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Using an IFS-informed approach in a primary school in Sydney, Australia

Growing up in beach-side Southern suburb of Sydney, Australia in the 1970’s and 80’s I was naturally drawn to using expressive art methods to process and heal from adversity. I danced, sang, wrote songs, drew, collaged, and role-played my way through tough times in childhood. I followed interests and careers, alongside creative paths. I credit singing and song writing for getting me through domestic violence and sustaining me in single motherhood. What I didn’t realise until later, through IFS, was that I was being led by Parts seeking healing. And when I twigged there was a healing side to creativity, I wanted to learn more and share it. In my mid-30s I set on a new trajectory to becoming an art therapist, until part-way through I stumbled upon Internal Family Systems therapy founder Richard Schwartz presenting on a US-based online Trauma Summit. I immediately found and signed up for a Sydney-based IFS introduction workshop, taking place in Sydney’s North.

At the time I was working as a domestic and family violence counsellor at a community centre, in South Sydney suburbia. I had been becoming increasingly frustrated with the limitations of talk therapy approaches I had been using and I was looking for a therapeutic model that could explore deeper layers, without retraumatising. I had been learning creative methods for working with trauma when I found IFS and I discovered it offers the best of both worlds. It provides a language to pathways, or entry points, to the inner landscape, via top-down, logical word-based entry points, and bottom-up somatic sense-based entry points, where creative methods connect via imagery or visualisation, utilising somatic sensory-based information. This appealed to many of my Parts’ preferred way of communicating. IFS helped my heart find its voice. Following the introductory course, I signed up for the next Australian, level one training, in 2019. In mid 2020, during Sydney’s Covid lockdown, I made the professional move to prevention work as a primary school counsellor, which began online.

I soon realised I was in need of school-specific IFS-informed methods and resources. I reached out to Joanna Curry-Satori of the Self-Leadership Collaborative, based in Connecticut, U.S. and was invited to gather together a group of Austral-Asian IFS therapists to develop expertise with Joanna in school relevant practice applications.

Reflecting on the above has me realise how wonderful it has been to connect and learn from various gifted IFS professionals around the world during my own educational journey in IFS practice. It equally has me realise how incredibly isolating it can feel here in Australia. Although, the IFS Australia community is certainly growing, I am yet to connect with many school-based IFS-enthusiastic professionals.  I am inspired by the potential revolution the IFS ‘paradigm shift’ could bring to Australian schools, however I must admit, many of my parts feel very daunted. If IFS has taught me anything, Self in community is fiercely courageous. My hope is to connect with more school-based IFS-enthusiastic professionals to build a supportive and collaborative community. In the meantime, I will continue my IFS journey in my role as school counsellor with one child, one teacher, one caregiver, one school community at a time.

For the past three years I have been working at a denominational primary school in a middle-class suburb in Sydney’s South. The school is nestled in an area surrounded by bushland, close to a large bay, and twenty-minute drive to popular beaches. Kookaburras and cockatoos regularly visit, occasionally claiming a child’s abandoned lunch. Denominationally aligned schools make up approximately 30% of Australian schools. Approximately fifty percent of children and staff have ancestry from the UK, one third are multi-generation Australians, approximately four percent (each) Italian, Chinese, Greek, and German, and approximately one percent indigenous.  Students from other ancestral background make up less than 1%. The school staff is “predominantly female” (ACARA, 2022; ABS, 2021).

In my individual work the IFS philosophy “all parts are welcome” provides a non-pathologising lens for me to be with the child as they transition from the outside school-based milieu into the therapeutic space. An IFS-informed school counselling goal is achieved, not by pouring in solutions, but by relieving solutions from within the child’s inner landscape. Through the counselling process I slowly introduce age-appropriate IFS-informed signposts to guide the child’s exploration below the initial unitary personality concepts, to becoming aware of the signs and expressions of their inner ecology of subpersonalities or Parts (Multiplicity). The child typically identifies Parts that have been activated by a recent scenario that took place in the classroom, on the playground or at home.

The activated Parts are usually initially identified as unwelcomed behaviours or symptoms by the child, caregiver and/or teacher. As I continue to hold witnessing in-Self with Patience, Presence, Perspective, Persistence, Perspective and Playfulness – the 5Ps – I invite the child to detect, then map their Parts, an externalising process to promote separateness (unblending); while stimulating the child’s healing capacity (child’s Self). I then, use IFS-informed questions to establish the child’s Self to Part relationship, by inviting the child to interact with the mapped Parts, giving rise to insights and understanding. This is to connect the dots on how the external scenario might interrelate with the child’s internal family system (system’s thinking). I then highlight the good intention of the Part’s protective strategy (non-pathologising), offering a newfound sense of hope and possibility for making Self-led commitments that attend to the Parts’ expressed need for facilitating healing (spirituality).

I mainly support children aged between five to twelve years old. I work within agency guidelines for providing ten individual counselling sessions over a ten-week case plan, including consultations with caregivers and teachers. Children are referred to see the school counsellor for a range of school-related challenges that impede the child’s learning engagement. The IFS-informed school counselling goal focuses on restoring inner harmony and balance, increasing the child’s capacity to engage with classroom learning. My role prioritises the prevention of harm governed by New South Wales Mandatory Reporting responsibilities under the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. I am also responsible for advocating in the best interests of the child, within the limits of confidentiality, by taking Self-led action that promotes inclusivity.

Children’s Parts that I commonly work with are: anxious, critical, confused, angry, perfectionist, shy, scared, missing mum, tired, sad, self-harm, hypervigilant, distracting, blank, and more. Children impacted by traumatic events that are not school-related, or that cannot be addressed within the ten-week case plan, are provided information and referral to external local support providers in Sothern Sydney or specialists located in Sydney CBD areas. I then regularly monitor and follow up with the child, teachers, and/or caregiver.

In an individual IFS-informed school counselling session I hold the intricate steps of the full IFS protocol gently in the back of my mind, mindful of agendas. I provide psycho-education and worksheets. Whilst not generally an IFS practice, I find it helps to build safety and transparency. I then guide the child through the following three tasks to promote unblending and build the child’s Self to Part relationship:

Task 1: Detect Part/s:
Task 2: Map Part/s:
Task 3: Self shares insights for Self-led action

IFS highlights the centrality of relationship in facilitating healing. In particular, in the Self to Part relationship. Building the Self to Part relationship is fundamental to IFS and a common factor across other school counselling staples: person-centred, trauma-informed and strengths-based. I usually begin individual sessions building therapeutic safety using direct access, focused on me being in Self as I facilitate and build rapport, welcoming all of the child’s Parts. Holding space in Self can often stimulate compassion-led – often referred to as Self-led – insights from the child’s Self speaking for the child’s Part/s. I most commonly work with the child’s protective system, but I have also guided the unburdening of exiles of “little-t” trauma or extreme beliefs shaped by the cumulative effect of small events when the child felt unsupported. For example: Being the new kid and not feeling included or accepted by peers for an extended period (see, Krause, 2013; Mones, 2014; Spiegel, 2017)

Over the past year I have seen my individual work in the school counsellor role and in private practice (also based in the Southern Suburbs of Sydney), expand into IFS-informed groupwork and workshops; in person and online with children, teachers, caregivers, and therapists.

As I have become more Self-led it has meant that I have a greater capacity to respond with Calm, Compassion, Curiosity, Clarity, Creativity, Confidence, Courage, and Connectedness, – the ‘8Cs’ – when I encounter narratives or practices that undermine harmony and balance in the school community. Self has supported me to have necessary, uncomfortable, but courageous conversations that have resulted in many positive outcomes with principals, teachers, and caregivers. For example: Self-led conversations that explore concerns about the potential harm of punitive approaches, rigid pathologizing and treatment methods, judgemental or privileged attitudes, learning methods that favour the neurotypical child, bias regarding gender or race, the cost of overworked teaching staff or unsupported caregivers, and more.

Early in 2023 I was invited to write a book chapter on “Becoming a therapist with children and young people” in a multi-author book titled: Freeing Self: Bringing IFS to Your Place in the World . With interest in IFS growing in school communities, I have been invited to present on my IFS-informed approach in schools at the Montessori conference, Sydney in October and PESI, Australia, in November 2023. I have also been slowly building a Facebook and Instagram following “IFS-Informed Schools (Aust/NZ)” which I hope will help build a community who wish to learn and collaborate on using IFS-informed approaches in their school community.

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  • Shawnee Schmid

    Shawnee Schmid BCouns. L2 IFS, specialises in the prevention of trauma with children and young people in schools and private practice.

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