy aside whilst I spoke to the other. I asked him, “How did you come to be fighting?” and he explained that the other boy had annoyed him so much that he had punched out at him. I said that I could see how he would feel angry, to let him feel understood and help him regain control. Then I asked him, “How was it a mistake to punch him?” He was by that time calm enough to remember what we had covered in our workshop sessions and said he knew that feeling angry was natural but that he should not hit anyone. His feelings were okay; it was just hitting that was a mistake. I told him that this was very good thinking and said, “How could you make this better?” He decided that he would say sorry. Following my advice, he went to the other boy and said, “I felt really upset about what you said to me, but I should not have hit you. I’m sorry.” The other boy, having been through a similar process with Kathy, apologised for taunting him.
The apologies were sincere as they were about the behaviours, not about how they were feeling. I asked my boy how he would behave differently next time and he said that he would try to calm himself down. He went to his drawer and took out a picture he had drawn of a Christmas scene, which he said he found calming. “Next time I feel angry, I’ll imagine that picture,” he said. We also discussed how, when calm, he could talk to the person about what had made him angry or speak to a teacher about it. It is a method that allows individuals to retain their sense of control without denying their feelings. They accept that the mistake is their responsibility, and an opportunity to learn, and that makes it rewarding for them.
The school plan had, as mentioned, identified a gap in provision for helping parents, especially those of children with challenges of some kind. I was invited to prepare a series of workshops for parents, which brought very encouraging feedback and, not wishing these workshops and other initiatives to stop, head teacher Terri Menham applied to the National Lottery and won £10,000 for the school. This funding allowed the work with our parents to continue and to expand also to benefit Nyland Campus, a school and outreach service for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, covering the whole of Swindon. It was then we developed a programme we called “Flourishing Families”.
Each programme consisted of six, three-hour workshops held weekly through a school term. Over the year of the project we held three sets at Red Oaks and three at Nyland Campus, with a total of 49 parents attending one or more workshops. Since the end of the formal lottery project, we have completed a further four sets, also rolling out the programme to Wroughton Junior School near Swindon. The Flourishing Families programme is not, and was never intended to be, a parenting programme. Those who understand the human givens approach quickly realise that it can help anyone and everyone, so helping parents is just one dimension where the ideas can be applied. However, we listened to feedback from parents at the junior school, who said the name of the project had made them feel they were attending parenting classes. They were very pleased to discover this was definitely not the case but, to be fully inclusive of everyone, we now call our programme “Flourishing Together”.
Our intention throughout has been to use every opportunity to develop the ideas, so that each time we delivered them the material would continue to evolve. As a result we have learned so much, and the ideas have grown out of all recognition from where we started – thanks to the sharing of our wonderful mums and dads. The most significant developments have led to what we call the Seven Ideas to Explain Human Nature. Couching human givens ideas in different terms, we now talk about survival needs rather than emotional needs, and we have made our physical ability to move our bodies central to the use of our resources. This is how we communicate our human story.
Seven ideas to explain human nature
Idea 1: The Brain
We start by explaining that humans need to move to get what we need to survive. Our conscious thinking, our memories and imagination, all our feelings, habits and behaviours have evolved for solving life’s problems: taking action to meet our needs for survival. If we move in ways in which we can meet our survival needs healthily, then we cannot be emotionally unwell, and we will not cause another to suffer. We invite participants to experience this through bringing their attention to how thoughts and feelings are passing through their minds, noticing how they are breathing and so forth. This is an introduction to their observing self and they can notice how their chattering minds are seeking to solve problems all the time that they are conscious.
Idea 2: Survival Needs
We go on to explore in more detail how all our feelings and instincts are directly linked to our need for survival. Our subconscious minds, which we call our ‘knowing minds’, are constantly pattern matching to our bodies and the environment around us, in order to judge whether or not a survival need is lacking. (We use the term ‘judge’ to express the idea of subconscious knowing and sensing, as well as conscious evaluation.) If we judge that there is a deficiency, we become conscious of a need. For instance, the experience of hunger expresses a need for food; loneliness expresses a need for belonging; a sense of suffocation expresses a need for air; and fear expresses a need for safety. Each need is accompanied by an instinctive bodily response that prepares us to move; with hunger comes salivation and a rumbling stomach, with fear comes the fight-or-flight response and so on. When we move to meet a need, we learn from the pleasure or relief we experience that this is a good way to respond.
We list seven survival needs: knowledge – a need driven by the feeling of curiosity, to understand and operate within our world; food – we need food, air and water, needs driven by hunger, suffocation and thirst; possessions – there are material things that we judge that we need in order to improve our chance of survival, such as territory, shelter, clothing, tools and weapons; safety – we need to fight rivals, escape predators, avoid dangerous actions and substances, driven by a need for safety expressed as anger, fear, pain, or disgust; rest – we need to conserve energy and allow our bodies time for repair, driven by fatigue, tiredness or exhaustion; tribe – we have evolved as social animals needing each other to survive, driven by a need to belong expressed as loneliness or feeling abandoned or neglected; reproduction – the need for the survival of the tribe to ensure our own survival, driven by desire, lust, and love.
We teach survival needs in an experiential way, using a variety of resources. For instance, when we explain that we need food, water and air to stay alive, we put out a dish of chocolates and role play the judgements we may make: that it is chocolate, that it smells good, that it may belong to someone else; that we might be able to sneak one if no one is looking, and so forth. This judging, if we like chocolate, may lead to us desiring, feeling hungry. The hunger is associated with a body response that gets us ready to move and then, when we move to eat the chocolate, we feel pleasure, the reward which tells us that this was a good thing to do, completing the learning cycle. A similar experiential pattern can be used for all other survival needs. However, because we have a thinking brain, we are able to judge that sometimes assuaging a need is not a good thing to do and that has to be a conscious process. So we explain that our feelings, and the feelings of others, are instinctive and automatically generated, beyond our conscious control, by the way we have individually come to judge, or pattern match to, our particular world and culture. However, rather than reacting automatically in the way we always have, we can decide to act differently, in ways that are win-win. This requires a higher level of thinking, our observing self. Using this skill, we can also help others to satisfy their survival needs in a win-win way. If acting in a win-win way is rewarding, then we will learn to act that way and we can come to judge, or know, the world differently.
Idea 3: Tribe Our Need To Belong
This is where we explore how we have evolved as social animals for as long as we have evolved as individuals. One of our most primitive social groups is the tribe, and we use this term for any group of people with a common interest, whether two or more friends, a family, a community, a workplace, a nation or all of humanity. When we subconsciously judge that this need for connection is lacking we feel lonely, abandoned, left out or neglected – our need to connect and belong.
To ensure our survival both as individuals and as members of a group, we need to judge the value and threat others may pose to our wellbeing within the tribe. We instinctively judge others for seven different qualities (yes, seven again!), which we call our expectations; we judge if they are kind, helpful, loyal, honest, fair, competent and obedient – ie compliant with the rules, or culture, of our tribe. We are also judging ourselves constantly, to try to ensure we can hold our own and stay within the group. We experience this as our reputation, our status and self-worth. If we judge ourselves as falling short on any of these seven expectations, we feel guilty, embarrassed, ashamed, regretful, sad, angry or anxious – feelings that tell us we need to do something to repair or protect our reputation. Some may instinctively make excuses, blame another or lie to achieve this. Our judgements on the actions of others, based on how we have come to see the world through our own culture and learning, give rise to our sense of right and wrong, or morality.
We also protect ourselves, we explain, by holding what we call running judgements about other people. These are pattern matched subconsciously and are not always rational. So, for instance, a boy may have a running judgement that his mother is unfair, because he believes that she favours his sister or because she excludes him from adult conversations – so he plays up. We may hear some gossip about a person and run a judgement upon them about their loyalty. Running judgements shape how we feel and respond to others, always seeking evidence to support our beliefs and perhaps ignoring evidence to the contrary. In our workshops we discuss how it helps to take a more holistic view of our running judgements by accessing our observing self to understand another’s point of view. This can change our response to others. For instance, the aforementioned son may be judged naughty by his mother when, in fact, he acts rudely because of his own judgement that his mother is being unfair and is trying to get his attention needs met. We stress that, above all, we should seek to ensure that our own reputations are a good role model for others, so that others, especially our children, judge us to be fair, helpful, competent, etc.
This is when we discuss rewarding healthy behaviour in ways such as smiling, noticing and describing what was good, giving a hug or holding hands, and by spending what we call “untarnished time” with each other – ie doing something together or listening to each other with curiosity, but no criticism or attempts to control. We encourage participants to try out these ideas within their families, tell their friends and then feed back their experiences to us in following weeks. The response we are getting indicates that this idea of Tribe provides a very relatable explanation for why we discriminate, why we bully, and much more besides, and how we can do things differently.
Idea 4: Control
We feel in control when we feel able to meet our survival needs, overcoming any barriers that arise. To be in control we must believe that we understand our situation, and judge that we are competent and free to act. This makes us feel confident and enhances our self-esteem. If we do not feel we understand our situation or judge that we are not competent or free to act, we become increasingly emotionally aroused as we sense our survival is threatened. As we are explain this, anger and fear are what we feel when we sense that control is being taken away from us; they give us the strength and focus (black-and-white thinking) to do what we need to survive. Whether we feel anger or fear depends on how we judge our competence: if we judge we are capable of standing up for ourselves, we feel anger and approach; if not, we feel fear and withdraw. When we judge that we cannot do anything to change a situation, we feel sad – for instance, grieving if a loved one dies. If, however, we feel someone is to blame for their death, then we may also feel angry and wish to take revenge or punish.
There is a great deal we can explain, using this model to understand and deal with control, anger and fear. Our aim throughout is to encourage maintaining control in healthy ways, by problem solving rather than imposing solutions. Parents find it odd at first that we advocate giving control to children, as long as they are meeting Tribe expectations, which we call ‘being in the green zone’. (In our first session, to set ground rules, we show a circle with a red perimeter and a green zone inside that represents the desired behaviours such as being kind, helpful, loyal to the group, etc.) We can only deal with problems wisely and calmly if we have plenty of practice, with everyone else cheering us on from the sidelines.
Idea 5: Learning
As well as learning from role models in the tribe, we also learn from trial and error – from our successes and mistakes. Here we introduce and role play the mistakes process, emphasising that it reflects an environment that we create and reward. This means that it is transparent and becomes the culture of the family tribe.
By this point, there has usually been a major shift in thinking. Instead of assuming something is wrong with their child or the school, parents think, “I can do something to help makes things different”. There is much less blaming and a greater sense of personal agency.
Idea 6: Resources
We then move on to describe how our minds and bodies work together to ensure our survival. Our sense of the world comes from pattern matching against what we know – our immediate perceptions that occur subconsciously all the time, which is the work of our knowing brain. When our knowing brain judges that a survival need is deficient, it brings it to our conscious, thinking awareness through our feelings, which include our judgements, needs, bodily responses and rewards. Unlike the knowing brain, which can only pattern match to now, our thinking minds can predict possible futures, consider memories of the past, analyse, evaluate, plan and decide what to do, enabling us to solve problems so that we can move our bodies (take the action) to ensure our survival needs are met.
We call our observing self our ‘golden spot’, describing it as a higher level of thinking where we can be mindful, aware of our feelings, choose how to focus our attention, and take control of our lives. Training our golden spot thinking is where our power lies, reflecting our ability to feel one way and yet decide to act in another healthier way. Without the golden spot we would continue to respond to events automatically in the same old ways, filling the future full of our past. We show that using the golden spot lets us determine how the future will look.
Idea 7: Purpose
This leads us on to our last session. Even when our survival needs are well met, we feel empty unless we use our resources with purpose. We explain the three ways to gain life purpose as Knowing, Belonging and Guiding: we can continuously improve our knowing of the world by stretching ourselves; we can actively seek out ways of working to achieve things with and for other people; and we can guide and help others to do both. One way is not more important than another. Our teachers can fill us with knowledge; a three-year-old can guide us (if, for instance, they make us aware of our own mistakes or remind us about joy and curiosity). And we can all help each other to feel we belong, and so flourish.
Flourishing Together is now a charity, through which we hope to offer to other schools an integrated whole-school approach to equipping children, parents, school staff, and their communities with the knowledge and skills that they need to take responsibility for their own emotional and physical health, and to become effective guides and role models for those around them, extending the effect into their families, work places and wider communities. We already have a number of schools keen to develop this project with us and, subject to sufficient funding, we intend to continue this adventure with a new, three-year project starting in April 2014. It is possible that, by its end, we may have touched the lives of more than 5000 children, parents and school staff and seen how to disseminate the approach more widely, so that countless more of us can learn to flourish together.
1 Griffin, J and Tyrrell, I (2003, 2013). Human Givens: a new approach to emotional health and clear thinking. HG Publishing, East Sussex.
2 Chachamu, M (2008). How to Calm a Challenging Child. Foulsham, London.