CYC-Net on Facebook CYC-Net on Twitter Search CYC-Net

Join Our Mailing List

Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

ListenListen to this

Systems and boundaries

Angela Hopkinson

In order to analyse the nature of problems encountered and to suggest ways of tackling them, it is helpful to view the unit, its parent agency, and its contacts with the outside from a systems perspective (Miller and Rice 1967). This perspective incorporates ideas about individuals as organisms interacting with their environment. Studies on the functioning of groups have shown that groups have characteristics which are more than the sum of the individuals that form it, and in this respect a group may be seen as a living organism (Monane 1967). Systems perspectives have been used to examine natural groupings in society including families, peer groups, institutions, neighbourhoods, and communities (Emery 1969).

A systems orientation seeks to make explicit the idea that groups or systems have boundaries and that there are interactions across boundaries with the external environment or the world outside. No change can take place within a living system without exchanges taking place with its environment. A system may, therefore, be examined in terms of its inputs, its conversion process, and its outputs. The larger organization of which it is a part may be evaluated as a system also. Every system is, from this perspective, part of a larger system, and every system has smaller groups within it which are sub-systems. Every system except the largest has an environment and every system except the smallest is an environment (Hearn 1969).

Perhaps the real value of systems thinking is that it highlights ways in which, to understand or change an individual's behaviour or attitudes, one must take account of their environment. This involves the relationships, stresses, and expectations that influence behaviour. Such a notion applies to ourselves as workers, our colleagues, and our work organizations, as much as to the children with whom we work.

If we regard a group care unit as a system, as suggested by Polsky and Claster (1968), then we need to examine the dynamics within it, the functioning of the staff group as a team (Fulcher 1981); and interactions with the outside world, which may be referred to as transactions across the boundary. The important boundaries are those around the unit and around the agency. Some staff are clearly inside the unit and others outside it, but some may have an ambiguous position, They may be seen as inside or outside depending on the viewpoint of the observer. For instance, an outside agency or the child's parents may regard a social worker as being a member of the unit, and thereby inside the boundary. On the other hand, unit care staff and the children may regard this person as a visitor or an outsider.

In reality there is a multitude of boundaries that have differing degrees of permeability to different people. Many of the staff both inside and outside the unit become involved in tasks which mean crossing boundaries. The allocation of these boundary tasks to particular workers depends on the organizational structure of the agency, and assumptions about the roles appropriate to particular professions and ranks. The need for particular tasks and their relative importance will also depend on these, as well as on the individual needs of each child and family.


Emery, F. E. (ed.) (1969) Systems Thinking. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

Fulcher, L. C. (1981) Team Functioning in Group Care. In F. Ainsworth and L. C. Fulcher (eds) Group Care for Children: Concept and Issues. London: Tavistock.

Hearn, G. (1969) Progress Toward an Holistic Conception of Social Work. In G. Hearn (ed.) The General System Approach: Contributions Toward an Holistic Conception of Social Work. New York: Council of Social Work Education.

Miller, E. J. and Rice, A. K. (1967) Systems of Organization. London: Tavistock.

Monane, J. H. (1967) A Sociology of Human Systems. New York: Appleton­Century-Crofts.

Polsky, H. W. and Ciaster, D. S. (1968) The Dynamics of Residential Treatment: A Social Systems Analysis. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.

Hopkinson, A. (1985). Working across boundaries in group care practice. In Fulcher, L.C. and Ainsworth, F. Group Care Practice with Children. London: Tavistock, pp215-238.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa | P.O. Box 21464, MacDonald Drive, St. John's, NL A1A 5G6, Canada

Board of Governors | Constitution | Funding | Site Content and Usage | Advertising | Privacy Policy | Contact us

iOS App Android App