Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory states that child development is influenced by a child’s interpersonal, social, and cultural settings.
In other words, the development of an individual is the result of the complete ‘ecology’ of the child (consisting of biological, interpersonal, social, and cultural factors).
The 5 Levels of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory
Bronfenbrenner’s ecological system is made up of 5 levels, with each successive level being a superset of the one preceding it.
These levels can be conceptualized visually as a ring of 5 concentric circles expanding outwards from the innermost (microsystem), to the outermost (chronosystem).
The microsystem is the system of influences in the most immediate proximity to the child.
These include institutions such as the family, the school, religion, and groups such as the child’s immediate peer group.
The mesosystem is the sphere where the child’s microsystems interact with each other, and in turn, influence the child.
For instance, the school and the family are two microsystems.
When the child’s teachers at school interact with the parents in providing feedback (the child is a fast-learner, or the child has difficulty fitting in), this loops back into shaping the child’s personality.
The prefix ‘exo’ is related to external, and thus an exosystem relates to factors that are not directly related to the child, and yet have an effect on the child.
For instance, if one or both the parents have a job that requires frequently relocating to a different geography (such as serving in the armed forces), the child may have to frequently shift schools and make new friends.
This can have a major influence in shaping the child’s personality.
The macrosystem is the larger, overarching cultural, social, and political context in which the child finds themselves embedded.
For instance, different societies have different cultural norms and values that children imbibe. A child growing up in a tribal community in sub-Saharan Africa is shaped by a different macrosystem than another child growing up in an urban Scandinavian town.
‘Chronos’ means time in Greek, and the chronosystem relates to the set of changes that occur in a person’s life over a period of time.
These changes could be personal events, such as the divorce of one’s parents, the loss of a sibling or friend, or they could be external, such as wars, natural disasters, etc.
The chronosystem thus extends well beyond the childhood stage of development, and accounts for factors influencing human development throughout their life.
Examples of Ecological Systems Theory in Practice
1. Head Start Program
The Head Start Program is a program run by the government of the United States that provides assistance relating to child health, nutrition, and education to low income families in the US.
The program was launched in 1965, and Urie Bronfenbremmer was a key advisor to the US government in designing the program (Fox, 2005).
Bronfenbremmer’s ideas on the ecology of human development were contrary to the popular opinion of the times that did not account for wider social and cultural influences on human development.
The program today serves over 1 million underprivileged children and their families in the US, focusing on holistic,all-round development. Numerous studies have confirmed the tangible benefits to children of the Head Start program.
A 2019 study for instance, found that children who attended Head Start programs ended with higher incomes as adults compared to those that did not (De Haan & Leuvin, 2019).
Another study reported that students that were part of the Head Start program had greater probabilities of completing school, and demonstrated higher college enrolment and college completion rates than those who were not part of the program (Bailey et. al, .2021).
2. Transforming Mental Health Practice
Bronfenbremmer’s ecological model is applicable not just to children, but to adults as well.
For instance Rupert (2017) and Eriksson et. al. (2018) have reported how taking a holistic, ecological approach to tackling mental health issues among adults yields better outcomes than treating mental illnesses as if they arise in a vacuum.
3. Working With Immigrants and Their Children
Immigration has been crucial to the continued economic growth of several first world countries such as the USA, Canada. Australia, and the UK.
However, immigration also brings with it challenges for both the immigrant and the host community as the new arrivals struggle to adjust to and integrate with their new surroundings.
Paat (2013) has shown that using insights from Breonfrenbrenner’s ecological systems theory helps social workers and community organizers better conceptualize the ecological context in which immigrants and their children are steeped.
It follows then, that they can design better programs and initiatives that can make the transition smoother, for both the immigrant and the host community.
Pros and Cons of Ecological Systems Theory
|Pros of Ecological Systems Theory||Cons of Ecological Systems Theory|
|1. It’s holistic rather than reductionist.||1. It is difficult to text empirically.|
|2. It has a wide range of applications.||2. Its terms and categoriesare sometimes vague.|
|3. It provides actionable inputs, making it a practical framework.|
1. Holistic Rather Than Reductionist
Prior to Bronfenbrenner’s formulation, it was the norm in the scientific community to conduct scientific experiments by isolating the subject and drawing inferences from the behavior observed in setting.
The assumption was that what would be applicable to the subject in conditions of laboratory-induced isolation would also be applicable in other conditions.
Bronfenbrenner however believed that while such a reductionist/isolationist laboratory approach may work for niche fields such as molecular biology, it can not always be applied to the subject of human development.
2. Wide Application
The ecological systems theory finds application across a number of fields – from classrooms, to immigrant support services, to helping underprivileged children.
EST can even be applied to the corporate world by, for instance, helping companies innovate through the use of the ecological systems theory.
Such an approach, as outlined by Costello & Donnellan (2011) views innovation in a business setting as an ecosystem with internal and external components, rather than in isolation.
3. Provides Actionable Inputs
Unlike many other theories in the social sciences, the ecological systems theory provides credible actionable inputs that can translate to public policy action implemented for the betterment of society.
For instance, the recommendations of the theory have been used to design community support services in the US and elsewhere.
1. Difficult to Test Empirically
While the application of the ecological systems theory in practice has yielded tangible positive outcomes, it is not always clear that such outcomes were, in fact, caused by the application of the ecological systems theory.
2. Vaguely Understood Systems
Several aspects of the theory such as the mesosystem and the chronosystem remain vaguely defined and understood.
For instance, the mechanism(s) through which the components of the mesosystem such as the family, school, friends, etc. interact with each other to affect a child’s development are not clearly understood (Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000).
Who is Urie Bronfenbrenner?
Ecological Systems Theory was devised in its present form by the Russia-born American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner in 1974.
Prior to Bronfenbrenner’s formulation, it was widely believed that a child’s social and psychological development was affected primarily by biological factors.
What little social influence was accepted on child development was attributed to interpersonal, one-to-one interactions between the child and another individual, such as a parent or a stranger.
Bronfenbrenner gave a comprehensive model of child development that explained how the larger ecosystem affects child development in a two-way interaction.
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Bailey, M.J., Sun, S., & Timpe, B. (2021). Prep school for poor kids: The long-run impacts of Head Start on human capital and economic self-sufficiency. American Economic Review. 111 (12), 3963–4001
Costello, G.J., & Donnellan, B. (2011, August) An Ecological Perspective on Innovation Management Conference: Making a World of Difference: Nation Building and the Role of Management Education
De Haan, M. & Leuvin, E. (2019). Head Start and the distribution of long-term education and labor market outcomes. Journal of Labor Economics. 38 (3), 727–765.
Eriksson, M., Ghazinour, M. & Hammarström, A. (2018) Different uses of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory in public mental health research: What is their value for guiding public mental health policy and practice?. Social Theory and Health 16, 414–433.
Leventhal, T., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2000). The neighborhoods they live in: the effects of neighborhood residence on child and adolescent outcomes. Psychological Bulletin, 126(2), 309.
Margalit, F. (2005) Urie Bronfenbremmer, 88, an authority on child development dies The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/27/nyregion/urie-bronfenbrenner-88-an-authority-on-child-development-dies.html
Paat, Y. F. (2013). Working with immigrant children and their families: An application of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 23(8), 954-966.
Rupert, A. (2017) A socio-ecological framework for mental health and well-being Advances in Mental Health 15(2), 105-107.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.