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The vision of Urie Bronfenbrenner: Adults who are crazy about kids

Larry Brendtro

Children reared in disrupted ecologies experience a host of emotional and behavioral problems. But Bronfenbrenner opposed diagnosing such problems as pathology or disease in the youth. Instead, he diagnosed DIS-EASE in the ecology. Bronfenbrenner mapped the key circles of influence that surround each child (Phelan, 2004). The most powerful circles make up the immediate life space of family, school, and peer group. Further, some children are involved in significant neighborhood connections such as work, church, youth clubs, and formal or informal mentoring. Surrounding these circles of influence are broader cultural, economic, and political forces. [See note below]

A child’s behavior reflects transactions within these immediate circles of influence. One can only gain an accurate understanding of a child by attending to transactions within the family, school, peer group, and neighborhood. This view challenges narrow approaches to assessment instruments which target the child as the problem. From the ecological perspective, it is pseudoscience to assume that an observer can tick off checklists of isolated behaviors or traits of the child and feed such data into a computer to profile a child’s personality.

The different spheres of influence in the child’s world also impact one another. Ideally, the family, school, and peer group all work in harmony to provide positive support and instill solid values. But when they operate in conflict, this “dis-ease” translates into distress for the child. This is seen when teachers undermine parental values, parents undercut teachers, and peer values sabotage those of elders.

Behavior is not an isolated act but a reciprocal transaction with others in a child’s life space. In the family, a parent influences a child, but the child also influences the parent. Once a child enters school, the teacher impacts the student, but the student also has an effect on teacher behavior. By adolescence, the peer group can rival and sometimes surpass the family and school as an agent of influence.

The ecology of childhood is not static but rather changes over time. This calls for a longitudinal perspective on growth and development. As they mature, children face new challenges. Predictable developmental milestones include normal life transitions such as starting school or getting a job, but many developmental challenges result from random, unplanned events. These can be stressful, like divorce of parents, or supportive, like finding a mentor. Past behavior problems need not predict future adjustment. As the child’s ecology changes, so does the child’s fate (Lewis, 1997).

Biological factors are also at play in development, such as irritable temperament or medical problems. Since stress is both psychological and biological, any complete theory of behavior must be bio-ecological in scope (Bronfenbrenner, 2005). For example, we now know much more about how a child’s normal or delayed brain development determines how a child copes with challenge and stress. We are also aware of how relationship trauma from earlier disruptions in attachment or maltreatment can influence ongoing emotional and behavioral development.

Note: Bronfenbrenner referred to the immediate environments of family, school, peers, and neighborhood as a child’s microsystem. The interconnection of these environments is the mesosystem. Surrounding these spheres were increasingly broader circles of community influence called the exosytem, and, finally, the cultural and societal forces of the macrosystem. In designing restorative interventions for individual children, the focus is usually on relationships in the microsytem and mesosystem. Research suggests that the more immediate the system, the greater its impact on development. Thus, while poverty can be a negative force in development, the immediate forces in a particular child’s family, school, peer group, and neighborhood exert greatest influence.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (Ed.) (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

Lewis, M. (1995). Altering fate: Why the past does not predict the future. New York: The Guilford Press.

Phelan, J. (2004). Some thoughts on using an ecosystem perspective. CYC-Online 68

Brendtro, L. (2006). The vision of Urie Bronfenbrenner: Adults who are crazy about kids. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 15,3, pp.162-166

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