What do we know about systemic education?

Facing a specific situation, we do not all see the same things or feel the same way towards the person in front of us. Everything we perceive goes through our own personal filters, created by our experiences, priorities and emotions. In other words, we build our own reality from what makes sense to us.

“The tree falling in the forest only makes noise for the one hearing it.” Does objectivity exist?
The systemic therapy is no truer than any other type of intervention, but it offers alternatives and other points of view. It aims to allow information to flow within the system, to allow communication between the people involved in it and to make sure the unspoken has been explicited.

It is of primary importance that the systemic therapist remains aware of their own preconceived ideas, which they will build their hypothesis on. It means every hypothesis needs to be strictly verified.

Systemic intervention focuses on the system in which appears a specific behaviour. The therapist is looking for the context in which the behaviour makes sense or becomes appropriate.

A context is defined by its frontiers: family/non-family, parents/children, men/women, …

Interactions happen inside the system. Systemic intervention considers that the whole is more than the sum of its parts; it consists of all the parts but also of the interactions between them: 1+1=3.

Every system has to evolve and change to keep existing. Every system is trying to find a balance between what has been beneficial and its need to evolve. Every system is trying to find a balance between preservation strengths and changing strengths. Maintenance of this balance is made possible by both its explicit and implicit rules.

It could metaphorically be compared to a game: to play it, all the players must follow the same rules, which must be explicit. To change a rule, it needs to be discussed and lead to a consensus.

A system works in the same way. If the rules are not explicit, a new player cannot integrate the game. We can here make a comparison with immigrant children integrated in the host country’s educating system. If the rules of the system are not explained to them, the child and their family cannot play the same game. When a system is in crisis, it means it needs to change. In other words, the people involved cannot completely accept the rules. But sometimes changes can be scary, because “a known evil is better than an unknown good”. The system doesn’t feel able to go in the unknown. Therefore, it provokes the appearance of an obstacle to change: the symptom.

The members of the system do not perceive the symptom as a voluntary act. The systemic therapist will point to the symptom by saying sentences beginning with “it is like/it is as if…”. This approach draws the attention on the symptom without stigmatizing it. It is called reframing.

The reframing gives a positive connotation to the symptom. By giving sense to its function, it makes it less appealing. Systemic therapy always tries to connote difficult things positively.

“It is as if your anxiety could help avoid your parents’ divorce.”

How to put systemic intervention to use in an educational context?

When meeting the parents of a child we are working with, it is always interesting to ask them first to describe their child in contexts that we, educational and pedagogical professionals, cannot observe such as: familial context (close or wide), on a playground, in team sports, …

This description from the parents allows us to get a feeling of their relationship with their child. If both the parents are present for the interview, it also allows to study their relationship as a couple (who is talking, are they contradicting each other, is one repeating what the other is saying, …).

It is always interesting to interview the parents, if possible and if they agree to it, about their own childhood, their own experience in school and their relationships with their own parents.

Systemic intervention is interested in transgenerational dynamics in place. It gives a lot of information about the family’s way of functioning. This is not about the parent as an individual but more about the family dynamics taking place.

The birth of a child causes a change in the relationship: the couple becomes two parents. Their identity pattern will be based on their own parents’, so the intra-family functioning is based on three generations. Each parent is referring to their own’s (by reproducing what has been brought to them or on the contrary by rejecting it). But each parent is also creating a new pattern with their spouse and child. This new pattern, this new game, then has to carry explicit rules for the game to unwind well.

Any parents’ interview that permits to learn about the intra-family and transgenerational relationships can only be productive. A parent’s questioning and expression of their personal experience, which often exist implicitly into the relationship, gives light and clarification to the other parent and sometimes also to the child.
The professional’s reformulation of what has been made explicit during the meeting allows the therapist to make sure they understood properly and to ask for further details, and the parent to specify elements that they voluntarily or not omitted during their presentation.

To sum it up, an information, for some reason, is not transmitted as it should inside the system. It is often simply because it is implicit for one of the system’s members who is not aware that it needs to be made explicit. The systemic intervention’s goal, in any context, is to relay this information to the other members of the system or, if necessary, allow them to challenge it. The information’s transmission allows for an explicitation of the rules and thus, a stable and clear ground on which can be built new relationships.

Dominique Marin
Master en enseignement spécialité
DAS en Intervention systémique dans l’action sociale et psychosociale. Switzerland.