Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots. —Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Complex problems require systemic solutions. When it comes to making sure that every child is fully ready for school, it’s crucial that you move beyond building solutions through individual programs. Community systems development is an approach to change that addresses the web of interdependencies that exist throughout the early childhood system and larger community system.

Vulnerable children and families do not experience life in a silo—they interact with many of the same providers, for example, as they access food or medical care. When you think and act systemically, your community will realize meaningful impact.

Understanding systems and becoming a systems change agent takes knowledge and practice. One thing that may help: Think about systems in a context outside of the early childhood field as a starting point. This video, for example, describes how reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park resulted in a river changing course. In the end, it’s a beautiful example of the interdependencies and adaptation among system actors.

Big problems are rarely solved with big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions—sometimes over weeks, sometimes years.

Systemic thinking, action, and change can happen at every level—federal, state, regional, local, etc. In Illinois, the Office of Early Childhood Development is facilitating state-level system-building efforts to align policies and practices across state agencies, as well as to fill in missing pieces of the system. Program-level solutions and person-to-person training are limited by those who received the training or program. Systems change improves the entire infrastructure to make it work better for children and families.

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