The “Big Six” Elements of Human Performance

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

By Richard McManus

The Fluency Factory

The reach to a box of cereal, the grasp of a spoon, the strumming gesture across a guitar, the point toward a door by a character in a play. These simple gestures hide a truth about our work and our learning that is both profound and invisible. Years later the man who saw those simple movements and understood their critical nature is not well known, but his influence is burgeoning in the small behavioral group of professionals who call themselves Precision Teachers.

Very few noted men and women have not possessed these invisible skills to a fluent, highly practiced level. Stephen Hawking comes to mind, and there are others.

Point, touch, reach, grasp, release, place. These movements underlie our work behavior whether we are retail workers, or orchestra conductors. These movements must be efficient and fluent to enable successful work in almost every arena. Musicians carry them to the highest level of performance, performing high frequency, precise movements with amazing dexterity to create beauty.

Dr. Eric Haughton coined the term “the Big Six” for these movements. Over a very short period he added more movements, changed the names for the movements. Annie Desjardins was the first and most eloquent teacher implementing these ideas, and she was not only very effective as a teacher, but wrote a document that continues to be the most succinct explanation of what and why these movements are so important.  But this powerful instructional seed has been forgotten, never fully exploited by teachers at any level. Eric called these movements “elements” in the chemistry of human performance. Without these elements at full strength, a learners’ performance will be stunted. With them every skill, every level of development is in his or her grasp.

Eric’s genius was to see that everything we do requires these movements. Everything a student does in school requires these movements, everything we do in love or hate, in building or destroying, requires these movements. Children who are weak in these movements are going to struggle to write, to type, to color, to paint, to fasten a button or put on a shirt, to strum a guitar. So Eric’s other genius was to see that improving these skills would strengthen a learners’ ability to do everything in life—and that by practicing the Big Six  in isolation, by counting them and seeing whether they are performed with sufficient frequency and force, we can transform the learners life experience.

When Eric shared this idea I was working with autistic teenagers. They were difficult to work with, frequently interrupting our carefully taught vocational sequences with random finger flapping or other behaviors that we deemed nonfunctional. We would help our students to develop a skill, for example hammering, only to see the skill disintegrate as the student would abruptly start doing some stereotypic movement that interrupted what we had taught. Since we were measuring the frequency of every skill it was apparent to us that the skills were insufficiently practiced, insufficiently strengthened to sustain themselves. We had set targets at 30% of industrial standard, as we hoped that level of work performance would be sufficient to hold a sheltered work opportunity. At that time we thought that was a high aim, and would assure an opportunity to engage in work and have a future of some dignity.

We were aiming low, but we didn’t know it.

Eric pointed out that these nonfunctional behaviors (as we saw them) were in fact useful movement skills that were not really fluent yet, and consequently the “work” skills we were teaching were as though we were demanding that a new pianist play Mozart. Our students needed to practice the scales of work movement—the Big Six—to be able to achieve performances that would enable productive work—at above 100% of the industrial standard. We tried it and it worked. It changed everything about how I see learning, and over the years this way to see skill development has transformed many learners. Always aim high.

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Richard McManus began his work as a behavior analyst at The Fernald State School, the oldest and among the worst of the residential programs for people with developmental disabilities. He trained a cadre of direct care staff to shape the behavior of blind and blind deaf men who had been extremely violent, teaching the clients exercise and vocational skills to replace their violent and self-injurious behavior. He later directed an early school for autistic individuals, programming for both the residential and educational units. His program was the first that incorporated precision teaching to create functional skills and positive performances, pioneering the use of Precision Teaching to develop Industrial Standard level vocational skills. Throughout his career he has designed free operant educational and behavior change programs for clients at every level of performance and role. He has worked with Continuous Learning Group and provided consultation to National Public Radio and United Airlines, among other large corporations, and designed an executive and managerial training program on sexual harassment for Reebok. For the past thirteen years he has directed the Fluency Factory, a learning center for students from pre-school to pre-college, developing instructional processes for students with needs ranging from dyslexia to SAT testing skills. His major interest is creating solutions for reading issues at every level.

Outside of his work Richard he has a passion for sailing and for his four amazing daughters. You can find information on his programs at

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent article! I will remember these thoughts as my brother has a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and I can use these idea’s to prompt him! Thank you,

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