An interview with coach Alan Wilson about empowering parents and families, and his idea to create a Teal school
Alan Wilson has lived a life of two halves. In the first half, he had a successful career as a managing director in the marketing and advertising industry. But the financial crisis in the 1980’s was the catalyst for a dramatic change in his life. In the space of eighteen months, Alan filed for bankruptcy, got divorced, and had a mental breakdown. His ego shattered, he found himself asking “What is it all for?”
He spent the next few years on a personal development journey until a life coach helped him realise his purpose: to holistically develop millions of children globally. In 2002, he founded Develop Your Child, a training and coaching social enterprise which empowers clients to “connect with their innate abilities and wisdom to transform all of their relationships within their sphere of influence.”
Having developed and delivered several programmes with parents and families in disadvantaged areas with encouraging results, Alan’s attention now is turning to the education system.
Alan’s dream is to develop a school with a coaching ethos at its core, where students, parents, and teachers work together collaboratively to create a learning environment.
Our children need to feel good about themselves. The school structure needs to create mutual respect and we need to prepare our students in a way that fits for today and is flexible for tomorrow.
Can you tell me about how you began working with parents and families in schools and communities?
I was running some advertising and marketing businesses, and when the recession happened in the 80’s, I was arrogant enough to think I could survive. But in 1993, I realised I couldn’t, and so I chose to become bankrupt.
That had a huge impact on my ego, and left me asking, “Why are we here?” and “What is my purpose?” So I started an exploration of personal development and spiritual techniques, which culminated in 2002 when I discovered the power of life coaching to build self-esteem, personal empowerment, and self-responsibility. I began to sense that there was a deeper level of listening, which I began calling ‘energetic listening’, and which I now realise is part of mindfulness.
My life coach helped me discover my purpose, which was “to holistically develop millions of children globally.” I had no idea what this meant, back then, so I started by working with the head teacher of my children’s school, introducing coaching techniques around thinking and goal-setting. We got some very encouraging results. Because I was drawn to empowering people from disadvantaged families, I worked in a couple of youth clubs in really challenging areas. There I found that if any child had a problem, the parent had an even bigger one. So then my focus became on the parent and on the family.
Life coaching experts told me that unless a client came with a commitment to change their life, and paid in advance, life coaching would not work. But I knew that coaching is strengths-based, forward-focused and non-judgmental. A coach sees a client as having the potential to step out of their comfort zone and achieve their dreams. So I became a Parenting Tutor for Medway Adult Education, working for six years to perfect my approach of building respectful and trusting relationships. I set up the charity Every Family Matters to get funding for developing the approach further and gathering some real proof that it was effective.
Conventional parenting programmes at the time were based on more of a deficit model, trying to fix the parent, and teaching them scripts and strategies. And parents would really complain about these programmes off because they were trying to tell them what to do–when actually, parents know what to do, they just need to be empowered and to be given some new skills and tools to manage their state and to increase their confidence in their own parenting ability.
By 2011, we were able to secure a £77,000 Big Lottery grant over two years for a project in a deprived area with disadvantaged families. We structured the approach through introducing it to groups of parents in children’s centres. We would have them for an hour or two, and just talk about how a different approach to themselves and their lives could change their relationships with their children.
These parents weren’t able to make any real commitments or to focus on anything because they never believed they had any control over their lives. So for somebody to come and tell them they could change that was a big shift for them.
We worked with a wide range of parents in a wide range of settings for around nine months before we began training, just talking to them and getting them to try out very small things: doing something different each day or each week, focusing on anything that was good that had happened to them that day. And they started to realise that they did have a few successes and things were changing. Some of the children had picked up on it, and started to ask questions and to get engaged in the whole process.
We did two levels of training. The first was for the parents, on how a life coaching approach could help them. The second was for those parents who had made particularly good progress. These parents (we had funding for twelve) were then trained to be able to deliver the programme to their friends, family, and local community. I’m still in touch with some of those parent ambassadors; they now help me co-facilitate programmes. And their lives have changed completely.
The first cohort of Parent Champions in 2012
The programme was evaluated by Canterbury Christ Church University. The main outcome summarised in the report was:
“The evidence gives a strong message that as a society we are underestimating children. When listened to, understood, and empowered, they need not be passive recipients of ‘behaviour training’ but can contribute to loving, caring, and the building of positive relationships in their own families and communities.”
Can you say some more about what the Develop Your Child approach entails?
It’s really about how to manage yourself in times of stress or difficulty, which directly affects the quality of relationships with children. The programmes I run aren’t cognitive, they’re experiential, personal, and immersive: participants take whatever they need from their experiences. We know that children are hypersensitive to adults’ emotional states. They tend to take responsibility for that state, and kick off in the only way they know how to get attention, which is often seen as bad behaviour. We use a mindfulness-based methodology which helps parents develop confidence to trust their instincts — skills like energetic listening, emotional awareness, non-judgmental acceptance of self and child. We teach parents to think about and respond to day-to-day situations in a mindful way.
By our empowering of parents and professionals, they connect with their innate abilities and wisdom, which transforms all of their relationships in their sphere of influence. Children behave differently, without that person saying or doing anything with them. We call this concept an ‘energetic connection’ — children can sense or feel the improved emotional state and react positively without instruction.
And when children are empowered, congruent and authentic, they can be their true, individual selves with their own character, values and beliefs.
Parents have told me stories about how their children have changed, and their family relationships have improved dramatically, without seemingly doing anything at all. In the Canterbury Christ Church University evaluation, there was a paragraph about how children have applied these approaches in their own new environments without the direct support of the parents who taught them–for example when visiting their grandparents or by behaving differently at school. That to me is really powerful.
And so where did the idea of creating your own free school come from?
Well, school is the second biggest influence on children. And in 2013, I really started to play around with the idea of working in education. One of the coaches that had done my training was a teacher in a school for children with disabilities, so we did some work there. I’ve created a teacher online programme, which I offer for free on my website, to anyone who wants to deliver our course to students. They just have to do the online course and give me feedback from each module so I know they’ve landed it. Then I started thinking “I’ve got to start a free school”, but I’m not an academic, I’m more of a creator or innovator.
And then I read Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations. It was just like a rebirth for me, because it gave me the platform I could use for my school! If we take my personal development approach and then overlay Frederic’s approach, and then combine it with other ideas such as Finland’s idea of topics rather than subjects in schools, it could be something really fantastic!
So I created a webpage. Since then I’ve probably had around 80–100 people inquire, but the majority are parents wanting to use the school. What I really need for the project to take off is a team of people from an educational background, and some money or premises.
I think the biggest challenge for young people is that they don’t know how to deal with their feelings and emotions, and when they don’t, they’re not in control. I read one report about mental health in schools which said that PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) is as important as Maths and English in schools, because if you can’t manage yourself, how can you be a good learner?
Why is this work so important to you?
I believe parents have this guilt gene, this feeling that we’re not doing anything right. My first marriage failed because I wasn’t a particularly nice person. I was a sort of hard businessman, totally focused on money and material possessions, and when you’re the managing director of a company, people give you this aura of authority, which I didn’t really deserve. But when I had my first son, it was like I was born again because I had someone to live for, and then my daughter came two years later, which reinforced the feeling. But unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last because of the material things I was pursuing.
So I’ve always felt guilty that I never supported my children as thoroughly as I would have liked to, and therefore felt I hadn’t given them the best chance in life. I went to school plays and sports days and stuff like that, but on the weekends I was much more interested in myself than in my family. I now know that going bankrupt was the best thing that could have happened to me. I started to realise that my life was false, and that it’s all about family and love and relationships.
I’m retired now, really. But when you have a burning passion like this, you can’t give it up. I’m working on another project at the moment which is a SEN (Special Education Needs) school that’s trying to get funding for me to work with the parents with this personal development approach. Then I’ll give them the teacher’s version and the teachers that complete it successfully will be given the student resources.
As for my school idea, I believe if it’s meant to be, it’ll happen. All I can do is my part which is to take the action and allow it to happen–and not impose myself on it too much, which is always a challenge for me!