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An old friend was in touch this week to tell me that his mother had died. I was saddened. She had been kind to me when he and I were children. Much more powerfully, I was drawn towards him by his experience of loss, feeling his vulnerability. I was moved to support him, instinctively. My own experiences of loss could be used in service to him. My understanding was required. His needs became my priority.

 Dr Gabor Mate quote

Roots of Empathy recognise the power of vulnerability

I was delighted to attend the Roots of Empathy annual conference earlier in the week, where the organisation celebrated 25 years of delivering their programme. Their intervention rests on the understanding that it is a common human response to prioritise the needs of someone more vulnerable than ourselves.

Of course, we don’t all always do this. (Just imagine for a moment if we did).         

But Roots of Empathy capture and utilise this insight to teach empathy to young school children all over the world, knowing that some of those children will have had a far from ideal experience of nurturing parental care themselves. Those children are vulnerable: they can learn empathy by interacting with someone even more vulnerable. And who is more vulnerable than a baby?

So each week, facilitators bring a mother and baby into school so children can experience over time the developing relationship and themselves develop their reflective capacity, their sensitivity, their empathy.



This same response to vulnerability is one of the crucial elements that powers Family Group, our own school-based multi-family therapy intervention.

Once safety is established in the group, children venture into the space, gradually opening up as they find the confidentially and trust holds from week to week. 

Family Group images

As they reveal more of themselves, pre-conceptions and misunderstandings melt away. They experience support, encouragement, nurturing understanding. Their courage and honesty are acknowledged.

They feel the respect from other children and parents in the room as they take steps to untangle patterns of interaction or understanding that cause them or others distress. Their parent or carer is right there, to support, to witness and to learn.

For it is within our closest relationships that some of those tangles are rooted.



In parent time, once the children have gone back into class, the therapist and school-based partner bring the focus back to analysing what the group has just done together.

Now it is the turn of the adults to touch on their vulnerabilities and to receive that same empathic response they’ve offered the children.

Conversations can go way back into the childhood experience of the parent as the group gently untangle some of the transgenerational baggage evident in the parent-child relationship.

Just like Roots of Empathy, the programme is experiential: you get it cognitively but also emotionally. You feel it. And you feel others feeling it.


Bruce Perry commented on this at the Roots of Empathy Symposium earlier this week, a celebration of 25 years of the programme.

Since his seminal 1995 paper “Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits” that phrase, the USE DEPENDENT DEVELOPMENT OF THE BRAIN, has informed my whole approach as a psychotherapist and social entrepreneur.

It’s one of the key assumptions on which Family Group is based: you have to HAVE the experience.

And achieving prolonged, nurturing, ‘good enough’, real-time experience may require an adjustment in the relational patterns Family Group children are caught within. Understanding and changing those patterns takes time. That’s why it typically takes a primary school child 15 months to graduate from Family Group.


Mark Griffiths Quote


If you’re interested to know more about Roots of Empathy but missed the symposium it’s worth going to the post-event site where you can access some of the Café events which were recorded. 

If you’re interested to know more about Family Group well, get in touch and let’s have a chat!





This blog is written by Mark Griffiths, CEO of The School & Family Works.                         To get in touch with Mark, please email mark@theschoolandfamilyworks.co.uk 




School & Family Works is the trading name of Transgenerational Change Limited, a social enterprise whose purpose is evident in the name. Through Family Group, our aim is to enable change for children from families where the status quo sets the child at school on a trajectory towards poor outcomes. Through creating a true collaboration with parents and school we generate insight into the presenting situation so that a new understanding arises and new possibilities open.

14:54, 16 May 2021 by Joanna King

Building on the family context                                                 

Family comes first

Schools build on the developmental experience of the child within his/her family system. It is the parents who first set about promoting emotional wellbeing, building resilience, and establishing and protecting good mental health. Schools play a supporting role. Schools need to recognise that the familial level of belonging is primary.  Belonging to the class or group or school comes second. Strong, positive relationships between school and home act as a bridge, supporting the child to manage the daily transition between these two support systems.  The child will experience difficulty where there is tension between the two systems.

Moving between systems

Schools have an important role in helping children experience belonging to systems other than the family and helping them understand how to move between systems easily.

Throughout our lives, we face the challenge of moving between systems. Each system has a framework, has norms, taboos. Transitions – periods of negotiating and accommodating changes in systems – provoke stress and anxiety. Good experience of managing transitions in early life is a protective factor for good mental health. Commonly, the first major transition for a child is moving between home and school. When the relationship between home and school is secure, most children easily learn how to be flexible, to adapt, and to develop the skills that enable them to belong to more than one system. To facilitate the development of this lifetime skill in the child, teachers need to respect the child’s family and culture. The family system comes first: It is home. The child will be enabled to move between systems easily when home and school demonstrate respect for each other.  

We are all quickly preoccupied with events or issues that lead us to feeling unsettled or insecure within our families. Dissonance/difficulty with child in school may be understood as a call from the family system. There is something unbalanced at home, and as a loyal member of the family, the child is pulled to support the system. At such times, it is important for school staff to support the child’s position even when it pulls against the norms of the school.


Consequences of exclusion from systems

A common characteristic of the families we support (those sometimes described as facing severe and multiple disadvantages) is that they have been excluded from many systems. This often goes back a generation or more. Many of the parents we support struggled as children. As children, they may have had experiences that shamed and isolated them, immobilising them within their family of origin, cutting them off from any support available within their schools. For some, communicating their need for support triggered the engagement of services that intervened incisively into their family system, cutting members in or out, raising issues of disloyalty, transgression, guilt.

It is common to find that Family Group parents had difficulties at or were themselves excluded from, school. The positive experience of moving between two systems remains foreign, unknown. With few qualifications, inadequate family support and under-developed relational skills, negotiating a way into the working world is often difficult. A common experience is of being the outsider: rejected. Withdrawing into isolation, loyalties become fixed: patterns set. Opportunities to experience difference reduce. Opportunities reduce for the supported transition from one group to another.

Loss, rejection and transgression combine with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness: ‘this is all I’ve known and I’m stuck with it’. From a place of isolation, change, which means the loosening of belonging ties, the opening to ‘other’, can seem impossible.


‘I’ll do it for my child’

Parents come to Family Group spurred by a desire that their children thrive in school. They come for their children. Their selfless desire to support their child takes precedence over their own entrenched patterns. This admirable parental aspiration trumps the anxieties of individuals who have felt stuck; it is a triumph of hope over experiencehands FG. Parents make a huge commitment; they will come for ‘as long as it takes’. Some take time off work, unpaid, weekly, for months on end. These heroic folk are addressing the task of breaking negative transgenerational patterns. This is hard work and needs support. By joining Family Group they forge a support community and enable the experience of belonging for themselves and others.

The Family Group intervention creates communities, new belonging groups of disparate individuals joined by the desire to ensure their children experience success in school. Parents share skills and experiences, resourcing each other with support and challenge, in a group endeavour to make a difference for the most vulnerable group members, the children. This enables and maintains good mental health for isolated, marginalized adults, and provides strong, healthy models, relational skills, and support to children at risk of poor outcomes. 


Written by Mark Griffiths, CEO of The School & Family Works

13:31, 03 Mar 2019 by Joanna King

‘I want my child to be happy and successful at school’.  That’s probably the main reason why parents join Family Group.  And that’s a genuine, heartfelt wish for lasting change.  But real life is messy.  And for many of the families who come… well, there’s a lot of stuff in the way. Sometimes that wish for change can feel a long way from coming true.

So, I want to think about five ways in which Family Group is relevant in the messiness of real life.  How is it that people engage in Family Group when their immediate ‘front line’ needs could so easily take priority?  


1.The crucial people are in the room together

If you want a child to be happy and successful in school, you need key folk engaged in achieving this together.  The voices of the child, the parent and the school need to be heard.  In Family Group, the key folk are all there in the room and their work together is supported by the independent mental health specialist, the therapist SFW provides.  And all these folk know why they’re there.  The meeting is purposeful, honest, familiar.  The structured model helps maintain that essential feeling of safety.


2. We do not set the speed

The second way in which Family Group is relevant to front line need is the pace we travel.

Change happens slowly.  Change needs time.  We go at the pace of the client.  We can accommodate blips.  There isn’t a Family Group client manual – there’s no programme to be completed.  Family Group is more like a new route you adjust to, or maybe a diet that you gradually realise really suits you. We recognise that, when it comes to relationships, people learn experientially: you need to feel trusted, valued, held in order to develop those capacities within yourself. 


3. Co-production generates rich resources

What keeps Family Group relevant to immediate needs?  Practical problems in daily life need practical solutions.  The range of skills and experience in the room is such a bonus.  You get lots of relevant advice and ideas from other folk in your area, with children at your school.  As relationships develop, friendships grow.  Help is offered.  Problems are shared.  The model is truly co-productive.  We’re all in it to help: the good outcomes are achieved by group effort.  That heartfelt wish for your child easily morphs into your engagement in helping the other children in the group. 


4. It comes to me

My fourth point re relevance of Family Group to front line need?  Family Group is local, accessible, familiar.  It’s in school.  And pretty much everyone goes to school.  If you’ve got a primary aged child, you’re going to be there most days.  School is one of the easier places to ask for help: you know they’re there to serve your child too.  Family Group is another one of the things school offers.  You might notice a mention in the newsletter, a flier in the lobby, or your child’s teacher might chat to you about it.  It might be another parent who first mentions Family Group to you.  You’ll have seen the therapist in the playground: other parents have a laugh with her, and she seems friendly.


5. We get to the root of the issue - together

We invite the messiness into the room, weekly.  Every Family Group has a ‘What’s hot? What’s been tricky or difficult?' section.   ‘Have a think with your adult, and see if you can find something from this last week that you’d like to change.  Maybe it was in school?  Maybe at home?  Maybe it happened just this morning, on the way in.'  

Current difficulties are encouraged into the room each week.  Sifting through, we select the most pertinent difficulty for each child and think together to turn the problem into a target.  Then, we practice implementing that target during the session, as we work through our programme of games and activities.  Where the problem re-occurs, we harness the group to reflect on the challenge and help find a way forward.  It’s bit by bit.  It’s learning by experience.  We might have to work at the same area for some time.  But eventually we get to the nub – what it is that really needs to be understood – and the driving energy behind the behaviour is redundant.  

An excerpt from the Executive Summary of an independent research project into the effectiveness of Family Group earlier this year provides me with my conclusion;

"The strength of the Family Group model, from the evidence provided by these 23 families, is rooted in the ‘physical’ co-productive nature of the intervention.  The therapist, the school based partner, the other families, in a safe environment, in school ‘the child’s daily world’, all contribute to effect positive change for parent and child.

The practical outcomes include improvement in the behaviour of the child and academic performance; improvement in family relationships and between school and parent.  The emotional outcomes for parent and child include improved confidence; a sense of achievement after hard work; improved self-esteem and happiness; the new experiences of reflective thinking and emotional containment."


Mark Griffiths

11:06, 14 Sep 2017 by Joanna King


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