Satir’s model for change and the role of school leaders.

Virgina Satir, a family therapist, developed a model for change (Satir et al, 1991) from her work with individuals and families.  She observed individuals and families that were confronted with a wide range of changes. From her observations she distinguished a number of phases when individuals are confronted with change.

The initial state is one of reasonable status quo. The normal state of our (human) mind is chaos. Contrary to what we would like to assume, our mind is in disorder (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Since this state of psychic entropy is far from pleasant, we keep searching for ways to re-establish a purposeful order in our minds. This results in the “status quo” Satir refers to. But the negentropy (state of order) is threatened when something new enters the system. This foreign element, as Satir calls it, causes a period of chaos.  During this moment of chaos, all kinds of feelings enter the world of the individual: anxiety, despair,  anger, all kinds of fight or flight reactions. But at some point, often when things have reached their worst, an insight or idea emerges and provides a direction of “the way out”.  Interesting remark: in Chinese, the word “crisis” consists of two symbols: one representing danger, and the other represents opportunity.

The period of chaos turns into an opportunity to learn, the foreign element that disturbed the order is accepted for what it is and is no longer perceived as dangerous. Interesting would be to look at that turning point in the perception of the individual.

When exactly did it turn over to the positive side?

That kind of waking up, seeing the change in a different, more optimistic light? Also important: in what conditions did this take place? Can we create the right conditions so that the “danger” becomes “opportunity”? Because, after this mental click, the individual can begin the journey of integration (Satir, 1991. Weinberg, 1997). So, the flipping of the mental coin is an essential turning point in the process of transformation. From then onwards, the foreign element can be integrated through practice, and the new status quo is born. Note that the new status quo is of higher performance level than the late status quo.

Imagine an experienced teacher who has got it all under control. At a certain point, the young, new headmaster comes up with a number of innovations. I’m sure you can think of an example, perhaps something to do with a flat mobile 10 inch device. The enthousiastic head “saw the light” in some workshop at a conference, and immediately takes action (phase 5 of Kotter’s 8 steps, remember this post). What is the effect of this foreign element on the mind of the experienced teacher? It threatens to dis-order his balance, his mental order. An order that was preciously, cautiously and probably very wisely constructed. Hopefully, the experienced teacher can quickly flip the mental coin and start to look at the innovation from the integration perspective. But better would be, imho, that the head was aware of the process at hand, and was able to create the right conditions (trust, curiosity, connectivity and tenacity) for the experienced teacher to limit the feelings of distress in the chaos phase.

First, the head needs to know this. This is a matter of knowledge. When you don’t know that it works this way, it is a very logic reaction to fly off, and force the innovation down people’s throats. Are heads of school departments trained in these matters? I don’t think so. Considering the importance of leadership in schools (please don’t confuse with authority) and the upcoming educationaI reforms in Flanders, I would place my bets at the professional development of headmasters, ás well as the professional development of the teachers. For the sake of our biggest treasures: the kids themselves.



Cameron, E., & Green, M. (2012). Making Sense of Change Management: A Complete Guide to the Models Tools and Techniques of Organizational Change. Kogan Page Publishers.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row, New York.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993). Why we need things. History from things: Essays on material culture, 20-29.

Roels, J. (2012). Cruciale dialogen. Maklu.

Satir, V., Banmen, J., Gerber, J., & Gomori, M. (1991). The Satir model: Family therapy and beyond. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

Weinberg, G. M. (1997). Quality Software Management: Anticipating Change (Vol. 4). Dorset House, New York.

Image Satir’s model:

Image crisis