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System Mapping in Action

As part of our blog series on system mapping, we’d like to share an example from one of our recent projects that used system mapping techniques to support a broader research effort ultimately seeking to improve early childhood outcomes for children from birth through age 8. 

FSG was engaged by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council of The National Academies to facilitate a system mapping process in support of a consensus study tasked with applying the current science on children’s health, learning, and development to inform how the workforce can be prepared to better support children’s success from birth to age 8 (read the full report).

In order to make recommendations on how to prepare a workforce to more seamlessly support a child's development and learning across a range of different settings and systems that a child encounters as they grow from birth to age 8, the committee and project staff authoring the consensus study needed to visualize who and what made up this so called “birth to 8 system.”

One of the main challenges and goals of this effort was visualizing a broader system that encompassed the landscape of "birth to 8." Typically, this landscape is viewed as a series of siloed systems that support children from ages 0 to 3, 3-5, and then from kindergarten through grade 12, all of which have their own series of actors, organizations, settings, funding streams and policies that don’t necessary talk to each other.  Often, those providing care and education for infants and toddlers don’t see just how connected they are to those working in the K-3 world, and vice versa.

The committee also had to understand and communicate to their audience some fairly complex information:

  • Who made up the primary workforce that provided children with care and education from birth through age 8
  • How they received training and professional learning and development throughout the course of their careers
  • Where were some of the gaps, barriers and opportunities for improving the professional learning and development systems for this very diverse workforce?

Our team conducted several participatory mapping sessions with the committee members and project staff to identify the elements of the “birth to 8 system” (e.g., settings, practitioner roles, other actors, organizations, policies, and funding streams). The purpose of these sessions was to “co-create” the content of the maps and then iterate, iterate, iterate, all the while shifting participants’ perspectives and understanding of the many inter-related elements in this very broad system.

To ensure a true co-creation process, we did not begin by presenting the committee with a fully-fleshed out map based on our own research. Rather, we conducted secondary research to generate initial ideas, which we brought to the first mapping sessions in draft form for the committee and staff to build upon. These initial sessions made use of simple tools like whiteboards and Post-Its to visualize the various “sub-systems” that make up the broader birth to 8 system (e.g., the care and education system, the health system, the social services system, and the family and community system) and their elements.  Further iterations of the maps used PowerPoint and ultimately, an online, interactive platform called Kumu.

We also conducted a series of interviews with experts in early childhood development, care, and education, and practitioners (ranging from a licensed family child care owner to a school district administrator) to further refine the maps and improve our understanding of the gaps and barriers related to professional learning supports for the care and education workforce. 

Ultimately, we produced a series of “actor maps” that were each designed to tell a unique story supported by the IOM consensus study.  For example:

  • A high-level map intended to illustrate the complexity of the system and to highlight specific categories of policies, funding streams, organizations, and practitioners that impact children’s development and learning
  • A care and education “practitioners and settings” map that details the variety of settings and practitioners in the care and education sector and the frequency of interactions those practitioners have with children in each setting.

What happened as a result of this process?

It was exciting to see the influence that the systems mapping process had on the research process itself and to think about the potential influence the maps may have on the users of the report going forward.  Here are just a few of the ways the systems mapping process influenced the consensus study:

Encouraged a broader view of the system: The systems mapping process encouraged the authoring committee and project staff to develop a broader view of the landscape (e.g., libraries, religious institutions, and even toy companies can play a role in a child’s healthy development), while simultaneously digging deep into particular sub-systems or components within the system (e.g., the role credentialing and accreditation bodies play in practitioner preparation and ongoing professional learning).

Helped the committee draw conclusions related to their questions of interest: For example, one observation the  committee  had while looking at the “practitioners and settings” map was that some practitioners are more isolated than others in the settings they work in (e.g. a family child care owner  often works alone in a home setting while a Head Start teacher might engage with a number of other practitioners in a Head Start setting), which led them to ask: What implications might this have on the professional learning supports available to a family child care owner? Who else in the system can this practitioner interact with, learn from, and share resources with?

Prompted new perspectives from early care and education practitioners who interacted with the maps:  Committee members were able to hear first-hand perspectives from practitioners including a pre-K social worker, a home visitor, and a family child care owner in the field as they interacted with the maps.  Some practitioners noted where connections between practitioners were particularly weak or strong, while others identified other actors, organizations, and policies that have had an impact on their access to professional learning. In this case, the maps themselves prompted conversations that ultimately provided important information for the committee’s recommendations.

If this post sparked your interest about the “birth to 8” system, be on the lookout for the upcoming release of the online, interactive series of maps.

Stay tuned for more examples of system mapping in action, and our forthcoming “how to” guide for creating actor system maps.   

Lauren M. Smith

Former Senior Consultant, FSG