Developing Very Young Systems Thinkers

Several years ago, teachers from Valley View Early Learning Center (VVELC) in the Catalina Foothills School District in Tucson, Arizona participated in a Waters Foundation Introduction to Systems Thinking workshop.  A wide variety of instructional strategies, tools and practice exercises related to systems thinking were presented with the goal of encouraging teachers to use these strategies with their preschool children.  At first, the reaction was skepticism as the VVELC educators were not sure that 3 and 4 year old children could learn to use the tools, and further wondered if the tools were even developmentally appropriate for young children. Yet, with a little encouragement from their Director, Dana Mulay, and a strong belief in children’s capabilities, teachers Jen Parker, Jennifer Dooley, Lauren Clarke and Cynthia Zuniga dove in and brought systems thinking to their children. Thus began a learning adventure for both teachers and children as they all discovered the power and benefits of systems thinking visual tools.  The learning discoveries included the recognition that systems thinking helped children become self-regulated learners capable of taking on different perspectives and making connections as they actively engaged in the learning process. 

Valley View Early Learning Center ( is one of several preschool learning environments that have embraced the value of visual systems tools to support children’s innate abilities to see connections and think systemically.  Their teachers incorporate tools like behavior-over-time graphs (BOTGs) to help children identify patterns and trends and then consider the causal factors that influence those trends over time.  BOTGs are simple line graphs that children draw to show change over time.  When introduced within a developmentally appropriate environment, these graphs provide children a way to express their understanding of stories and systems of interest showing deep levels of thinking rarely seen in preschool classrooms.  “Their ability to do these graphs really surprised me,” said VVELC teacher Jen Parker after trying BOTGs with her children.  “The graph itself wasn’t perfect, but the conversation and vocabulary that children used as they talked about the graph was at a level I have never heard before.” 

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When teachers first introduce BOTGs, they often use the technique of guiding children through the sequencing of key events of a story by placing pictures that depict those events along the x-axis (horizontal axis) of a graph. The teacher chooses one key element within the story that changes over time, as in the size of a character (I Know a Coyote Who Swallowed a Flea), the level of happiness of a particular character (The Pout- Pout Fish or Ladybug’s Birthday) or the number of objects that change (The Napping House).  Using pictures, degrees of the changing element are drawn along the y-axis of the graph (e.g. pictures of big, medium and little, happy and sad faces or numbers).  The y-axis pictures help children see the range that is possible when focusing on the change.   Together, the teacher and children identify the level of the changing element at each point of the story and ultimately draw a line with key points or dots along the way to show the trend line.

The teachers at VVELC and other preschools who have worked with Waters Foundation coaches have come to value BOTGs because they:

  • help children notice change over time, instead of focusing on single events
  • help children understand causes for change
  • help children think more deeply about what is happening and why
  • allow children to express and communicate ideas visually
  • increase vocabulary
  • create engaging activities and facilitate lively discussions

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 In addition to BOTGs, teachers at VVELC and other preschools throughout the country also incorporate casual loop diagrams and stock and flow maps to bring developmentally appropriate challenge and engagement to their learning centers.

Director Dana Mulay explains, “As a program, we were working to improve instructional support for analysis and reasoning, advanced language, and prompting thought processes. The visual tools helped teachers be more intentional about including higher level thinking skills in the planning and implementation of their daily practice.”

 As Jen Parker, teacher of 3 and 4 year old children at VVELC, reflects on her experience using systems thinking habits and tools, she concludes, “Systems thinking uses simple tools that create engaging conversations and many opportunities for higher level thinking. I have noticed a change in my students’ thinking; 3-5 year old children are noticing patterns in stories, having in-depth conversations about emotions, and showing a deeper understanding of specific concepts.” 

The results include the delivery of long-lasting academic results, social/emotional wellness and lifetime benefits to children.  This approach reinforces children’s natural capacity to see whole systems, to connect learning with real-world situations and to begin to anticipate and predict results of actions. Teachers involved in a systems thinking approach are intentional about the learning environment they create and the teaching and learning strategies they use in the classroom to promote children’s thinking capacities.

After Jen Parker and Tracy Benson, President of Systems Thinking in Schools, Waters Foundation, facilitated a session about systems thinking for early childhood environments at the 2013 NAEYC conference, they heard from many participants planning on trying to use the tools with their students.  “I think I can do this, and it will be so exciting to see my children learn along with me!”

To explore examples of how early childhood teachers are using systems thinking tools with literature, see “Early Childhood – Systems Thinking and Children’s Literature”.