What is systemic practice?

Expert tips on how to take a systemic approach to social work by focusing on relationships

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This article comprises of excerpts taken from a guide on Community Care Inform Children about systemic practice, written by Liz Burns, family and systemic psychotherapist. The full guide covers using genograms and ecomaps to explore family relationships in more detail, and includes practical case studies that show how social workers can take a systemic approach to their practice. Subscribers can read the guide on Inform Children.

What is a systemic approach?

This is a way of acting, thinking and viewing the world, which focuses on relationships and recognises that individuals are always embedded in their social context.

Over time, relationship patterns both enable and limit processes of development and change. In practice, this means that problems in families are always part of larger processes. This implies that individuals cannot act entirely on their own, either for good or bad. Change in one part of a relational pattern, or system, can be expected to create adjustments throughout the family and immediate context.

Patterns of belief and behaviour which may give rise to problems in daily life, here and now, may also be tracked back through the generations. These patterns are strongly influential, the more so if they are unrecognised. They can also be a source of strength and resilience.

Sometimes an effective solution from the past can itself become a problem as circumstances change. All this means that blame is usually an unhelpful notion, especially in the search for solutions in the face of life’s challenges.

Reflective and reflexive

Systemically informed practice, with its focus on problems in their social and relational context, also takes account of the efforts made by professionals to help families and individuals achieve change. These relational patterns, though initially intending to support or protect, can become repetitive and even antipathetic to positive changes. Sometimes these repetitive processes are expressed in narratives or stories which have the power to shape our own behaviour and how we understand that of others.

When it is our job to help others seek solutions to problems, it can be especially hard to recognise the part professionals can play in creating or maintaining problems.

This is why a systemic approach needs to be reflexive (taking account of the part professionals play). Practitioners are encouraged through their training and supervision to be aware of the effects of their own actions and beliefs. This requires active commitment and sufficient time and space to reflect (review, using all the tools at our disposal including thoughts, feelings, ideas, responses) on processes of helpful change.

Essential tools in working systemically

  • The relevant people talking and listening to each other in a space (or succession of spaces) dedicated to the task. This means that quite a bit of preliminary thinking may need to happen before any meeting takes place, to ensure this is as efficient as possible. Establishing an effective initial space is likely to be the role of the social worker or professional faced with a referral.
  • Tools for understanding the story so far, such as a genogram, timeline or ecomap.
  • Tools for understanding or working towards agreement of what needs to be done and the timescale for achieving this. There may be constraints for decision-making, such as legal processes, the needs of people concerned and the evidence base for possible interventions (Stratton, 2011; 2016).
  • A dedicated space to review the process and ensure that positive developments are supported appropriately.

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