Systems Theory Can Help You Plan Your Strategy

Months ago, a therapist friend shared with me a page out of a strategic family therapy textbook that looked at how a family’s response to challenging behaviors determines whether the behavior will be resolved or become a problem. The author gave an example of a boy who became temperamental after the birth of his baby sister. His father punished him to stop the behavior, but that punishment served to confirm to this child that his parents loved his sister more than they loved him. His behavior intensified and the punishment followed suit. There was no resolution. In this case, his father saw only one explanation for the behavior: that the child was insolent and disrespectful. He did not imagine that his son was crying out for love and compassion.

In this chapter of the book, the author introduced the idea of Order of Change, which refers to the ways in which a system can change. So much of what we can use to shift the ambit of entire organizations also works for families. It makes sense. Families are organizations composed of people as well. The book detailed two orders of change, but I will include a third to present more options. Important note: The progression from first to third, DOES NOT INDICATE a progression in value. Any one of these might be appropriate in a given circumstance.

  • First Order Change: Maintains existing structure and uses increases and decreases to restore balance. The goal here is not to change the basis of the system, but to improve upon it. First Order Change is Transactional.
  • Second Order Change: Revolutionizes how the system functions altogether. The goal here is to change the system where it needs to be altered to work better. Second Order Change is Transformational.
  • Third Order Change: Tosses the system out the door altogether and encourages members of the system to become aware of system inconsistencies and dysfunction, question approaches, and take democratic steps toward improvement. The goal here is to increase awareness of the issues and buy-in from the participants in the system. Third Order Change is Innovative.

Comparisons

First Order ChangeSecond Order ChangeThird Order Change
Incremental AdjustmentsMassive AlterationsComplete Overhaul
Curtails ProblemsRoots Out the Source of ProblemsDemocratizes Problem-Solving
Change is QuantitativeChange is QualitativeChange is Everything
Same DirectionNew DirectionNew Universe
Clearly LogicalSeemingly Illogical*Mind Blown*
Change is ReversibleChange is IrreversibleChange is Deconstructive
Preserved ParadigmAltered ParadigmNew Paradigm
Sourced in part from The Open University

Pros and Cons

First Order ChangeSecond Order ChangeThird Order Change
ProsSimple and FamiliarAddresses Structural Causes of ProblemsSame Advantages as 2nd Order, PLUS Flexible and Autonomous
ConsShort-Term Solution to Symptoms; and May Create Problems in Other Parts of the SystemMay Not Offer Immediate Relief; Conflicts with Accepted Paradigms; and Reveals New ProblemsSame Disadvantages of 2nd Order, PLUS Cognitive Dissonance; Resistance from Participants; and Uncertainty
Sourced in part from Christopher Beasley

Order of Change in the COVID Crisis

My first thought as I re-read this now, as so many of us are dealing with how we will send our children to school, is that the three orders seem to align with alternatives to the educational status quo. What better way to explain systems change than through something we’re all wrestling with. Let’s consider the catalyst to be the need to protect student health and see what each option provides.

First, there’s revamped brick and mortar school and school-at-home, e-school, or virtual school, whatever your school system might be calling it. Whether your child goes to school in person or stays at home and completes work there, this option packages school into a solution that allows parents to make decisions based on their comfort level with the school’s safety plan while maintaining the expected educational trajectory. For many families, especially those in which the adults don’t have a lot of time at home or are experiencing health issues, maintaining familiarity and taking advantage of the existing system makes sense. The new safety plans and hybrid or virtual options are an example of a first order change that prioritizes the health of the students by making incremental adjustments to the system.

Second, there’s homeschooling. Many options exist wherein an adult teaches a child at home outside the auspices of a brick and mortar school. Each of these echoes the familiar schooling system, but apply revolutionary changes to the schooling approach, the curriculum, the schedule, and so on. Many, many families have withdrawn their children from the school system this fall and have embarked upon the journey of “COVID Homeschooling” which will presumably end when the threat is no more. Some of these folks, like my family, will continue homeschooling for the foreseeable future. This option makes major alterations to the system to prioritize the health of the students.

Third, there’s unschooling. If ever there were a great example of Third Order Change, this is it. Haven’t heard of unschooling? It loosely falls under the umbrella of homeschooling, but it is truly innovative. Learning is completely student-led. Parents don’t teach unless their assistance is requested. Instead, they seek to create opportunity for their children to engage with their areas of interest. There is no curriculum. There is no hard and fast schedule. There is only the natural curiosity of the child being supported by an observant adult. Unschooling is democratic and deeply respectful of children. Personally, I would consider it the most anti-childist educational option for children.

Applying Order of Change Every Day

I offer this information about Order of Change neither to make you feel inadequate nor to overwhelm you, but to present a proposal for addressing challenging behaviors from your perfectly reasonable children. So often, our reactions to our children’s behavior fan the flame instead of creating space for connection.

Take, punishment, for example. Why do parents punish their kids? Because it works… in the short-term. It doesn’t change behavior. It stops unwanted behavior in the present, but does nothing to impact the moral development of the child. Punishment is an example of a First Order Change strategy. It uses the existing paradigm to make a small adjustment to bring the child back into alignment with comfortable expectations. The truth is that many children have grown into functional adults under this paradigm. The trouble is that we can’t know how much better a person’s quality of life might have been had they been given opportunity to learn, grow, and connect with their parents.

That’s why we, as Peaceful Parents, must recognize that we’re not simply working toward raising kind and respectful children. We’re also working toward giving our children the gift of positive self-image, the ability to work through times of struggle, and such intimate knowledge of themselves that they will recognize when they need extra help to sustain their mental health. Peaceful Parents tend toward Second and Third Order change when it comes to discipline for these reasons. We see that the existing system is childist and often cruel and we look for ways to humanize and elevate our kids. There is great value in First Order Change once we’ve built for ourselves an anti-oppressive system. Until then, it is up to us to question the whys and the hows of the way our culture approaches childlikeness.

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