No Better Time: Systems Thinking for All

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The Ideas & Solutions blog is intended to provide a forum for the discussion of child care and early education issues and ideas. We hope to provoke thoughtful discussions within the field and to help those outside the field gain a better understanding of priorities and concerns.

By: Tracy Benson, President, Waters Center for Systems Thinking

Originally published in the Winter 2021 Issue of Kansas Child Magazine

A System Is a Collection of Related Parts

Having recently been absent, Marisa enthusiastically returned to school. Her teacher, Ms. Vicky, as she did with all children returning after being away, eagerly waited to greet her.

“Marisa, it’s so wonderful to see you! We missed your smile. We missed the way you help others, and the clever ideas you share during story circle time. Our system wasn’t the same without you.”

Hearing the teacher’s enthusiastic greeting, some of Marisa’s classmates chimed in by adding, “Marisa, like when a puzzle piece was missing over there (pointing to puzzle station). It was like a big hole. When we found it, the puzzle was done. You’re like the lost piece, and it’s good you’re back!”

“Ya, in story circle, we all had to try harder to think and figure out what would  happen next ‘cuz you weren’t around. I’m glad you’re back, too.”

Ms. Vicky then stepped in: “You’re all such important members of our classroom system. When you’re absent, we miss your contributions, as each of you is key to our learning and make us all better learners and friends. We are better together!”

It is classrooms like this that demonstrate how our youngest learners are very capable of seeing systems as connected parts. The Our Classroom is a System example shows how children hold themselves accountable to the system with watchful eyes, have the ability to make changes and are determined to get better as systems thinkers.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a way of seeing our world. This perspective helps us make connections and see patterns. Like a finished puzzle with all the pieces in place, children see their world as naturally connected. When changes are made to classroom rou- tines or even furniture arrangements, they observe how modifications to their system cause change. They recognize that change has an effect. Early childhood systems are complex with many moving parts that can sometimes be disconnected, resulting in undesirable results for children, educators and families. A systems-thinking approach helps people of all ages see the whole and develop an understanding of how different parts affect one another. Knowing the system helps identify places to intervene in order to leverage resources and expertise.

Habits of a Systems Thinker

At the Waters Center for Systems Thinking, we have seen care providers, preschool teachers, center directors, early childhood leaders and policymakers apply the Habits of a Systems Thinker to positively affect their work. There are 14 Habits that all work together and complement one another to help people of all ages intentionally practice the behaviors of systems thinking. The Waters Center utilizes Habits of a Systems Thinker cards to help learners familiarize themselves with these concepts.

Taking a Deep Dive into the Habits

The Big Picture

Systems thinkers Seek to Understand the Big Picture. The illustration for this Habit shows a person on a balcony taking in a wide array of trees, grasses and living things that are affected by water, air and climate. The view includes buildings and roads that have an effect on nature and people.

As in Ms. Vicky’s classroom, relationships between people (children and adults) and other parts such as classroom resources, schedules and les- sons, are all aspects of the interconnected big picture.

To practice this Habit, systems thinkers might ask, “How can I maintain balance between the big picture and important details? To what degree is my big-picture view focused on areas of influence, rather than areas of concern that I cannot influence?”


An important aspect of seeking the big picture is the recognition of how parts of the system are connected. A systems thinker Makes Meaningful Connections Within and Between Systems. Connections are the links and cause-and-effect relationships that make a system work. Children saw the effect of a classmate’s absence and described that effect on their learning and interactions.

There is great value in seeking the connections between the various aspects of the early childhood system. For example, access to child care and preschool, kindergarten readiness, responsive policymaking, governance, family services and support, pediatric health care service, funding sources, workforce development, and more are all interconnected and have an effect on the system as a whole. Systems thinkers strive to forge connections by building structures for communication and collaboration between and among seemingly disparate parts.

Systems thinkers might ask, “How can recognizing the many aspects of a system create a better understanding of the system as a whole?”

System Structure

System structure is essential to generate meaningful connections and improved system performance. Systems thinkers Recognize that a System’s Structure Generates its Behavior. The kite and pinwheel in this illustration behave quite differently on a windy day. Here, the design or structure of the toy causes one object to fly, and the other to spin.

Just like two different toys behave differently on a windy day, children will respond differently to established classroom or fam- ily structures like routines, expectations, or lessons. For teachers, have you ever taught the exact same lesson to different groups of children and observed completely different responses or results? For families, have you noticed how an unexpected occurrence such as a change in routine or an after- hours work call causes children to demonstrate different behaviors than expected? For governing bodies, how does messaging about a new policy get interpreted and implemented by individuals from various parts of the system?

Systems thinkers might ask, “How does the organization and interaction of the parts create the behavior that emerges? When things go wrong, how can I focus on internal causes rather than dwell on external blame?”

Mental Models

Life experiences, cultural backgrounds and personal preferences influence how we interpret the world around us. Mental models are the assumptions, beliefs and values we hold that influence the way we view, pay attention to and interpret day-to-day situations. Our mental models cause us to notice, prefer, ignore, or focus on particular aspects of daily life. Everyone has mental models and, like the thought bubbles in this drawing, they are often apparent only to the person who holds them. For example, when a family considers pet adoption, the decision generates different mental models. A child sees the new pet as something to love and hug, while a cautious parent questions the cost to feed and care for this new family member. Mental models affect how people interpret life experiences and how they make decisions and solve problems. Because no single mental model completely represents a true and valid picture of a system, systems thinkers strive to see the world through the eyes of others by changing perspectives to increase understanding.

Systems thinkers might ask, “How are the current mental models advancing or hindering our efforts to achieve desired results? How am I helping others see the influence that mental models have on our decision-making?”


The ability to Change Perspectives to Increase Understanding transcends empathy. This Habit challenges us to get in the shoes of others and strive to see the world from different viewpoints. The perspective of a single person regarding a system is incomplete and limited. It is by experiencing multiple perspectives that a more complete picture emerges. Consider the value of asking children what they like most about their school, and families what they value about their child’s care and education. Responses often vary, and by collecting the various perspectives people have, early educators are in ideal positions to meet the diverse needs of all those they serve.

Systems thinkers might ask, “Whom should I approach to help me gain new perspectives on an issue? As I learn about new perspectives, am I willing to change my mind?”

No Better Time

Systems thinkers embrace new ways of thinking, and new ways of doing that result in a welcoming attitude toward change and innovation. The growing complexity and challenges facing today’s families and early childhood educators make a systems thinking approach more important than ever. The Habits of Systems Thinking help people navigate complex system relationships and area great way to get started as a learner. Systems thinking is not limited to adult learners. There has been much research that supports young children’s ability to think in complex and abstract ways. Young children see the world as naturally connected and interdependent. They do not view problems as challenges that require specific mathematical or scientific frameworks, but as holistic conditions that call for unbiased observation, unaffected recall, and the wisdom of a beginner’s mind ready to discover new insights and understanding.

When early education systems are designed to encourage children to reflect, predict, make connections, question, and hypothesize, the result is deep learning and understanding. Systems thinking is for everyone, and there is no better time to become a Systems Thinker. To learn more about other Habits of a Systems Thinker, explore free online courses, systems thinking tools and resources, visit the Thinking Tools Studio, a learning system powered by the Waters Center for Systems Thinking.

Tracy Benson Ed.D. is the President of a 501(c)(3) non- profit, the Waters Center for Systems Thinking. With 35-plus years working at PreK-20 levels, she leads a team that provides technical assistance, coaching and facilitation to a wide range of education and community-based systems.

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