Systemic practice model: in theory

20th July 2020

A systemic approach is at the very core of all the training our Frontline participants receive on how to practice social work. Systemic practice shapes the way our participants interact with families, how they build strong trusting relationships, the perspective they take and the solutions they try to find to achieve the best outcomes for vulnerable children. Practice Tutor, Cleo, shares what the systemic practice model looks like at Frontline. 

Systemic practice promotes the belief that families and people have the capacity to change in the majority of cases. This approach ensures that problems are seen to exist within relationships, rather than with an individual, and are sat within a wider family context. What we want to do as social workers is to look at not only the person but also what surrounds them, their family, community and wider society. This allows us to gain a better understanding of what makes someone who they are, and what makes them unique to their own situation. Within this we look at all of the components which make up a person’s identity, for example age, class, race and education level. All of these characteristics allow us to gain a better understanding of that person and how we can best support them.   

Below you can find a brief breakdown of the three main areas we teach on the Frontline programme under the systemic practice model. 


  • Generating ideas within a unit meeting around what could be going on for a family in relation to a particular dilemma.
  • Opening up our thinking to ensure we don’t become wedded to one idea.

For example: A social worker may have a particular idea about a family because they’ve had a similar experience in their own life. If we become wedded to this idea it can often blind us to other notions of what may be happening in that family. Hypothesising avoids this, as we generate many ideas.


  • Looks at how things are not linear and how we are in a constant loop of something reacting to something else and so forth.

For example: A boy in a family becomes angry with his mother because she isn’t responding to him and the mother becomes frightened of her son because she’s had a previous history of violence. When he becomes angry, she becomes scared and she withdraws from him. This makes the son angrier as she withdraws – here you can see how this has now become a cyclical pattern.


  • Connects heavily to hypothesising.
  • Looking at how we can be curious about what is going on for a family. How do we avoid seeing things just through one lens?

For example: Social workers really want to understand the world view and lived experience of the people and families they support – holding our curiosity allows us to do this.

The underlying principle behind systemic practice is the ability for social workers to build open, honest and strong relationships with families, and to be able to develop a level of trust which will help them to create real and sustainable change. The person isn’t the problem, the problem is the problem – helping families to look at things this way and change their perception of themselves and others is so important.  

The systemic approach is very much linked to our two other practice models, parenting interventions and motivational interviewingCombining these three models is one of the reasons the Frontline programme is unique, so over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing more about our other two practice models as well as participants’ experience of using them 

Find out more about the Frontline programme here.