Systems theory promoting early child development programmes. Perhaps it is all about pastry!

'...disabilities and impairments interact with each other as the infant’s neurology matures...'

Systems theory tells us that when parts join together into a system, new characteristics emerge that were not present in the parts. Here are two articles:


ONE: ECDAN ‘Accelerating promotion of early child development through systems’

Mixed-method evidence review of the potential applications of systems thinking in scaled efforts to enable every child to thrive

Key finding 1: There are compelling drivers towards systems thinking in ECD.

KIs described an increased focus on systems across multiple sectors over variable periods of
time. Often this was described as arising from the need for innovative approaches to tackle
complex problems where traditional (single intervention) approaches were perceived to fall
short. Especially when addressing complexity and in the context of challenges with sustainable
and equitable implementation and scaling. These resonated with similar identified challenges
in promotion of ECD at scale.

Executive summary:


TWO: Team Around the Child is a systems approach to babies and infants who have significant challenges to their development and learning.

See Early Childhood Intervention without Tears, Chapter 3: ‘Team Around the Child as a systems approach’.  

This chapter includes the following account of how systems thinking joins a child’s separate diagnoses in to a single unique multifaceted condition:

“The infant’s single, unique, never-been-seen-before multifaceted condition

In my view we have all made a serious mistake during the last fifty years or so. We have known that an infant with a motor disability, or a language delay, or a visual or hearing impairment would most likely benefit from a physiotherapist, or a speech and language therapist, or a specialist teacher. The mistake we then made, for the best of reasons, was to decide that an infant with all of those conditions needed all of those practitioners and, probably, at the same time.

This additive and fragmented approach has put a massive strain on infants, families and support agencies. My argument, with all of those   infants, families and practitioners in mind, is that we stop thinking in multiples, stop thinking that multiple disabilities mean multiple practitioners and multiple programmes. I want to go further and suggest that, in respect of a particular infant’s development and learning, there cannot ever be ‘multiple disabilities’ – only a single and unique multifaceted condition.

I have found it useful to use the difference between ‘pantry’ and ‘pastry’ to explain the multifaceted condition. The baking ingredients on the pantry shelf represent the multiple diagnoses or labels of disabilities, while the resulting pastry is the multifaceted condition. Systems thinking tells us that flour, fat and sugar each have their own characteristics as they sit in their separate packets on the pantry shelf. We can move them to new shelves, replace any of them with better brands and use each of them in a variety of ways. But once they are cooked into pastry, they emerge as a new whole entity with entirely new characteristics of nutritional value, texture, taste and smell. It is too late now to wish we had used brown flour or  Demerara sugar or vegetable fat. These ingredients can no longer be found in the pastry in the form in which they existed in the pantry nor can they be separated out from the pastry.

The TAC systems approach suggests an infant’s ‘separate’ disabilities of movement, vision, cognition, etc get cooked together as new multi-component skills are achieved. When an infant with cerebral palsy and vision impairment reaches for a bauble with increasing success, can we think of the motor skill separately from the visual skill? When an infant has hearing loss, intellectual disability and autism, they face a triple challenge in relating to and communicating with others. When they master the skill of answering the question, ‘Do you want a drink?’, I do not imagine the neurological pathway established in this new learning will have three separate strands in it corresponding to the three diagnostic labels. They are surely fused together in the infant’s learning.

So, by this thinking, these infants are not carrying a bundle of separate impairments and disabilities as they struggle to learn. Instead, each has his or her own multifaceted condition with the multiples of separate entities existing only in the minds of others. It is to this multifaceted condition that each early childhood intervention service must respond, eliminating its own multiples of separate practitioners and programmes and coming to an integrated system.

It is encouraging to remember that, while disabilities and impairments interact with each other as the infant’s neurology matures, so too do the infant’s emerging abilities, skills and understanding – all part of rich interactive mix of the globally functioning infant.” (Pages 31 and 32)


Limbrick, P. (2017) Early Childhood Intervention without Tears, UK. Interconnections

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