Head-Heart-Body: Better Decision Making for Youth and Beyond
It’s a rare sight: A group of teenage guys gathered around, quiet and attentive, all focused on one thing. But they’re not focused on someone’s phone, a computer or a video game – they’re all listening intently to a facilitator talking about healthy decision-making.
It may seem unusual, but this is a typical day at WiseGuyz, a healthy relationship and life skills program for male-identified youth. Today’s session is focusing on a decision-making model called head/heart/body. This model appears in many programs offered by Centre for Sexuality, the organization behind WiseGuyz. Its purpose is to show program participants how to check in with themselves when considering decisions, both big and small.
Making healthy decisions for yourself
Throughout the session, the young men are encouraged to think about what happens in our head, heart, and body when we have a decision to make. The head reminds us to consider our plans, questions, thoughts, values and beliefs. The heart reminds us to consider our emotions or feelings. The body reminds us to pay attention to our physical reactions and sensations when considering a question or decision. If there isn’t a check mark beside each one, it’s not the right time to say yes to the question at hand. For young people on the cusp of adulthood, the head/heart/body model is helpful in assessing situations and making healthy decisions.
Making healthy decisions with others
WiseGuyz participants discuss a few hypothetical situations where they need to make a decision and check in with their head, heart and body. But it’s not just about them when there is someone else involved. For example, when deciding whether to start dating or move forward with a sexual relationship – the other person should also check in with their head, heart and body and get positive feedback from each one. This reminds participants that a decision is only healthy if everyone involved is comfortable with the choice and consents to what comes next.
The head/head/body model expands beyond simple decision-making. In the same session, the young men in the program:
- learn key relationship rights
- explore their available choices related to sexual health
- learn to explain the right to make autonomous and informed decisions
- reflect on their personal values and the role of those values in making healthy, embodied choices
- examine the impact of social norms, family values and peer pressure on decision-making
This activity resonates not only with WiseGuyz participants in schools, but also in criminal justice settings. Those in criminal justice settings often don’t have many choices. Days are structured, meals are set and there aren’t many opportunities to make your own decisions. The head/heart/body discussion helps participants explore times when they made a decision that didn’t feel right for them and how heeding that feeling may have led to a different outcome.
One WiseGuyz Community Programs participant reflected on the importance of this activity for their relationship:
“For my media arts project, I chose the relationship session because it felt the most relevant to me, as I got a girlfriend recently. I have used SO much of the information you taught us with her, with things like consent, asking if someone is comfortable with doing something and expressing relationship goals, such as setting boundaries and talking about what we are comfortable with.”
The skills learned in WiseGuyz are useful far beyond the pre-teen and teenage years. Many program graduates have shared that head/heart/body and other tools helped them make big and small decisions years after the program ended.
More about WiseGuyz
WiseGuyz is an upstream health promotion program by Centre for Sexuality that fosters relationship and life skills for male-identified individuals in grade nine. It was designed to promote healthy relationships and healthy sexuality, decrease homophobic attitudes and prevent adolescent dating violence.
The program provides a safe space for young men to reflect on the impacts of harmful gender stereotypes, examine their gender identity and explore the influence of stereotypical male gender norms. Since its inception, 800 youths have graduated from the program. Some program graduates have gone on to serve on an advisory board, making the program even more beneficial for future generations.
WiseGuyz is offered by Centre for Sexuality, a nationally recognized community-based non-profit organization that delivers evidence-informed health promotion programs and services.
Adapting the program for underserved populations
With Silver Gummy’s investment, we have been adapting our school-based WiseGuyz curriculum to better meet the needs of young men involved in the criminal justice system. We have experienced an increase in demand for the program from organizations working with youth in the criminal justice system, as well as from probation officers looking for programs for the young men in the system.
In 2022, we worked with youth criminal justice consultants and other stakeholders to help adapt our full WiseGuyz curriculum to better meet the needs of young men involved in criminal justice settings. This year, the Centre is piloting the adapted curriculum with four partner organizations, collecting evaluation data about the impact of the program along the way.
Why are we adapting the program for criminal justice settings?
Youth in criminal justice settings are just one example of the inequitable relationships that exists between groups. These groups would benefit from evidence-informed health promotion programming. Providing WiseGuyz to youth in criminal justice settings addresses this issue; offering a promising gender-transformative approach to health promotion could provide significant benefits for youth in conflict with the law.
This project addresses the need to:
- take an intersectional approach to root causes of health inequity
- engage vulnerable boys in changing gender norms
- address homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in an effort to change gender norms
- work with diverse stakeholders to deliver an effective community-based program with proven results
We chose boys and young men in conflict with the law as our target group because they are a socially disadvantaged community, and often hold intersectional identities including cultural and linguistic diversity, racialized identities, or experience/risk of substance misuse, abuse or addiction.
Transformation of male gender role norms is an important upstream prevention, and early intervention technique for the promotion of mental health and wellbeing. However, systemic barriers commonly prevent youth outside of the educational system from receiving the benefits of this type of programming.
Research and evaluation are an integral part of WiseGuyz. We have been evaluating the program and speaking with participants and schools since the program’s launch in 2012. Working in partnership with University of Calgary researchers at HOPELab, we have collected evaluation data from over 800 young men since 2014, which helps us continue to learn and improve on the program.
We are looking forward to learning the impact of the adapted WiseGuyz program on young men in criminal justice settings.
Centre for Sexuality has been a leader in the areas of sexual health, healthy relationships, human rights, sexual and gender diversity, equality, and consent for over 50 years. We offer a wide variety of programs and services for youth, parents and professionals to achieve our vision of sexual well-being for all.