Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory Of Child Development

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory of child development is renowned not only for its theoretical foundations, but also its implications on early learning and development. The implications in particular, has deep references to the ecological and socio-cultural perspective of child development.

In this article:

  1. What is Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems theory?
  2. The 5 levels of systems in the Ecological Systems theory
  3. Basic assumptions of (Bio)Ecological Systems theory by Urie Rronfenbrenner
  4. Educational implications of the Ecological Systems theory
  5. Responsibility of the school environment

What is Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory?

Urie Bronfenbrenner, an American psychologist, framed a new sphere of child development with his ecological approach to understand children.

The significance of Bronfenbrenner’s the Ecological Systems Theory of child development lies in the fact that it explains how a child’s immediate environment or surroundings and the (far) away environment have an impact on the growth and development in terms of his/her body and mind.

Bronfenbrenner also goes on to explain how any change of environment at one level has got a ripple effect on all the systems of the child.

The 5 Levels of Systems in the Ecological Systems Theory

Urie Bronfenbrenner proposed the Ecological Systems Theory Model with the belief that the:

“Growth and development of a child depend on the nature of the inherent qualities of a child as well as his environment, and the extent to which they interact with each other.”

Bronfenbrenner categorizes the whole environment of a child into four nested structures, within which and even beyond, a child happens to spend his everyday life.

These five the primary components in the ecological systems approach include:

  1. Microsystem
  2. Mesosystem
  3. Exosystem
  4. Macrosystem
  5. Chronosystem

Let us understand each system and its interaction in detail.

1. Microsystem

Microsystem is the innermost, smallest and immediate environment of a child, and deals with two aspects:

  • The child himself or herself, which is the body
  • The immediate intimate environment the child belongs to

What is Body in the Microsystem?

Body is a life support system and the mobility system through which an individual perceives and interacts with the environment.

The Body of a child has three subsystems, namely:

  1. Biological System – which comprises of the genetic makeup and general health status of a child
  2. Cognitive System – which involves the process of the brain in gathering and interpreting information
  3. Emotional System – which deals with determining the degree of exhibiting and responding to emotions

What is ‘Immediate Environment’?

The immediate environment consists of three entities which together have a direct impact on the child’s well-being. They are:

a) Family

Of the three, the family is the closest, most intense, most durable and most influential part of the whole ecosystem. In fact, the family influences almost every domain of development with it’s needed input and related behavior feedback.

b) School or Day Care Centre

The school of the daycare center, is the first place a child develops a relationship with others – outside their immediate family. These relationships help a child in all of the three internal systems.

c) Spirituality

Spirituality is said to be the storehouse of moral and ethical values, irrespective of the family’s preference and heritage. These values, though cannot be embedded in the minds of young children, is a strong foundation is to be laid.

Bronfenbrenner emphasizes that all interactions at the Microsystem level are bi-directional and reciprocal.

In other words, the immediate environment provides the input for the child’s brain, and influences the child’s behavior in terms of biological, cognitive and emotional systems. In turn, the child’s behavior affects the behavior of the adults in the immediate environment.

2. Mesosystem

The interactions that happen between the three major micro systems, namely family, school and spirituality, is referred to as the mesosystem.

These interactions are the connections that establish between the family and peer group, and between the family and the related spiritual center. These linkages, in turn, have an impact on the individual – though not directly but indirectly.

For example, when the child’s friends are invited to his birthday party, the harmony and like-mindedness of one and all in the party influences development in a positive way.

On the other hand, if a parent or any other member of the family is found to criticize one of the child’s friends, even once; then the child would experience conflicting emotions that influences development in a negative/unhealthy manner.

3. Exosystem

The people and places the child does not have direct contact with, but nevertheless do influence the child’s development, are referred to as Exosystem.

The Exosystem includes (but is not limited to) the workplace of the parents, neighborhood or community, and the extended family of the child.

Within the Exosystem, though the child does not play an active role, the interaction of the Exosystem with the other levels of ecological models will have a significant impact on the development of a child.

For example, if it is a one income family and if the child’s parent loses job and is unable to provide basic needs of the family, the child can get affected in an unhealthy manner. On the other hand, if the parent gets a promotion and is given a pay hike, it can help meet all the material needs of the child, and the child can get influenced positively.

4. Macrosystem

Macrosystem operates from the context of culture and how it operates on the individual. It is therefore considered to be the largest and the most remote group of people and places in the life of a child that influences his/her life in a significant way. It involves cultural patterns, cultural values, and the political and the economic system at the micro and macro level.

For example, a child born in an economically poor family and facing the hardship to make ends meet will experience a significantly different kind of developmental impact, compared to the child born in a middle-class or upper-class family that is financially well off.

Having understood the ecological model, and how the society or the culture plays an important role on a child’s (person’s) mind and development, it is time that you, the parent or the facilitator, also know about the Ecological Systems Theory’s implication on education.

4. Chronosystem

The Chronosystem consists of patterns of environmental events and transitions over the course of one’s life, as well as the changing social and historical circumstances.

For example, researchers have found that the stressful outcome of divorce on children is at it peak during the first year following the divorce. By two years after the divorce however, the family interactions are less chaotic and more stable.

An example of changing social and historical circumstances is the increase in opportunities for women, especially during the last three to four decades, to not only get a job but also pursue a career in her chosen field of work.

Later, Bronfenbrenner also considered the role of biology in his model, because of which his theory is also referred to as the BioEcological Model, and is called by various other names like:

  • Development in Context Theory
  • Human Ecology Theory
  • Ecological Framework / Systems Framework

Basic Assumptions of (Bio)Ecological Systems Theory by Urie Rronfenbrenner

The basic assumption of the theory is that:

“Any child born in this world gets enmeshed within a system framework, called the ecosystem, that starts from the less complex, most intimate home environment, to the more complexed, broadest (environment that is) far off the system, called society or culture.”

To understand this assumption better, consider the following two ecological systems theory examples:

Situation 1

A child named Rohan is born to a stable, middle-class, happily married and employed parents. Since both were employed, he was taken care of by a patient caretaker during the day time from the age of six months.

Every day in the evening and during almost most weekends, Rohan’s parents spent quality time with him. By three to four years, Rohan was found to be more adaptable in a preschool setting, and happily socialising with all his peer group.

Situation 2

A child named Rohit is born to not-so-happily-married middle-class parents, who are both employed, but are ever fighting. When Rohit was about six months, his mother had to take up the entire responsibility of Rohit, as she got divorced.

She faced several hurdles to make the ends meet, yet she never ever gave up and did her very best (like any mother would do). However, soon after the divorce, Rohit was put on a relatively less supervised daycare center.

As a consequence, she was not able to spend as much quality time with Rohit as much as she wanted to, since she was already overwhelmed by her work across two jobs – all while she was dealing with the financial and social problems.

By three to four years, Rohit found it difficult to socialize with his peer group or even adapt to the preschool environment. Why was it so? The answer lies in the fact that the ecosystem of Rohan had better and lots of positive interactions, whereas Rohit had fewer and not so positive interactions.

Educational Implications of the Ecological Systems Theory

The implications of Bronfenbrenner’s theory towards child development in early years gains significance, in the belief that a child’s immediate environment and the interactions within it and among the larger environment influences a child’s overall development.

The conflict in any one layer has a ripple effect through and across the other layers. The school environment that occupies the first layer of Bronfenbrenner model (microsystem) should work such, that the key objective should be to make sure that a child’s primary relationships, which is the immediate and larger famly, must last a lifetime.

Any child born in this world should have an ongoing and long-term mutual interaction with at least one adult, or ideally 2 or more adults, through a strong common mutual tie that lasts a lifetime. Through unconditional love and support, this mutual tie can be established.

Responsibility of the School Environment

Though the home is a primary place for providing this type of support, the school environment should also try to actively foster support to every single child through the following four ways:

  1. Teachers need to work to support the primary adult(s) and child relationship
  2. Schools should create an environment that welcomes and encourages visits by primary family members
  3. Education should foster positive societal attitudes in children and facilitate moral thinking
  4. Education should boost a child’s self-confidence, self-esteem and enhance logical thinking

The Ecological Systems Theory of child development therefore describes a framework about how the development of a child gets affected by the social relationships and the environment around him or her.

Additionally, in a subtle way, this theory introduces you to the reason why we behave differently in the presence of our family members, as compared to our behavior in the school or the workplace.