Schools as social complex adaptive systems: a new way to understand the challenges of introducing the health promoting schools concept

Soc Sci Med. 2010 May;70(10):1467-74. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.01.034. Epub 2010 Feb 12.


Achieving system-wide implementation of health promotion programs in schools and sustaining both the program and its health related benefits have proved challenging. This paper reports on a qualitative study examining the implementation of health promoting schools programs in primary schools in Sydney, Australia. It draw upon insights from systems science to examine the relevance and usefulness of the concept of "complex adaptive systems" as a framework to better understand ways in which health promoting school interventions could be introduced and sustained. The primary data for the study were collected by semi-structured interviews with 26 school principals and teachers. Additional information was extracted from publicly available school management plans and annual reports. We examined the data from these sources to determine whether schools exhibit characteristics of complex adaptive systems. The results confirmed that schools do exhibit most, but not all of the characteristics of social complex adaptive systems, and exhibit significant differences with artificial and natural systems. Understanding schools as social complex adaptive systems may help to explain some of the challenges of introducing and sustaining change in schools. These insights may, in turn, lead us to adopt more sophisticated approaches to the diffusion of new programs in school systems that account for the diverse, complex and context specific nature of individual school systems.

MeSH terms

  • Health Promotion / methods*
  • Health Promotion / organization & administration
  • Humans
  • Interinstitutional Relations
  • New South Wales
  • Schools / organization & administration*
  • Social Change*
  • Social Conditions
  • Social Environment
  • Students / psychology