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Speech in the Schools

Opening a Closed System

Published January 16, 2017 12:01 PM by Teresa Roberts

We like to think that client improvement is due to our therapy and that there is a single direct line between intervention and remediation. Maybe there is, but maybe there isn't. Maybe something else besides our therapy is having a great effect on our client's communication development. We have belief systems about therapy. Belief systems help us make sense of the world; however, sometimes belief systems become so entrenched in our thinking, that we no longer remember where we learned them or how they came to be.

One type of belief system is called a "closed system." In the field of science, a closed system is an isolated system that does not interact or transfer mass into or out of the external environment. The vascular system is a closed system within the human body. Closed systems theory has been applied in business and education. A closed system does not interact with the greater environment and does not freely exchange information.

In their book, "Leadership in Education," Professors Russ Marion and Leslie Gonzales, described closed system thinking. When we have a closed system perspective, we believe that all variables that influence a given problem are contained within an organization and that a single manager can control the variables. With children, attempting to control all possible variables would require removing children from their natural environments (an immoral proposition). Even if we could put test subjects in a bubble, children would still be growing every day. We can never remove natural maturation.

"Of course, therapy is the most important factor," we may assert, and we may actually need some level of closed system thinking to see the value of our work. However, there are benefits to opening up a closed system perspective. Perhaps there are other highly significant environmental factors that are affecting our client's communication skill development. Maybe a child's grandmother has moved in with the family and she reads books to her granddaughter every night using interactive strategies that we would label as dialogic reading. Maybe a child has play dates with his cousin who has a similar speech sound disorder and they reinforce each other's error productions. When we open ourselves to other factors, we open ourselves to other possible communication partners and facilitators. We can ask questions that are based on variables that affect communication development:

  • Which people are influencing the client's communication development and how are they influencing it?
  • What types of interactions are influencing the client's communication development and how are they influencing it?
  • Which settings are influencing the client's communication development and how are they influencing it?

The idea of analyzing the client's communication partners and settings to describe the child's natural environment is common. We can also consider these same people and settings as influencing variables in an open system. When we stop thinking that we are the sole influence in our client's progress, we start to see the power of everyone and everything else that surrounds them.

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About this Blog


    Speech in the Schools
    Occupation: School-based speech-language pathologists
    Setting: Traditional and specialized K-12 classrooms
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