Bronfenbrenner’s mesosystem is defined as the relationships between influential actors in a child’s life. Examples of mesosystems include parent-teacher relationships, parent-church relationships, and sibling-parent relationships.
A strong mesosystem (in other words, a strongly interconnected community of people surrounding a child) is believed by Bronfenbrenner to help a child’s holistic development.
Mesosystem Definition & Explanation
The mesosystem is the second level in Bronfenbrenner’s 5-tiered model of child development called the ecological systems theory.
The model can be visualized as a series of nested circles with the child at its center. Each circle represents a system that shapes a child’s psycho-social development.
The closer a circle or a system is to the child, the greater is the degree of immediate influence it exerts on the development of the child.
Mesos in Greek means middle or intermediary. The mesosystem thus acts as an intermediate space where the various microsystems such as the family, the school, the peer group, etc. interact with each other and in turn influence the individual.
According to Newman and Newman (2020) a mesosystem “comprises the interrelations among two or more settings in which the developing person actively participates.”
Bronfenbrenner proposed that the greater the number of links between the various microsystems within a mesosystem, the better would be the developmental outcomes for the individual (Howard & Johnson, 2003).
An Analogy for Understanding Mesosystems
One way of conceptualizing the mesosystem is thinking of it as a house, and the various microsystems as rooms within the house (Calkins, 2018).
An individual might inhabit different rooms at different points of time, moving from one to another as required.
If the various rooms are well connected with each other with multiple entries and exit passages, the members of the household can easily move from one room to another, and thus feel a greater sense of belonging to the house and to each other.
Taking this analogy to real life, we can see that if a child is able to seamlessly transition between interacting with parents, teachers, church, sports clubs, siblings, peer groups, etc. without there being conflicting rules, advice, or worldviews, then the child will have a stronger sense of belonging and safety across all the contexts in which they live.
What is the Ecological Systems Theory?
Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) developed his ecological systems model in the 1970s.
The model was developed in response to the prevailing theories of child development that privileged the role of biological factors in the psycho-social development of an individual.
Bronfenbrenner proposed that the development of an individual is in fact the product of the entire ecosystem of institutions, norms, interactions, and events that surround an individual, and not just of biological factors alone.
1. The Student-Teacher-Parent Mesosystem
The family and the school are perhaps the two most important microsystems that impact a child’s psycho-social development.
One of the most common mesosystems then is the one composed of the family, the child, and the child’s teachers.
One way in which the family and the school microsystems interact is in the manner in which the child absorbs what he or she is taught in either setting. For instance, certain values taught at school might either conflict or be reinforced by the values a child learns at home.
Ideally, the teacher and parents should form a team where they share common goals and values to support the child’s growth. This would form a healthy mesosystem for the child.
Furthermore, a child’s environment at home will likely affect his or her performance in school. In case a child does not have a family that values school and homework, then the child may suffer at school. Here, we can see why a cohesive mesosystem is so important.
2. The Family-Day Care-Child Mesosystem
Daycares, including creches, are increasingly becoming an important institution of modern family life.
Daycares provide childcare services in instances where parents are unable to devote themselves completely to childcare or where they might need additional help.
In such cases, the childcare duties are split between the family and the childcare institution, each of which acts as a team to support the child.
As a result, the child’s development is influenced by the interaction of both the microsystems (Bradley, 2010). Parents usually exercise their choice in deciding which daycare institution to pick for their child so the daycare’s values match their own. This choice in turn influences the development of the child.
3. The Family-Peer Group Mesosystem
Just like the family, a child’s peer group is also an important microsystem. The interaction between the family and a child’s peers constitutes a mesosystem.
Espelage (2014) gives the example of bullying to explain the workings of the family-peer group mesosystem.
A child who is bullied by his or her peers at school or in the playground may feel traumatized. However, support from the family can go a long way in negating the effects of such negative peer group influence.
Thus, the family and the peer group interact with the child to create a mesosystem in which the child’s self is shaped.
4. Schools and Extra-curricular Institutional Learning
The school is an important microsystem that is primarily responsible for a child’s education. The school teaches both curriculum content as well as providing ‘hidden curriculum’ instruction on morals and ethics.
However, in many cases schools link up with other institutions to ensure that students can broaden their horizons and understand the world outside their textbooks.
For instance, Howard and Johnson (2003) studied two schools in an underprivileged neighborhood whose students were involved in providing voluntary assistance and care to an elderly care center in the neighborhood.
Their studies revealed that the two institutions (the school and the elderly care center) together formed a mesosystem that shaped the students’ understanding of society, human nature, and their responsibility to their community.
By being involved with caring for the elderly, the students acquired positive values such as empathy and responsibility that could not be achieved through learning in school or at home alone.
Here, we can see how parents, teachers, and schools can use extra-curricular settings to create a more holistic mesosystem for the child’s development.
5. Religion – Health System-Peer Group Mesosystem
Religion is an important microsystem that has a lasting impact on the psycho-social development of an individual.
Religion interacts in multiple ways with the other microsystems in a child’s immediate proximity.
For instance, the practice of several religions may include observing dietary restrictions, such as avoiding certain foods, being a vegetarian, avoiding certain medications, and so on.
In many cases, this can conflict with the involvement of the child with the healthcare system that may insist upon the consumption of the proscribed foods or medications for health reasons.
Similarly, the consumption of certain intoxicants may be strictly prohibited by certain religions, such as the consumption of certain beverages in Islam, or the consumption of tobacco in Sikhism.
However, an adolescent may feel pressured by his or her peer group to try intoxicants as a part of socializing. Such conflicts between the various microsystems can traumatize an individual, but can also equip them to face difficult situations and take firm decisions in life.
For instance, in this case, the intervention of yet another microsystem such as the health system that educates adolescents of the ill effects of certain substances may help them resist peer pressure and take a stand.
What are the Other Layers in the Ecological Systems Theory?
The ecological systems theory contains 5 levels from closest to the child to farthest away. They are:
Each layer impacts the child’s development in its own way. By breaking up all the social influences on a child’s development into five categories, we can start to analyze how children’s development is influenced not just by biological but also social, cultural, historical, and other contextual factors.
In Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems model, each circle is a superset of the circles that it contains.
Since the mesosystem is the second layer in the system, it is made up of the interaction of the various microsystems.
Furthermore, the greater the interaction and linkages between the various microsystems, the better the development outcomes for the child.
We can compare this to how synapses connect different neurons in our brain and together they form one large neural network. The greater the linkages between the various neurons via the synapses, the greater the degree of neurotransmission in the brain, and consequently, the greater is the efficiency of the brain. In general, a greater degree of linkages between the various nodes of a network results in better operational outcomes.
Mesosystems too work in the same manner.
Bouchard, K.L. & Smith, D.J. (2016) Teacher–student relationship quality and children’s bullying experiences with peers: Reflecting on the mesosystem. The Educational Forum 81(1), 108-125. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/00131725.2016.1243182
Bradley, R. H. (2010). From home to day care: Chaos in the family/child-care mesosystem. In G. W. Evans & T. D. Wachs (Eds.), Chaos and its influence on children’s development: An ecological perspective (pp. 135–153). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/12057-009
Calkins, M.P. (2018) Memory care and Alzheimer’s units in A.S. Devlin (ed) Environmental Psychology and Human Well-Being: Effects of Built and Natural Settings (pp365-386) Academic Press.
Espelage, D.L. (2014) Ecological Theory: Preventing youth bullying, aggression, and victimization Theory into Practice 53(4), 257-264. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405841.2014.947216
Howard, S. & Johnson, B. (2003). Only Connect: A Case study of mesosystem links. Journal of the Children’s Issues Centre 7(2), 43-49. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/INFORMIT.366696281574541
Newman, B.M. & Newman, P.R. (2020) Ecological theories In B.M. Newman & P.R. Newman (Eds.) Theories of Adolescent Development, (pp. 313-335) Elsevier.
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.