The Ecological Systems Theory


The ecological systems theory was developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner. This theory uses different types of relationships and surroundings of a person to help explain their development. It is broken down into different layers of the child's environment which are; the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem and the macrosystem.

The key to this theory is the interactions of structures within a layer and the interaction of structures between layers (Paquette & Ryan, 2001). The theory points out that while relationships close to the child have a direct impact; other outside factors also have a powerful impact on their development.

The Microsystem
According to Bronfenbrenner, the microsystem consists of the activities and interactions in the person's immediate surroundings (Berk, 2007, p.24). Structures inside this system include family, neighbourhood, or childcare environments.

The relationships inside the microsystem have bi-directional influences, in that they impact in two directions, both away and toward the child. A good example of this is with parents. In this situation the child has an influence on the parents and the parents have an influence on the child (Paquette & Ryan, 2001).

Berk (2007) notes that other individuals in the microsystem affect the quality of the two-person relationship, such mutual support between two parents in child-rearing roles.


The Mesosystem
Bronfenbrenner classifies the mesosystem as the connecting of the structures of the microsystem (Berk, 2007, p.24). The child's environment links the child with its immediate surroundings. An example of the mesosystem is the fact that a child's education and learning not only depends upon the teachers' knowledge, but also the parents of the child, as they have an equal responsibility to assist the child in learning and education. Parents have the role of supporting the child with their education as learning, education and knowledge must be "carried over into the home" (Berk, 2007, p.24). An adults' relationship as spouses and as parents, depends largely upon the affects of relationship in their workplace.

The Exosystem
Bronfenbrenner describes the exosystem as being, ‘made up of social settings that do not contain the developing person but nevertheless affect experiences in their immediate settings’ (Berk, 2007, p.25). The exosystem is the outer shell surrounding both the mesosystem and the microsystem. Exosystems can support both formal and informal environments. The formal surroundings include organisations such as child welfare services and the adult's workplace. An example of this would be the adults' workplace (job), that paid maternity leave, had flexible work schedules, sick leave, etc. This would help parents and guardians with children as it would cater for and allow parents to care for their children, for example, when they are ill. "Indirectly, it would enhance the development of both adult and child" (Berk, 2007, p.25). The informal part of the exosystem is that children can be "affected by their parents' social networks" (Berk, 2007, p.25), for example, friends and extended family. Research validates the fact that parents and guardians who may be unemployed, have few or no family or friends "show increased rates of conflict and child abuse" (Berk, 2007, p.25).

The Macrosystem
The macrosystem is the outside level of Bronfenbrennor’s structure. This level does not contain a particular subject, rather a variety of influences such as laws, customs, resources and cultural values. The influences (e.g. child and parents) in the inner levels of the exosystem, are affected by the support of the macrosystem. Therefore, the exosystem, mesosystem and the microsystem are all affected by the macrosystem. For example: a child born into a strong Christian family will be strongly influenced by their parents, (mesosystem), who would have been influenced by their parents (exosystem), who would have been influenced by the Christian vales and customs passed on through the family’s generations (macrosystem). This shows how the macrosystem can have an indirect yet still significant influence on the child. (Berk, 2007, p.25).

How the system changes
Bronfenbrenner believes that the ecological system is an active system, which is constantly developing. The size of an individual’s microsystem changes every time they obtain or let go of life roles or surroundings. These changes are crucial to the child’s development. For example: starting school, getting married, starting a first job, having children, moving house/countries, getting divorced, retiring. This form is known as the chronosystem (chrono meaning ‘time’). Life changes are enforced from external environments, however, these changes can also occur from inside the individual. This is because humans are able to choose, alter and construct several of their own settings and understandings. The way in which this occurs is affected by the person’s age, their environment prospects, behaviour, and physical and logical characteristics. As a result, in the ecological systems theory, an individual’s development is not determined by environmental factors or internal character. People are products and creators of their own environments. Therefore, both people and their surroundings form a system of mutually dependent effects.
(Berk, 2007, p.25).

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