Classroom and Group Extension of Family Systems Concepts

Classroom and Group Extension of Family Systems Concepts

Lambie, Rosemary A

The focus of this article is the extension of family systems concepts into the classroom as well as into educational, support, and counseling groups held in schools for family members. Family systems concepts and methods can be used to pursue goals in both the cognitive/academic and affective/social domains. The article begins with information on the extension of family systems perspectives into the academic worlds of curriculum and then instruction. Those discussions are followed by information on techniques, including metaphor and retraining, as they relate to family systems concepts. The article concludes with a section on socialization, which discusses in detail a family systems method called temperature reading.


This part initially focuses on Satir’s (1988) five communication stances, which are characterizations of human behavior. Four of the five are dysfunctional; the last is a functional, congruent stance. Information on these stances could be considered a curriculum content area in its own right, and family members might also benefit from the information. Further, understanding the stances can help school professionals in networking, making referrals to groups, as well as in counseling families. In other words, school professionals should be familiar with the stances and how the knowledge can help them when interacting with at-risk and special-needs students and their families. Following this discussion a new focus is engaged-concerns of parents about new and controversial curricula that are being considered or have been implemented in the schools.

Communication Stances as a Curriculum Area

An understanding of communication stances (Satir, 1988) can help school professionals to refine their personal communication styles so that they present a single-level, congruent message. Professionals can also use knowledge about the stances to identity dysfunctional communication in the schools and then to intervene to help others recognize incongruent communication and begin to use congruent communication. Satir (1983b, 1988) provided many examples of ways in which trained professionals can help others recognize and change their communication stances so that they are congruent most of the time.

This section provides a brief background on Satir’s communication stances, describes each of the five stances, and provides examples of the use of communication stances as a curricular area for students. The discussion then turns to the implementation of such a curriculum with suggestions given for exploring personal communication stances and ways to respond to the stances of students and family members.

Background information

In two of her books, Peoplemaking (1972) and The New Peoplemaking (1988), Satir described the four dysfunctional communication stances she had found in families throughout the world: placating, blaming, superreasonable, and irrelevant. Satir and Baldwin (1983) described these stances as “different ways to hide the reality of one’s feelings from oneself and from others” (p. 199). Satir also represented the functional stance of being congruent as a healthy way of expressing oneself. Satir’s (1983b) text Conjoint Family Therapy provides excellent suggestions for activities that a trained social worker, counselor, or psychologist can use to further the understanding of family members about their communication patterns.

All four dysfunctional stances begin during infancy within the primary triad of mother-father-child, yet they all have potential for renovation through what Satir referred to as a process of transformation and atrophy (Satir & Baldwin, 1983). All of these stances are systemic in nature; none is able to persist without the support of another. Thus, a family might present a teaming up of two “supportive,” or reciprocal, stances, for example, the placater and the blamer.

The Stances

This section describes each of Satir’s (1988) five stances from the perspective of how these stances look to others. It also looks at the internal states of people assuming these stances and the underlying reasons for taking on the dysfunctional stances. Further, it describes how the dysfunctional stances appear when they have been renovated or transformed, with strengths growing out of former weaknesses. Finally, the aspects of communication-self, other, and context, including purpose, time, and place of communication-that are violated or discounted with each type of dysfunctional communication are delineated (Satir, 1988).

Placating. One who assumes a placating stance is trying to conceal personal vulnerability by striving to please others. The placater will go along with something out of the need for emotional survival rather than because of personal commitment and interest. A placater rejects or discounts self when doing what others expect; his or her actions derive from not wanting to be rejected by others. The placater seems like a nice person who avoids conflict and turning others down. Although protective of others, this person is really quite dependent and fragile.

Through a transformative process and letting go of past dysfunction, the placater makes choices that affirm self as opposed to seeing self as worthless unless approved of by others. The placater who has gained a sense of personal worth has the capacity for being tender and compassionate. Transformed, the placater genuinely cares for others.

Blaming. The individual who takes a blaming stance is attempting to mask personal vulnerability by trying to control others as well as by indiscriminately disagreeing with them. This stance allows the blamer to feel a greater sense of personal importance in spite of the experience of loneliness and personal sense of failure. This person will complain, bullying others and finding fault with them. One who assumes a blaming stance discounts the other person or people.

Blaming can be transformed into being assertive and taking a stand for oneself. When standing up for oneself, the blamer learns to assert self realistically, as opposed to having a knee-jerk reaction to others.

Superreasonable (the computer). A person assuming the stance of superreasonable seeks to disguise vulnerability with a detached control that focuses on intellectual experience. This focus allows the person to skirt emotions and thereby anesthetize feelings. This person is cool, aloof, reasonable, and intellectual; his or her clear persuasiveness should not be confused with congruent communication. This type of communication discounts both self and other.

A person who is superreasonable can learn to use his or her intelligence creatively, as opposed to using intelligence to protect self. The professional will sense the connection with emotions in the transformed superreasonable and be aware of this person’s wisdom.

Irrelevant (the distractor). The individual who takes on the irrelevant stance is pretending that the Stressor is nonexistent. He or she diverts the focus from the present, feeling-laden situation to something else. To others, that diversion may appear quite off-the-wall. Non sequiturs and scatterbrained comments frequently are observed. This type of communication discounts self, others, and context.

Transformed, the formerly irrelevant person has the ability to be spontaneous and have fun. This person becomes a creative individual capable of congruent interactions, having no need to discount self, others, or context.

Congruent. According to Satir (1988), a congruent person provides leveling responses in which the outward expression, actions, and tone of voice fit the spoken word. Not feeling a need to hide or conceal personal feelings, this person has high self-esteem and loves and values self. Furthermore, others and context do not need to be discounted. This person is balanced; he or she is centered in the truth of his or her own feelings and beliefs. Not afraid to challenge the status quo, a congruent individual takes risks to grow and change. He or she also assumes responsibility for personal thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The Stances as a Curricular Area

At-risk and special-needs students can and should go through a curriculum that teaches them about the five communication stances. It might be part of an existing health curriculum or separate from that with its own particular designation. The school might choose to teach students about many of the family systems concepts or simply about the communication stances.

A well-versed teacher could certainly teach this content, as could the school counselor, social worker, or psychologist. The school might choose to teach the designated content to all students, just at-risk students, those with special needs, or another target group. Different circumstances will warrant different decisions.

Though Satir’s books are written at the fifth-grade level, an age by which students have certainly experienced both the congruent as well as dysfunctional stances, this curricular content is generally more appropriate in middle and high school when students have the maturity and cognitive capacity to comprehend the concepts (Piaget & Inhelder, 1958). This does not mean that aspects of these concepts cannot be taught to elementary-aged students. It simply would not be a formal curricular area to be covered.

Preparing to Implement Curricula on Stances

Prior to implementing a curriculum on stances, it is advisable to become familiar with one’s own stances and with ways to respond to the dysfunctional stances of others. These topics are covered in this section.

Exploring personal stances. The professional who explores his or her own stances and their impact on communication will be more likely to give congruent messages and will be better able to recognize and respond congruently to the stances of others. Because stances that are dysfunctional indicate low self-esteem, transformation to a more functional stance involves improving personal feelings of self-worth.

Satir made it clear that everyone engages in dysfunctional communication stances. She believed that all of us are capable of assuming all four stances but that we rely on some more than others. As Satir (1972) stated, “What is so sad is that these four ways have become the most frequently used among people and are viewed by many as the most possible ways of achieving communication” (p. 78). Satir (1988) estimated that within a typical group of people 50% will be placaters, 30% will be blamers, 15% will be superreasonable computers, 0.5% will be irrelevant distractors, and only 4.5% will be congruent.

Satir was not saying that people use dysfunctional communication almost 96% of the time during which they are interacting with others. She believed that people fall back on those incongruent stances, learned as children, when they are in stressful situations. Thus, some students and family members relate in a congruent fashion most of the time and slip into incongruent stances when under duress.

It is helpful for professionals to invest time into considering the communication stances with which they are most familiar, both from the perspective of assuming the stances as well as from the perspective of being on the other side of a stance. To better understand yourself and the family in which you were raised, it helps to recall some significant interactions from your early, middle, and later childhood. Examining these interactions in terms of the five communication stances has the potential of producing growth. Considering the stances you favored will be helpful, and recognizing the favored stances of each member of your family will lead to even further understanding. It is particularly helpful to note family members in reciprocal stances, such as placating father and blaming mother.

After examining the stances from your youth, consider your current life at home and work or school. Examining your communication stances in a variety of recent interactions will reveal the degree to which you have continued to follow the patterns established in your childhood. Determining the people with whom you assume different stances may help show how relating to different people in your current life resonates with your past circumstances. Are there any parallels between your childhood patterns and current life? When is it easy to be congruent? What types of situations call forth the different stances?

After reminiscing about your childhood and comparing patterns established in your younger years with the present, think about a recent situation in which you felt threatened and relied upon one of the four dysfunctional communication stances. As clearly as possible recall the sequence of events and determine the dysfunctional stances assumed by each principal character. Then recreate the scene in your mind but imagine yourself assuming a congruent stance as opposed to a dysfunctional stance. This exercise will make it easier for you to be more congruent in the future. While creating the new scene in your imagination, think about how the other person would react given a new and congruent response, and then imagine responding with another congruent message. Following the imagery through to a new conclusion and using congruent responses throughout the interactions will provide a mental rehearsal for new situations.

Although this exploration and opportunity for rehearsal occurs solely in the mind, it is a powerful means of changing patterns in current life circumstances. The last technique described, which required you to conceive a new possibility, is called covert rehearsal. Many mental health professionals believe that to the degree one can visualize or imagine a new behavior, one can execute that behavior. Thus, employing this technique can lead to positive change in the use of functional, leveling, congruent messages.

Another challenge is to look for a new situation in which to employ a congruent stance when you might normally employ one of the dysfunctional stances. Later analysis of your communication, as well as that of the other person, will allow a determination of the communication stances used. If you were not congruent, you could use covert rehearsal to imagine a different scenario.

Another helpful technique is to observe the use of congruent communication by other people or by characters on television or in movies, videos, or plays. Such observations can further your own expression of congruent messages.

Dysfunctional stances stem from low self-worth, and mimicking others is not the answer to higher self-esteem. Yet people who have not dealt with many others who are congruent will find it useful to have models that help them expand and grow. If only 4.5% of the population is congruent in their communication all of the time, then it is valuable to search for functional communicators and use their interactions as models from which to expand.

Responding to stances. As might be imagined, an individual who understands his or her personal stances will be better able to be congruent when interacting with others. Communicating congruently is especially important when relating to family members of at-risk students and those with special needs but is also important when interacting with other school professionals. Remembering Satir’s (1988) estimate that only 4.5% of the population communicates congruently all of the time should help professionals be patient with themselves, their students, and their families. It is not realistic to expect that peers will communicate congruently. Professionals should assume major personal responsibility for communicating congruently and realize that others will at least have congruent communication as a model.

Responding to dysfunctional communication is a challenge. The school professional must first identify the stance assumed by the other person. Next, the professional needs to think about the root causes of the stance, for example, low self-worth. Then the professional needs to recall any information about the family background of the person speaking. These steps will help the professional remain centered and balanced and keep the professional from moving in the direction of a dysfunctional stance.

The professional who is balanced can then communicate with single-level, congruent messages. It is important not to placate, blame, distract, or become super-reasonable in the face of any of those types of communication. The professional’s sole responsibility is to communicate in a congruent manner.

For example, consider the responses a principal might make when faced with a parent who, taking a blaming stance, has remarked, “Why don’t the teachers ever listen to us? I can’t believe Jon is that much of a problem in school. Everything is fine at home.” The principal might be inclined to counter-blame or placate. Or he or she might become superreasonable, providing facts or quoting experts. The best option, however, is to be congruent with a statement such as, “Mrs. Wickham, I realize it is frustrating to keep getting reports about aggression by Jonathan. The fact remains that Jon has slugged his teacher twice in the last week, leaving bruise marks. So far the teacher has elected not to call in the police. If this occurs again, she has said that she will call the police. She has already filed a report regarding the last assault. As before, we recommend family counseling. . . .”

As another example, consider this remark by a parent: “I know I have done a terrible job of raising Henry. I’m just a miserable mess of a parent.” The school professional, recognizing the placating stance assumed by this mother, might choose to point out the placating stance. Another professional might tend to back off from people when they placate, afraid to kick a person who is already down. A better course than either of these is to remain congruent with a comment such as, “Mrs. Lathrop, all of us struggle in raising our children. I also have had many learning experiences. I agree that there are practices you can change to better respond to your son’s needs. To that end, we are recommending a parent effectiveness training group that begins. . . .” With this response the professional has shared information regarding the problem and also has responded to the discounting of self by the mother by normalizing her child-rearing struggles.

When communicating with a person who is superreasonable, who discounts both self and others, any response should focus on both self and others as important. Consider the following example, in which a parent is interacting with the school counselor about home issues between two of his children that spill over into school. The father is explaining, “I read several child psychology books in my undergraduate years. I read that when you ignore the behavior of the child you do not feed the situation by giving the child attention for inappropriate behavior. Dr. Benjamin Spock said not to be hard on your children. Additionally, Dr. . . .” To an onslaught like this the school counselor, well aware of the superreasonable nature of the communication, might say, “Mr. Mafigliano, when I am in the halls and see your two sons changing classes and getting into it with one another, I have a hunch about what I see. I get the feeling that they are not really looking for attention from adults. My intuitive hunch is that Joe is a bit embarrassed by Rich’s antics and tries to disown him and then Rich feels abandoned and hurt by Joe’s embarrassment. I wonder if you might consider a sibling support group for Joe that is offered at the mental health center in the county. There is no fee and . . .” In this situation, the counselor indicated by example that simply responding to what one sees may be more important than any textbook offering. Furthermore, the counselor validated self by relying on personal intuition.

The most difficult dysfunctional communication to respond to is the irrelevant stance. This type of communication discounts self, other, and context. It is critical that school professionals recognize the nature of the communication and not judge the person as not caring about the situation. Although such a judgment can come easily, a person’s comments sound unrelated to the topic at hand. As an example, consider the following situation in which a teacher is speaking to a parent about her daughter’s inappropriate dress at school: “Mrs. Jones,” the teacher says, “I’m sure Shironda doesn’t leave home looking like she does in school. She turns over the waistband in her skirts so they are much shorter. She has served in-school suspension for breaking the dress code five times this month, and I am concerned about her grades and what she has learned this grading period.” To which Mrs. Jones replies, “Did I tell you my husband has a case of the flu? Seems like everybody in our neighborhood is having that old flu these days.” The teacher might be tempted to respond in a number of ways. However, the best option is a congruent response such as, “I realize that it is hard to connect with low grades, in-school suspension, and a daughter who is defying school rules. These are critical matters, and I assume you feel the struggle of dealing with this. I also have been concerned that our procedures of serving in-school suspension have not worked. I’d like to meet with you and Shironda about this situation. Before we do that, I’d like to map out a strategy about how we can approach her regarding her blatant violation of the school dress code. . . .” With such a response, the teacher has initially refocused on the very real situation or context and then has focused on the parental concern, tying it to his or her personal concern for Shironda. Further, the teacher has offered to form a joint plan for dealing with the situation, thus focusing again on self and other.

This section has presented several examples of dysfunctional communication by a parent with a functional, congruent response by a school professional. With practice, professionals will become more fluent while interacting with family members and at-risk and special-needs students who engage in incongruent communication.

Parental Concern

When school professionals are considering any new academic curriculum, but especially when the curriculum involves new and controversial ideas, parental concerns may surface. With a grounding in family systems concepts, including all of the concepts presented in Parts I and II, professionals can predict such concerns and better interact to alleviate them. An understanding of family systems concepts will both help school professionals plan strategies for considering new curricula and provide a grounding for meeting parents who are unhappy with a curricular change process.

One topic that has received a lot of recent attention in many states has been family life curriculum. The legislatures of many states have joined in the controversy by requiring that schools provide a family life curriculum (sometimes including sex education). It is to be expected that parents, who had the major responsibility in the past for providing this part of their children’s education, are concerned about school professionals crossing that traditional boundary.

Professionals need to recognize that, for some families, the boundary issue is a major concern. For some of those families, the concern can be alleviated easily with basic information. Other families may be enmeshed and overinvolved, becoming quite agitated about what their children may be learning. School professionals probably will see more of these families directly raising their concerns and issues. Children from disengaged families often will act out the concerns of the parents, yet professionals will not be told the nature of the parents’ concern. By recognizing the boundary issues and having a firm grounding in the principles of family systems, it is easier to face parental concerns with less personal reaction and a greater sense of confidence.

Those professionals who have cataloged the family systems processes for the families of their at-risk and special-needs students will find it easier to predict the concerns of those families when curricular change is planned. They also will know how to approach the families to prevent problems from developing. Further, they will be able to use their knowledge of family processes during all of their interactions with these families, as well as with the families of their other students. As has been noted many times throughout this text, few families of students with special needs are dysfunctional. The same is true of the at-risk and general population. If a professional is aware, however, that a particular family has boundary problems or a hierarchy dysfunction, he or she can use this information as a basic framework in any interaction with the family.


Families may have concerns about academic instruction that can be divided into two areas: curricular topics other than the family systems curriculum and the family systems curriculum.

Non-Family Systems Curricula

With a non-family systems curriculum, at least three areas of potential struggle exist with regard to instructional practice and families. First, parents may have concerns about the instructional approaches used in the schools. Second, teachers may have concerns about a parent’s knowledge of an instructional practice and the need for the practice to remain consistent at school and home. And third, both parents and teachers may have concerns about homework. The following sections elaborate on each of these concerns.

Instructional Practice Concerns

Parental concerns regarding unusual instructional approaches are not uncommon. Because teachers use more unique instructional approaches with students with special needs than with most other students, parental concerns are more likely to surface. To prevent such concerns, professionals should inform parents upfront about the nature of any unusual instruction and its estimated duration.

It may help to provide a demonstration or videotape of the instructional practice. Some practices, such as the Neurological Impress Method (NIM), may appear particularly time consuming and confusing to parents. The NIM method of teaching reading is highly intensive, with a trained professional working one-on-one with a student. Professionals often prefer that students not read on their own or to their parents while receiving instruction in this method. Once the parents see the intensity of the method, they frequently understand why the teacher is requiring a different approach at home, for the time being, than what they had been using.

It is not always possible, however, to prevent parents from being concerned about instructional practices. When concerns arise, professionals should try to lower the anxiety. For example, if a mother is concerned that her daughter is learning “Touch Math,” not realizing that the title refers to the child touching points on paper as opposed to humans interacting through touch, the teacher could easily provide a demonstration or information. If, however, the mother’s concern is that “Touch Math” might make her child dependent upon an external crutch, the situation is entirely different. All of the family systems concepts and techniques will be helpful when working with parents who have this type of concern. The professional should reexamine the catalog of family process to be clear about the typical family process. Then the professional will be better prepared to join the family in resolving their concerns.

Coordinating Home-School Instruction

In the second area of concern, the teacher struggles to coordinate instructional practices between home and school. Again, providing information regarding the instructional practice is the best means of preventing concern. For example, a student with a reading problem might learn to spell best by practicing with a tactile instructional technique. It is good prevention to talk with the parents about this method, explaining how it was chosen (e.g., as a result of trial teaching) and providing information on the instructional practice. It is also helpful to train parents, when appropriate, to help their child practice his or her spelling words according to the tactile method. The professional, however, should be familiar with the family characteristics, life cycle, and process. Some families will not have the lime for the added responsibility; others will only make things worse for a child who already needs some distance from an overly involved parent. Examining the catalog of family process, characteristics, and other relevant information will be helpful in making decisions about how to approach parents.

Informing the parents about special approaches also can prevent school-home conflict. To extend the example above, if the parents do not know about the instructional practice and are trying to get their child to practice spelling with a look and say method that served them well, the child might become confused. Further, the child’s spelling test scores might become lower because of that confusion. Wanting to please both the parents and the teacher, the child might not mention any such differences in practice techniques. If, however, the parents see the child using a tactile practice method at home and ask the teacher about it, the teacher has the chance to provide the necessary information and to work to improve the parents’ trust level. Again, knowledge of the family’s process, life cycle, and characteristics will be valuable when meeting with parents under such circumstances.

Homework and Families

The third possible problem area relates to homework. A number of professionals have written about this potentially thorny problem (Kay et al., 1994; Patton, 1994). The focus here is on the types of homework struggles occurring in the home. Some parents may be overly involved in the child’s homework. Other parents may not provide the needed supplies or study space due to a disengaged pattern. Yet other parents may be unable to help their child due to unavailability, lack of knowledge, or lack of concern.

Consideration of family characteristics, life cycle, interaction patterns, and environmental factors, and discussion of these factors with others who know the family or during team meetings, will be of great assistance in determining how to handle homework challenges. When dealing with an overly involved parent, the professional’s objective should be to decrease the involvement. How that can best be done will be dictated on a case-by-case basis. The same is true in dealing with parents who do not provide the necessary supplies or study space or who are unable to help their child. Both of those circumstances require an empathie and patient response from school personnel. Schools can support the successful completion of homework in creative ways; however, discovering the root of the problem is necessary before forces can be marshaled.

Family Systems Curricula

The earlier section on curricula provided basic information on communication stances as curricular content. A well-versed teacher can provide the curricular content to the students. School counselors, social workers, and psychologists are excellent resources for providing that information to the parents and siblings.

The actual instruction or teaching techniques to be used are not that different from those with any other type of instruction. The instructor would prepare an overall unit plan with daily lessons detailing objectives, methodology, materials, and evaluation. Satir’s characterizations of the people assuming each of the four stances are a valuable media prop. Satir’s book The New Peoplemaking (1988) is excellent for use as a required text.

The most important aspect of instruction is the enactment of the communication stances. After describing the four stances, Satir had people pose in the stances. She then had them work in groups and practice employing each stance by going round-robin, alternating the stances employed. A group of four or five people would reenact the basic family structure. Individuals who participated recognized familiar and unfamiliar stances from their own experiences.

A similar experience is valuable today for students and their family members. Participants benefit from demonstrations of the four stances and feedback on their interpretation of those stances. For example, with the superreasonable/computer stance, a participant may need feedback on how to stand straighter and stiffen It is important that the physical body is aware of and registers the deleterious impact of assuming such a role. This realization helps the participants relate to others and to recognize the impact of incongruent communication upon themselves and others. Satir (1983b, 1988) provided many suggestions for activities that allow individuals to explore the communication stances. Those suggestions should be employed when providing basic instruction regarding the communication stances.


Marshall McLuhan (1967) is credited with saying “the medium is the message.” His words are highly applicable to the manner in which a school professional delivers a message. This section focuses on two techniques used in family systems approaches in which the medium is indeed the message. These are the techniques of using metaphor and refraining. It is particularly valuable to use positive metaphors and to reframe any negative views about disabilities when helping others gain access to resources or engage in counseling.


A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses a term or phrase in connection with something to which it cannot be applied literally in order to suggest a characteristic of one to the other. When one invokes any image or association from one arena to highlight the similarities, differences, or ambiguities in another arena, one is using metaphor. This medium allows people to develop a new awareness by connecting or linking two characteristics, events, ideas, or meanings. In using metaphor, one describes experience and creates new patterns of consciousness, thereby extending the boundaries of subjective experience. Thus, this technique or medium is quite helpful in teaching, counseling, and therapy. Metaphors allow people to access information in a nonthreatening way; they can reinforce learning as well.

In Therapeutic Metaphors for Children and the Child Within, Mills and Crowley (1986) described the use of metaphor in general and specifically its use with children. In their introduction to the first chapter they stated that metaphor, a style of symbolic language used throughout the ages, can be found in parables in the bible, the Kabbalah, Zen Buddhist koans, allegorical literature, poetry, and fairy tales. In all of these, metaphor indirectly yet more significantly conveys the central message.

Metaphor can be used effectively with child and parent alike. This technique, or medium, is not one that can be easily taught because it is as much artistic as it is technical. To prepare for the use of metaphor, professionals may want to read the text by Mills and Crowley. An example of a metaphor that might be used when a student is taking on too much is, “It seems as if Joey might be too big for his britches.” Another metaphor could be, “Is it possible that Kentu is tied to his mother’s apron strings?”


This technique is used widely in family systems approaches (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974) as well as in other approaches to counseling and psychotherapy.

Underlying all reframing is the desire to help others bring a larger and different perspective to a life situation. It is not an attempt to whitewash or minimize suffering on the part of others. It is a legitimate effort to improve a person’s situation by altering his or her view to encompass a new way of seeing.

Background Information

The following story from the Taoist tradition serves as a good introduction to this section on reframing.

There once was a farner who had a wonderful horse that the farmer’s family depended upon for their livelihood. His horse ran away one day and all his neighbors said how awful was his fate. To this the farmer replied, “Maybe.” A couple of days later the horse returned with a herd of wild horses. The neighbors told him how lucky he was. The farmer said, “Maybe.” Soon the farmer’s oldest son tried to break in one of the wild horses and was thrown and broke his leg. Again the neighbors said how awful and the farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the people in charge of drafting soldiers rejected his oldest son because of his injury. The neighbors thought he again was very fortunate and he thought, “Maybe.” (J. Daniel, personal communication)

Reframing is about transforming the frame a person holds of events so that a different meaning can be attached. With the change in meaning come changes in responses and behaviors. As Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, (1974) stated:

To reframe, then, means to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the “facts” of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby changes its entire meaning, (p. 95)

Like metaphor, reframing can be used with children and youth as well as adults. In the field of family systems, the professional usually is redefining the treatment unit to be the whole family as opposed to the symptom bearer or problematic child, which is the framework so often seen in schools. Reframing is intended to affect the interrelated cognitive, emotional, and behavioral spheres. Reframing generally results in a change in how people think, feel, and act.

Types of Reframing

There are many uses of reframing. In all of them it is the process of bringing a different context into play that brings a deeper meaning to the experience. Karpel (1986b) stated:

Reframing may be used to accomplish different ends. Like psychoanalytic interpretation, which it resembles, it may be intended to foster insight. In other cases it may be used to make alternative patterns of interaction easier to enact or to make it much more difficult to persist in problematic patterns. From a resource perspective, it is probably most often used to identify resources that are inherent in the presenting problem itself, as in the use of statements that throw light on patterns of loyalty, concern, and protectiveness in what would otherwise look like destructive or self-destructive behavior, (p. 200)

Reframing can be used to maintain or increase a person’s self-worth. Satir and Baldwin (1983) reported the value of helping people to focus on observing what occurred in an incident instead of blaming another person for the situation. Satir referred to this as using an “observing ego” to help a client reduce blame and increase trust.

Reframing can also be used to diffuse negative feelings. An example would be when one family member is angry and his temper is flaring and others are upset because he has broken the family rule that one should not express angry feelings. The school professional might reframe the temper to be seen as a “way of bringing out his thoughts.” Another example would be to reframe blame into searching for information.

In addition, reframing may be used to clarify what has been said by a family member. An example provided in Salir, Step by Step (Satir & Baldwin, 1983) is that of a father who struggled with making compliments and would beat around the bush with them. A reframe could be to state that the father had complimented or admired someone.

In many ways, this technique may be used to reframe liabilities and perceived weaknesses as strengths. In so doing, the professional may be able to transform meaning attached to the frame. For example, a single mother taking her adolescent for therapy could be framed as “caring enough about her daughter to find the resources she needed.”

Reframing With Children and Youth

When using reframing with children, it is important to consider their cognitive level. For example, children who are 7 years old or younger overgeneralize how they see their strengths and weaknesses (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969). It may not be effective, then, for an adult to speak about only one aspect of what the child does as a problem. The child may not have the cognitive capacity to understand that difference, and, therefore, a reframing will not be possible. For example, a teacher trying to reframe the fighting of two 5-year-olds as a sign of liking one another may find that the attempt falls on deaf ears.

While young children may not be able to follow a reframe cognitively, they may be able to follow a shift related to emotions. For example, a child sensitive to nonverbal changes in the emotional climate, such as making a joke and laughing about the child’s irritability, will be able to benefit from this nonverbal reframing. This type of reframing is at an experiential level as opposed to a cognitive one.

Once children reach approximately age 7, they will be able to understand reframing that relates to concrete as opposed to abstract thinking. At approximately age 12, the child is able to respond to higher-order thinking when a reframe is presented. A reframing statement such as “You do not argue with those you do not care about” could be understood by children at this cognitive level.

Also important in reframing with children and youth is for professionals to have the view that reframing does apply to them. When the professional can see a child’s distracting behavior both positively and negatively, then he or she will be more able to reframe the situation for the student. For example, there are times when bullying may be desirable. Satir was famous for asking people to look at any weakness and discover times that such a weakness could be a strength. She used that type of reframing consistently in her Part’s Parties (Bitter, 1993; Satir & Baldwin, 1983). Part’s Parties use experiential technique to help an individual become more aware of the many parts of the self. The party introduces each to the others because many parts of the self are not used, overused, used poorly, or ignored. They take from 2-4 hours.


The timing of reframing cannot be guided externally but must be felt or intuited to be appropriate by the professional, given the readiness of the family member or student. Used at a poorly chosen time, or at too abstract a level, reframing can cause a sense of misconnection as well as anger at the professional for having misperceived the situation.

One timing guideline is to wail until any highly intense feelings of grief or anger have been diffused. For example, if a family has learned recently that their child has Down syndrome, the timing is not right for sharing an example of a parent who is in acceptance. In time, the professional may sense that the family is moving out of shock, denial, or anger. The timing would then be appropriate for the use of reframing.

Use Language of the Family

In reframing, professionals should use language that speaks to the family. For example, a New Testament Bible story might be used to reframe something for a Christian family. For an artistic family, a reframe regarding drawing or other visual imagery might be effective. Likewise, a musical family would appreciate a reframe that is auditory in nature.

Case Example

A 7-year-old boy whose father had recently committed suicide had begun to act out by talking back to his mother and resisting directions. The mother tended to interpret the behavior as oppositional/defiant and to react by intensifying her disciplining efforts. When the mother mentioned this problem to the boy’s teacher, he commented that the behavior appeared to be designed to keep the mother intensely involved with the boy and could be interpreted as the equivalent of anxious, clingy behavior. In the context of recent loss, the mother found the idea that her son would be anxious and clingy to be much more acceptable than her previous interpretation of defiance and anger. Her response, then, was to become more nurturing, which resulted in a reduction of the boy’s anxiety and acting-out behavior. The teacher’s ability to reframe the child’s behavior resulted in a positive shift in the family system. This shift allowed the mother and son to help each other through their mutual grief and avoided prolonging a painful symptom.


Shifting from academics and the cognitive domain, this section focuses on socialization and the affective domain, discussing in detail a family systems strategy called temperature reading (Schwab, 1990). Adapted from Satir (1983a), this strategy provides a method of clearing the air in group interactions (Azpeitia & Zahnd, 1991) that can be used easily in classrooms as well as during regularly scheduled meetings of ongoing groups. Temperature reading can also be used with families, once parents learn the procedure. If the parents do not attend meetings where this technique is used, they would need training in the method to carry it forward in the home.


Temperature reading is one of Satir’s lesser known communication processes, though it is used widely by those who attended her training. Its two basic purposes are for group members to share feelings and to help detoxify negativity on the part of group members. It could be used in a class session or homeroom as well as during educational, support, or counseling groups.


Satir (1983a) included five types of expressions in a temperature reading: appreciations, complaints and recommendations, puzzles, new information, and hopes and wishes (Azpeitia & Zahnd, 1991). Not all five features need to be included, during a temperature reading, but it should be possible to include them.


Appreciations should be shared directly with the person being appreciated. In the classroom a teacher might say, “Tim, you are doing an excellent job of assisting Helen in making the transition to a whole new set of instructional materials. I appreciate your help in this matter.” In another example, a teacher might tell a parent, “Mr. Juval, I am so glad you told me about the support group you have attended. Now I can tell other parents about your findings. Thanks.”

In a parental training session in which a family has given a demonstration where the parent did not directly appreciate another family member, the professional could say, “Mr. Jones, let me play you in a scenario. . . . Joey, come on over here and look me in the eye. I am going to role-play being your dad. ‘You know, Joey, I am so glad you raked the yard this weekend without being asked. It meant a lot to me and gave us time to watch that video together. Thanks, son.'” Following this modeling, the professional could ask the father if he would be willing to try again and ask for feedback. If the father and son succeed in engaging in an authentic sending and receiving of appreciation, the professional might ask each one how the interaction felt. If they respond that they feel a little stiff about it, the professional can compare the situation to putting on a new shoe that needs some wearing before it becomes comfortable. If they feel closer or even misty-eyed, it may help to reinforce that by simply saying, “Take that feeling in, and remember how it feels.”

There is no need to fabricate an appreciation. If there is one, the temperature reading is the perfect time to share this communication. The communication helps focus on the positive and provides examples for others of directly sharing an appreciation. Eye contact and tone of voice are important aspects of sharing an appreciation. Appreciations honor humanness and lead to authentic human connection. As models for children, parents and teachers can help increase the sharing of appreciations in our children and youth.

Complaints and Recommendations

Complaints are a major reason for conducting temperature readings. Voicing complaints can provide the opportunity to detoxify negativity as well as a structure that allows an individual to voice a complaint. According to Azpeitia and Zahnd (1991), “A complaint with a recommendation is the reporting of a discrepancy between what is and an idea or awareness of how things could be better” (p. 86). Such a sharing brings validation. When unexpressed, complaints can lead to negative interactions and restrict the necessary openness that brings vitality, commitment, and flexibility to relationships. Sharing a complaint allows a person to discharge negative feelings, allowing more room for closeness.

Satir (1983a) recommended that any complaint be accompanied with a recommendation for change. Others should not promote dependency by allowing a person who has expressed a complaint to not provide a recommendation. The recommendation for solving the problem does not have to be carried out. The strategy is simply intended to help the person look toward solutions as opposed to merely voicing a complaint. Of course, even the registering of a complaint and being heard are very important.

A classroom example of a complaint expressed during a temperature reading would be a student saying, “I am having a hard time catching up with all the new algebra since I was in the hospital for a week. I hate slowing the class down and wonder if someone might have the time to help me during study hall in the afternoons.” Another example of a complaint during a support group meeting would be a father saying to the counselor, “I have a problem with the time of these meetings. I cannot get from work to home and feed my son before coming here at 6:00. I find the group beneficial and would like to have the time moved to no earlier than 7:00.”


The third feature of a temperature reading is presenting a puzzle, confusion, question, rumor, or piece of gossip. It is used where the person presenting the puzzle has heard something but does not understand fully what he or she heard. Expressing the puzzle allows rumors to be affirmed or denied. The rumor might be about something others could look forward to, something the individual feared, or something the individual was worried about. In any event, the puzzle has not been addressed adequately. Surfacing the puzzle lessens uncertainty and confusion.

An example of a puzzle expressed during a temperature reading in the classroom is, “I was wondering if it is true that anyone who earns two thousand points will be able to attend a showing of the newest Star Trek movie next Friday after noon?” Another example of presenting a puzzle would be a parent querying a social worker, “I overheard a parent at the basketball game telling someone else that there was a support group called Compassionate Friends. I am wondering if you know how I can get in touch with them in this county? My wife and I are still grieving over the loss of our daughter.”

New Information

New information simply allows individuals to let others know about an upcoming event, activity, or other opportunity. It involves forecasting a new possibility so that others might avail themselves of the occasion. It also helps to prevent rumors from spreading as well as helps to prevent anyone from being left out or being the last to find out about something with which others are familiar.

A classroom example of providing new information would be a teacher saying, “We have a great speaker who will be at our assembly during third period on Tuesday. Her name is Carol Scearce. She is the president of Enlightening Enterprises outside Boston along the coast in Beverly. She is the best speaker I have ever heard. She will be teaching you to make mind maps. That is a special and creative form of taking notes developed by Tony Buzan, from England. She has agreed to provide a special 2-hour presentation to the students in our program on Tuesday afternoon. I hope no one misses school on Tuesday.”

Another example of providing new information would be a school psychologist telling a parent group, “I have an announcement I know all of you will be interested in hearing. We now have an easier referral process to the county mental health center. Some of you will remember that the center’s waiting list for family counseling was several months long. The center has hired two new family systems therapists, and the waiting period is nonexistent. be sure to thank Dr. Wojinski when you see her. She was responsible for finding the funds for these new additions.”

Hopes and Wishes

Hopes and wishes are simply a statement about something that is desired. If a desire remains unarticulated, it has little chance of being fulfilled. Satir (1983a) was concerned that every member of a family or group be able to give voice to their hopes and wishes. She had found that many people will reserve their wishes when they do not have a structure for voicing them.

A classroom example of the expression of a hope or wish is a student saying, “Mrs. Anthony, I was wondering if we could have a popcorn party this Friday afternoon. My brother will be home from the service, and he wanted to visit my school. He will be here this Friday afternoon, and I hoped everyone could meet him and visit with him.” Another example of expressing a hope or wish is a parent commenting before the start of a parent effectiveness training session, “I wish somebody would develop a list of child-care opportunities for our younger children so that it would be easier to attend these parent training workshops.”


Satir recommended that temperature readings be conducted in families, in groups, and as part of any work group. The following guidelines for temperature readings focus on frequency, leadership, structure, and the training of professionals and parents.


Satir (1983a) provided the following guideline about the frequency of conducting this process. She recommended that temperature readings be conducted daily whenever a new group is formed. She noted that once the group stabilizes, the frequency of temperature readings can be lowered gradually, although she indicated that they would be most beneficial if held at least weekly. The more struggles there are within a group or family, the more frequently temperature readings should be conducted. Groups that meet less than weekly should conduct temperature readings before the beginning of each meeting.

In a newly formed classroom, temperature readings are best conducted daily for the first week and then gradually reduced to meet the needs of the class. However, they should never be held less than weekly. Homeroom is a good time to conduct temperature readings in secondary schools. If a teacher has a totally different group of students each period, it is not likely that he or she will be able to invest the time in temperature reading at the expense of academic time. In elementary school, temperature readings can be conducted first thing in the morning, when all students have arrived in the classroom but before the start of the academic day.

Family members who are part of a temperature reading process in the school will find it easier to implement a similar process at home. Thus, the temperature reading conducted during school activities serves as a model for the parents. The tougher the situation to which they see professionals respond, the better their opportunity to learn from experience.


In large groups that met regularly, Satir (1983a) would have the person making a contribution stand next to her. She would often hold the contributor’s hand while he or she was speaking, lending support by her presence. Not many professionals have the presence of Satir in holding a contributor’s hand during a temperature reading; the leader should do so only if he or she is comfortable with that style and has the personal savvy to carry it off.

Temperature readings are generally most effective when one school professional is in charge of conducting them. In the classroom, that one person is the teacher. This is not a situation to turn over to shared leadership on a rotating basis. It is best that a professional comfortable in providing congruent messages, and in helping others to do the same, lead the temperature reading in nonclassroom groups.


While introducing a temperature reading, the professional conducting it initially states the purposes and then describes the five features. Next, the leader shares personal experiences with temperature readings. Following that, a brief role-play of a temperature reading is conducted. Concluding with a question-and-answer session helps eliminate concerns about the process and content.

Temperature readings are valuable for all ongoing groups that operate in schools. Teams that meet regularly would also benefit from conducting temperature readings at each meeting, as would all ongoing parent groups, be they PTO/PTA, support groups, parenting training sessions, or less structured yet regularly held meetings. The temperature reading does not take much time, though those that include complaints and puzzles will likely be longer. Temperature readings should be conducted at the beginning of meetings, allowing the air to be cleared prior to engaging in new business and thereby increasing the effectiveness of the actual meeting.

Satir (1983a) would help the individual share the offering, assisting with any statements made so that the person provided congruent messages. She also would reframe any complaints so that the person would be open to other possibilities when viewing the situation.

To help parents understand the possibilities of this process, the leader should connect the value of temperature readings with family life situations. The leader can recommend that the parents conduct this process at home and share personal and others’ experiences with temperature reading in family situations. The leader can also recommend that families wait to conduct temperature readings at home until they are more familiar with how they work in the school group that is using the process.


Probably the most effective training for school professionals in conducting temperature readings is to conduct them regularly in their own work groups. This emphasizes “learning by doing,” recognizing that there is seldom a better teacher than experience. In conducting real (not practice) temperature readings, professionals will face many touchy or confusing situations. Having real-life experience with this activity in their work groups will allow them to plan better how they will respond to sensitive or difficult situations. Such situations occur quite naturally in a spontaneous and open sharing of feelings and thoughts in a group context. Difficult situations should be expected and should not take a professional by surprise.

Preparing parents to be involved in temperature readings is also important. Parents may never have experienced such an open exchange of thoughts and feelings. Furthermore, they might not believe that their thoughts and feelings are being valued by professionals during the temperature reading. It may take a few sessions to establish trust in the process. Therefore, professionals should not be surprised if the first several temperature readings focus largely upon appreciations, hopes and wishes, and new information, which are less threatening than expressing complaints or puzzles. When a student or parent shares his or her first complaint or puzzle, it is important to validate his or her concerns before moving on with the elaboration.


This article has focused on the extension of family systems concepts into the classroom and into education, support, or counseling groups. New possibilities for applying these concepts abound in the literature; school professionals should be creative in their design and implementation of the family systems concepts they use. Communication stances, refraining, metaphor, and temperature readings can be used with both classroom and group instruction.


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Rosemary A. Lambie is a Professor of Education Leadership, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA. She is the author of Family Systems Within Educational Environments.

Copyright Love Publishing Company Sep 2003

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