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If you build it, they will come: A nontraditional approach for systems change

Ken Reavis, Rosemary Battalio, David Osher, Ginger Rhode, William Jenson, and Alan Hofmeister

We can help resilience in youth by using a nontraditional approach to changing the fragmented manner in which most services are provided.

The first time he hears the voice, the young farmer is standing in the middle of a cornfield. The voice comes to him as a whisper: “If you build it, he will come.” Although he is bewildered at first, the man comes to believe that if he builds a baseball field, Shoeless Joe Jackson — a member of the infamous 1919 Black Sox baseball team — will come to play ball. From that moment on, the 1989 movie Field of Dreams becomes a story of how the passion and vision of one person can change the lives of others and turn a dream into a reality.

Although the movie is a work of fiction, it illustrates the power of one person’s vision to change not only that person’s life, but the lives of many others. This power can be used by those who work with youth to change systems that do not help these youth become more resilient.

A condition of survival
In the natural world, the ability to change is a condition of survival. An animal either adapts to changes in its environment or it becomes extinct. The ability to change in education and youth services often determines the effectiveness of these services. The educational or youth service provider either adapts to meet the changing needs of its youth or it becomes ineffective. Although individuals, organizations, and cultures must embrace change to survive, the need for change can be difficult to accept, and change is almost always difficult to implement.

Nevertheless, if we are to support the development of resilience in our youth, we must change the fragmented manner in which most services are provided to children and their families. Educators and youth service providers have been isolated from each other by bureaucratic categories and agency structures that limit the impact of their individual efforts. These barriers can be overcome through systems change that creates new structures for integrating the resources of families, schools, and communities.

One way to understand the change process is to imagine it as a downward tapering spiral. The top of the spiral represents the broader perspective of change provided by policy and regulation, while the narrower bottom of the spiral represents the focused, specific efforts of implementing the change and assessing its impact. Change is easier to embrace if it is proposed by individuals or organizations that are at or close to the level on the spiral at which the change would occur. For example, a teacher may accept suggestions for change from a fellow teacher, yet resist the same suggestions from a senior administrator who has not taught for the past 15 years.

Unfortunately, systems change is often attempted from the top of the spiral through mandates, regulations, directives, and policies. Time after time, these approaches fail to solve the problems and achieve the desired results. In Value-Added Leadership (1997), Sergiovanni suggests that people participate at work according to their minimum contractual requirements, giving a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.” When change is necessary, how can these people be motivated to exceed their minimum requirements without also creating the resistance that so often limits efforts to change?

Such resistance is just one of the problems that can doom to failure a top-down mandate for change. Other common problems include vague directions, competing agendas, system inertia, and lack of openness.

Is there another way?
Is there an effective alternative to top-down systems change? We believe it is possible to present systems change using a nondirective "if you build it, they will come" approach. This is not a revolutionary concept. The approach often depends on individuals whose vision of the need for change is so compelling and responsive to basic needs and fundamental values that they motivate their supporters (and staff) as well as others who would be affected by the change to willingly become involved in the change effort. Instead of using a top-down approach, these people achieve change by using words to mobilize others and by demonstrating their beliefs through their actions. This is what we call the "if you build it, they will come" approach. These individuals lead by example and lead from within the level of the society, school, or organization at which they believe change should occur.

This “if you build it, they will come” approach to change can also be used by educators at all levels of the educational spiral (in classes, schools, districts, etc.) to create visions of change that invite people to embrace and become involved in systems change. Superintendents or district-wide teams can lead the change process in school districts; principals or school-wide teams can lead the change process in their schools; and family members can play similar roles in their communities. Sergiovanni (1997) believes that to achieve this type of commitment, one must:

These steps require an intimate understanding of the environmental needs and the stakeholders in a systems change. The leader must be familiar with the environment in which change will occur. It has been demonstrated time after time that using a more collaborative, personal approach (as opposed to a traditional, top-down approach) creates change.

Imagine the tapering spiral once more as it winds more tightly downward and the scope of influence becomes more specific and individual. From the broadest levels to the most focused points of implementation, leadership and the focus of change are apparent. The tapering spiral allows the free-flowing movement of ideas by involving those who would be affected by the change. This approach allows for change to be "built" that fits a school, community, or state’s needs.

Looking to BEST and OSEP
One example of applying the "if you build it, they will come" approach to meeting a need is Utah’s BEST (Behavioral and Educational Strategies for Teachers) Project. As in most states, there are many requests in Utah for staff development in strategies for discipline, school/class management, and specialized academic/social interventions. The collaborative efforts of the Utah State Office of Education, Utah’s Consortium of Schools, universities, parent centers, and agencies developed the BEST Project to respond to this need. Instead of mandating change, Utah created a system that combines model demonstration projects with engaging training and support. Every year, BEST training seminars and workshops are filled — not because attendance is required but because the training content is relevant and develops valued professional skills that can make a difference for all students, including the most difficult. Utah has enhanced the learning environments in many schools by communicating a need for improved services, providing a vision of how to improve these services, and providing engaging opportunities for improving services.

The BEST Project is an example of how a statewide need can be addressed using this nontraditional approach to change. But how can distant, "top-down" forces such as major national studies effect change within individual states, school districts, schools, or even classrooms? How can a national committee really understand the numerous communities they want to change? Change can be encouraged at all levels when state, district, and school leaders allow and help educators visualize how particular changes relate to their work with students.

One example of how to work toward effective, national change is the participatory planning process used by the United States Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) to develop a national agenda for a "national preparedness" that would improve outcomes for children and youth with emotional and behavioral problems. This planning process included families and youth and involved thousands of stakeholders from regular and special education, mental health, and child welfare. These individuals collaborated to identify the following seven guidelines (targets) for change for schools to have a positive effect on students:

Instead of mandating a federal agenda, the Department of Education released its agenda as a national agenda that other federal agencies, states, and communities could adapt to their own situations. Consistent with Sergiovanni’s points, the agenda communicated the need for change, provided a vision of the results of change, and provided a map to realize the change. The Department of Education also communicated the agenda in a manner that facilitated local adaptation and galvanized local support. This nontraditional, collaborative approach can ensure that these important seven concepts become a reality in schools rather than part of a report resting on someone’s shelf.

As OSEP’s planning process suggests, states, districts, and schools must rely on individuals to embrace the concepts and persuade others who would be affected by the change to also embrace the concepts. The ability of large organizations to influence change is directly related to the degree of its involvement with people on each level.

Building for change
It is not just what an organization does to effect change, but more important, how the organization does it that determines the success of its change efforts. A state can offer support to district-level educators, convincing them that state guidelines are necessary. District-level educators can support the schools in their quest to create positive learning environments, to accept and embrace diversity, to collaborate with families, and to create staff development opportunities that support change in the schools. An individual administrator can build and support an environment that emphasizes a positive attitude, acceptance of diversity, a belief that families are important factors in children’s education and greater community involvement. Individual teachers can come to believe in these concepts and persuade others to become believers and supporters of change. At each level, an individual’s or group’s passion and clarity of vision can lead others to the vision on their own. The ultimate test of an individual’s influence is that person’s ability to move down the spiral and connect with another person’s beliefs, intentions, and desired outcomes in a way that motivates that person to join the change effort.

Adopting a Difficult Youth in Your Heart

Although building resilient settings is a collective matter, effective change occurs one person at a time. You can apply this principle by adopting a difficult youth in your heart. Simply select a difficult student and show him or her small acts of compassion and caring over the next month in ways that do not embarrass the student. This can be as subtle as:

Saying hello.

Smiling when you encounter the student.

Having a conversation with the student.

Recognizing an accomplishment of the student.

Performing acts of courtesy toward the student (e.g., opening a door, picking up something dropped).

Praising the student in a meaningful way.

Writing positive notes on the student's papers.

Research on resilient youth has shown that the first step toward positive change in a child's life is having contact with an available, nurturing adult. This adult is often an educator. Adopting a difficult youth in your heart can be the first step toward resilient change in the youth you serve.

Resilience requires settings that are filled by adults who want to work with children and youth. In many cases, using an “if you build it, they will come” approach can help minimize the resistance to building these settings while maximizing the commitment of adults to creating environments that respond to the needs of difficult children. This approach can include demonstrating desired behaviors instead of relying on the enforcement of mandates or directives to support the change process. By providing a vision of what can work, those who lead out in change efforts can build on the desires of most people to help children and youth.


Sergiovanni, T. J. (1997). Value-added leadership: How to get extraordinary performance in schools. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

U.S Department of Education. (1994). National agenda to achieve better results for children and youth with serious emotional disturbance. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

This feature: Reavis, K., Battalio, R., Osher, D., Rhode, G., Jenson, W. and Hofmeister,A. (1999) If You Build It, They Will Come: A Nontraditional Approach for Systems Change. Reaching Today's Youth, Vol. 3 No.4 Summer 1999, pp. 15-17