Family  Systems  Theory  

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Family Systems Theory Nicolas Sawicky SUNY Brockport

Family  Systems  Theory   When studying the development of a child, there are numerous factors that cause a child

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to end up the way that they are. Some of the factors can be controlled, while others are just up to the universe. One of the most important factors in a child’s life is the family that raises them. That age old debate of nature verses nurture is still a hotly contested argument. Although it is debatable which one contributes more to a person’s traits, no one can argue that your family and surrounding community play a significant role in your upbringing. The argument that your family plays a significant role in your upbringing is supported by something called Family System Theory. This theory breaks down the characteristics in the family environment that cause a student to act a certain way in the classroom. This idea can further be explored when you open your study to include culturally and linguistically diverse family environments. With these students, especially ones with disabilities, come from an environment that views things very differently. This is something educators need to realize and act accordingly. Family System Theory, originally intended for use in family therapy, is also used to understand the problems of students while in school (Christian, 2006). The theory claims that children act a particular way based on their family and the environment their family exposes them to. This then takes the focus off the child as the cause for why they are acting out in class, and instead points the microscope at the whole family. One of the best ways to deal with students of diverse backgrounds is to create a strong parent/teacher partnership, so that a student’s academic achievement can be maximized. In Christian’s article on “Understanding Families” (2006) she states: “To serve children well, we must work with their families. To be effective in this work, we must first understand

Family  Systems  Theory   families who are diverse in ways such as culture, sexual orientation, economic status, work, religious beliefs, and composition.” It should be mentioned that this review of families is not meant to be a way to lay blame on another for a child’s misgivings, but is instead intended to be

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a way to better serve the children (Christian, 2006). This is called the Family-Centered Approach and works to build and promote the strengths that families already have (Connard & Novick, 1996). According to Christian (2006), each family has six characteristics that affect how a child acts in the classroom. The first characteristic is what boundaries a family sets for their child (Christian, 2006). Some families let their child to be very independent, while others control their kid’s friends and afterschool activities. Another characteristic is the “role” a child plays at home, which can carry over to the school environment in the form of “class clowns” or “teacher pets” (Christian, 2006). The rules a child lives by at home also effects how they act in the classroom, an example being they are used to getting away with a certain amount of things (Christian, 2006). Family Hierarchy is another device that affects how a child behaves in the classroom. Some children might look to males in a higher social context than females (Christian, 2006). A very important family characteristic is the climate an adolescent grows up in. This is further subdivided into the emotional and the physical environment that the kid is exposed to (Christian, 2006). A child could have very loving parents, but grown up in a crime-ridden neighborhood and drop out of school. Just as easily a rich kid can be neglected emotionally and turn out poorly. The final family characteristic according to Christian (2006) is “equilibrium”. Without balance and consistency, a child cannot develop a sense of security and trust. When looking at the family of a particular child it helps to look at the environment around the family. Any particular child is going to be exposed to four different environments, all

Family  Systems  Theory  

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with different levels of regularity (Connard & Novick, 1996). The family environment is usually the most common and shapes the child the most (Connard & Novick, 1996). The extended family and friends are next, followed by places like school and church (Connard & Novick, 1996). The final environment that is hard to control, but still influential on children is society as a whole (Connard & Novick, 1996). The only real way to limit society’s affect on your children is to shelter them form it, which comes with its own consequences. A great way to view and predict how a child is going to turn out is with a simple equation for developmental trajectory. You take the positives in a child’s life, like intelligence or caring parents and subtract things like a physical disability or bad neighborhood, to get a result (Connard & Novick, 1996). The “risk vs. opportunities” method is not only easy understood, but it’s surprisingly accurate. With this equation, a bad situation like a teenage mother could be nullified if the mother gave plenty of attention to her child. The cultural background of each student from a culturally and linguistic diverse background is not only a factor in how a child is raised, but also a contributing factor to how their schooling is approached. The influence of beliefs, traditions, and values is also true when it comes to students with disabilities. According to Xu (2007), “The cultural difference makes each family unique in terms of how they define their stress, what resources they are seeking for help, and how they perceive their stress.” This theory is easily explained through something called the “Double ABCX Model”. The first variable in the model is the demands placed on the family. This can include things like extra time and money that is needed to care for a disabled child (Xu, 2007). The next variable is the resources that the family employs to deal with the demands that they are being met with. This

Family  Systems  Theory   can include things like resources of an individual (i.e. money, physical health, education, or personality), internal resources of the family (i.e. open communication, support, or problemsolving ability), and social support that comes from resources external to the immediate family

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members (Xu, 2007). The third variable is the family’s perception of the disability, which can be positive or negative (Xu, 2007). The final variable is the end result of a certain situation between a diverse family and their disabled child (Xu, 2007). The family adaption is the family’s response to the disability. The end result could be many things, depending on what the previous variables were. An example of this model is the theoretical Chang family. Mr. and Mrs. Chang have a 2year-old daughter named Helen who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome (Xu, 2007). To complicate things, Mr. Chang and his family live with his parents and due to their cultural traditions, his parents are the heads of the household (Xu, 2007). Mr. Chang’s parents were born outside the United States and because of that have a very different view of children with disabilities (Xu, 2007). When it comes to family resources, Mr. Chang is lucky in the fact that his mother is a retired kindergarten teacher and has volunteered to care for Helen while he and his wife attend graduate school (Xu, 2007). The family’s perception of Helen’s disability is also deeply engrained with their cultural background. They believe that they have a disabled child because of the wrong doing of a past ancestor and the child is punishment for it (Xu, 2007). Fortunately for Helen, the Chang family ends up adapting thanks to a network of families who also have children with disabilities (Xu, 2007). It is very important for educators to realize that students from culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) backgrounds have special needs in the classroom. Teachers need to take steps to bridge this divide and make the necessary adaptations for the successful schooling of their

Family  Systems  Theory   students (Cartledge, Singh & Gibson, 2008). “The most important thing a CLD student needs is early intervention. Early intervention is especially important for young CLD learners who are

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born into families with specific markers associated with severe school failure (e.g., poverty, early parenting, family disorganization)” (Cartledge et al., 2008). Another important needs for CLD students are a learning environment that is free of aggression and chaos. The classroom needs to be an escape from the bad neighborhoods and safe so that they can focus on their education. The final need for a CLD student is instruction in social skills. The children need to learn at am early age that there is a difference between how you act in the neighborhood and at school. An example is African American students who grow up in neighborhoods where they need to act tough to survive, but in the classroom, there is no need for aggression and need to be taught nonaggressive alternatives to conflict (Cartledge et al., 2008). When it comes to teaching students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, instructional strategies come into play. Utley, Obiakor & Bakken (2011) break it into seven easy to understand characteristics. The first is high expectations where teachers support students as they develop the literacy appropriate to their age and gender. The second strategy is to form a positive relationship with the families and communities of the students by “demonstrating clear connections with student families and communities in terms of curriculum content and relationships” (Utley et al., 2011, p. 13). The next policy is for educators to have cultural sensitivity by connecting the curriculum with each student’s cultural background. The fourth characteristic that is essential to culturally diverse instruction is having an active teaching method that includes “involving students in a variety of reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing behaviors throughout the lesson plan” (Utley et al., 2011, p. 13). The next strategy involves the teacher as a facilitator where their goal is to “present information, briefly giving

Family  Systems  Theory   directions, summarizing responses, and working with small groups, pairs, and individuals”

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(Utley et al., 2011, p.13). The sixth strategy for teaching culturally diverse students is to give the students control of a portion of the lesson. The final characteristic essential to culturally diverse education is structuring the instruction into groups of students, so that the students can share ideas and think critically. The parent/teacher partnership is an often looked over, but still an important aspect in a child’s educational experience. This partnership becomes especially important when the child is from a culturally diverse background and/or suffers from a disability. Culturally diverse students are no longer a small minority of the population anymore. Araujo (2009) points out that since 1980, the number of people that speak a language other than English has doubled. These numbers show that an increasing number of students may qualify as English Language Learners (ELL) who need educators to collaborate with them and their families. Along with the obvious language barrier that can occur with culturally diverse families, there is the issue of how their cultural perspectives influence how they see the world. Disabilities are something that can be viewed in different lights depending on the culture on the individual. As Lupi & Tong (2010) point out: Teachers also need to be culturally aware and sensitive toward parents when discussing a child’s disabilities. Parents may possess attitudes and feelings about disabilities based on cultural values and need additional time or information to approve of a certain program or plan for their child (p. 163) These views are deeply ingrained in the family as a result of their cultural upbringing. As a teacher, you must work with the culture not against it if you want to have any success in educating your student and having a healthy relationship with their family.

Family  Systems  Theory   A very detailed study was conducted by Soomin Sohn and X. Christine Wang (2006) regarding the involvement of immigrant Korean mothers in American schools. The study surveyed six Korean mothers who had children in American public schools and concluded that there are four major concerns that culturally diverse families face when interacting with American public schools. The first concern these families face is the language barrier. Many times teachers do not understand the family’s English due to a heavy accent (Sohn & Wang, 2006). Another problem associated with the language barrier is that the culturally diverse families had a limited knowledge of the educational terms that were being used. The second

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concern that the Korean mothers faced were cultural issues. In Korea, teachers are viewed as the ones in charge of a child’s education and the parent had little to no power (Sohn & Wang, 2006). This view is different from the American view, which sees parents, as the people in charge of a child’s education and teachers are just a resource for them to use. Another cultural view that is different in Korea is the belief that school visits are only for misbehaving students (Sohn & Wang, 2006). This is not the case in American public schools since most schools offer parent/teacher conference days where all parents are invited to meet with their child’s teachers and build a relationship. The third concern that the Korean mothers faced were issues with discrimination. They witnessed an unfair stereotype that all Asian Americans were high achievers, something that is obviously not a fact but only myth. The final concern that the mothers noticed was that there was limited school and teacher support (Sohn & Wang, 2006). Due to the mothers not being fluent in English, they needed more then the allotted time in the one-on-one meetings with parents so that an in-depth conversation could materialize (Sohn & Wang, 2006, p. 130). This concern is something that you would not guess without first experiencing it for yourself, but it makes perfect sense. The one-on-one time with teachers are

Family  Systems  Theory   scheduled with a fluent English speaker in mind, so when a parent who struggles with the language is put into that situation, they will almost always take a longer time than their English speaking counterparts.

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After looking at the issues with the parent/teacher partnership when it comes to culturally diverse families, it is imperative that we investigate some tactics to overcome the barriers that teachers may face when dealing with a culturally diverse student. These culturally responsive factors will promote effective communication and collaboration with children, families, school personnel, and community members. There is plenty of work that can be done right in the classroom to ensure that a culturally diverse student gets the education they deserve. The educator must promote culturally relevant teaching practices. The first aspect of this is the promotion of native language instruction (Araujo, 2009). This allows the student to focus on the content of what is being taught instead of focusing their energy on understanding and translating everything the teacher is saying. The second strategy is to be conscious of cultural and ethnic differences (Araujo, 2009). This means that teachers should be aware of their students’ cultural backgrounds and approach them with that knowledge in mind. The third and final key to working with culturally diverse students is to instill cultural strengths of students (Araujo, 2009). Promoting the student’s cultural identity will make them feel more comfortable in the classroom and therefore more eager to learn. Communication with the parents of students can sometimes be challenging when the student is from a culturally diverse background. As stated by Columna, Senne & Lytle (2009): Because of potential communication and cultural barriers, it is critical for teachers to become linguistically competent and to find ways to establish direct and ongoing lines of

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communication with parents in order to ensure their understanding and knowledge of the full array of services and programs that are available to their children (p. 48) The first two steps in effective communication with a family member is to initiate contact and when a meeting is held, it should be conducted in the preferred language of the family (Columna et al., 2009). When communicating with a parent over the phone, first identify yourself, talk in a positive tone, explain to the family that all information is confidential, then discuss if they are familiar with services for children with disabilities. Once this contact has been established, families are more comfortable and may call to get status reports on their child and even ask what is being taught, so that it can be practiced at home (Columna et al., 2009). Another way to communicate with the parent’s of culturally diverse students is through written notification. These notifications can serve as an update on their child’s progress by way of check sheets, notes or even a monthly newsletter. These documents are usually written in English, but if English is not the family’s primary language, the information needs to be sent in the their native language (Columna et al., 2009). The community is also a great tool to help culturally diverse students get the best education possible. One of the best ways to engage the whole community is with something Columna et al. (2009) calls the “Community Action Strategy”. This strategy consists of an information session for Hispanic parents of children with disabilities. It can be held in the school or a community center. It’s a great opportunity for: teachers to discuss the work performed by students, teachers to get to know parents, and for parents to socialize and form a support group (Columna et al., 2009). Araujo (2009) also has some insight into how to collaborate with the community so that culturally diverse students get the best education possible. One strategy that is suggested by Araujo (2009) is to involve community members in school volunteer programs and

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use family members as teachers to assist in the classroom. This not only takes some pressure off of the teacher when dealing with a whole classroom full of students, but also allows the students to be around adults who share the same cultural background as them. Another one of Araujo’s (2009) plans of actions involves collaborating with community agencies to provide family support services and adult learning opportunities. Going along with that point he also recommends providing information regarding cultural, recreational, academic, health, social, and other resources that serve families within the community (Araujo, 2009). These services would greatly benefit newly arrived immigrant families to help them assimilate into the community and learn some important skills that will benefit their child as they gain an education in the American public school system. As you can see, the family you grow up in has a very deciding role in how you act. Family System Theory is just another piece of evidence for the old argument of nature verses nurture. Fortunately for me, a fairly typical American family raised me. My parents took a ventured interest in my education and attitude. When looking at my childhood through the eyes of Christian (2006), it would be extremely positive start. First off, the climate I grew up in was the best that my parents could provide. I first grew up in the city of Philadelphia, and with that came inner-city schools. But my parents decided that was not the best environment for me to start my educational career and instead placed me in a private catholic school. I also lived in a fairly nice part of the city that may have lacked a backyard, but had friendly neighbors and even other kids like me to play with. The emotional environment of my adolescent climate, as described by Christian (2006) was filled with loving parents. There is no doubt that I was a priority in their life and special attention was paid to my progression in reading and other important skills.

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My parents also set important boundaries when I was an adolescent. My experience was at first fairly restrictive. My parents made most of the decisions that involved me. But as I got older, I gained more and more independence. This slow progression prepared me for life in high school and the decisions like drug use that come with it. Another family characteristic, as described by Christian (2006), is whether “an equilibrium” exists. I was very lucky to have balance and consistency, and with that I was able to develop a sense of security and trust in the environment around me. As a child, I was also exposed to other people besides my immediate family members. As stated by Connard (1996), the second most common environment to shape a child is their extended family. My extended family was also very loving. My grandparents in particular took great pride in my upbringing and were there every step of my development into the adult I am today. One environment that is often hard to control is the influences of society (Connard, 1996). My parents did a particularly good job in this area. While some parents would just sit their kids in front of the television so that they could have some time to breath, my parents restricted what I watched. Even kid friendly shows like the Power Rangers were not allowed due to the fighting it displayed. As you can see, the family environment plays a huge role in a child’s upbringing and provides a foundation for what kind of individual they will be when they reach adulthood. As the Family System Theory points out, there are six characteristics in the home environment that cause a student to act the way he does while in the classroom. When looking in a broader sense at students who come from culturally and linguistically diverse family environments, it’s obvious that an environment like that presents many new challenges for educators. As stated by Utley et al. (2001), Educating these kids can be broken into seven, easy to understand, strategies. An

Family  Systems  Theory   often-overlooked tactic to educating culturally diverse students is reaching out to their parents.

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Building a strong relationship with parents allows the teacher to understand where the student is coming from and also to have the parent help in reinforcing what is learned in the classroom. This strategy is especially important when dealing with students who are not only culturally diverse, but also disabled. It is especially interesting to go through ones own childhood and view it through the constraints of Family System Theory. It allows you to appreciate the sacrifices your parents made on your behalf as well as shows what techniques work when you decide to raise your own children some day. After conducting all the research necessary to write this paper, I realized that there is a lot of behind the scenes work that teachers must do to be successful in the classroom. Teachers must first understand that a child acts a certain way due to their upbringing. This is further magnified when the student is from a culturally diverse background. As a future educator, I must make it a priority to connect not only with the student but their entire family. This connection should even go as far as reaching out to the entire community so that the students can achieve academic success.

Family  Systems  Theory   References Araujo, B. E. (2009). Best practices in working with linguistically diverse families. Intervention in School and Clinic, 116-123. Cartledge, G., Singh, A., & Gibson, L. (2008). Practical behavior-

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management techniques to close the accessibility gap for students who are culturally and linguistically diverse. Preventing School Failure, 52(3), 29-38. Christian, L. G. (2006). Understanding families: Applying family systems t h e o r y t o e a r l y c h i l d h o o d p r a c t i c e . Yo u n g C h i l d r e n C o l u m n a , L . G . , S e n n e , T. A . , & L y t l e , R . ( 2 0 0 9 ) . C o m m u n i c a t i n g w i t h hispanic parents of children with and without disabilities. JOPERD, 80(4), 48-54. C o n n a r d , C . , & N o v i c k , R . ( 1 9 9 6 ) . T h e e c o l o g y o f t h e f a m i l y. A background paper for a family-centered approach to education and s o c i a l s e r v i c e d e l i v e r y. T h e N o r t h w e s t R e g i o n a l E d u c a t i o n a l Laboratory Program Report L u p i , M . H . , & To n g , V. M . ( 2 0 0 1 ) . R e f l e c t i n g o n p e r s o n a l i n t e r a c t i o n style to promote successful cross-cultured school-home partnerships. Preventing School Failure , 45(4), 162-166. S o h n , S . , & Wa n g , X . C . ( 2 0 0 6 ) . I m m i g r a n t p a r e n t s ' i n v o l v e m e n t i n american schools: Perspectives from korean mothers. Early

Family  Systems  Theory   Childhood Education Journal, 34(2), 125-132.

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U t l e y , C . A . , O b i a k o r , F. E . , & B a k k e n , J . P. ( 2 0 1 1 ) . C u l t u r a l l y r e s p o n s i v e practices for culturally and linguistically diverse students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 9(1), 5-18. X u , Y. ( 2 0 0 7 ) . E m p o w e r i n g c u l t u r a l l y d i v e r s e f a m i l i e s o f y o u n g c h i l d r e n with disabilities: The double abcx model. Early Childhood Education Journal, 34(6), 431-437.

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