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Ecological systems theory

Penelope Fenske

Ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) suggests that children develop within a complex system of relationships within various levels of their environment. The innermost levels, or the microsystems, refers to the activities and interactions encompassed within their immediate surroundings such as the family, school, neighborhood and day care center. Whether or not other individuals within that environment are supportive can determine whether parent-child relationships enhance or undermine a child’s development. For instance, when a couple are mutually supportive in their parenting roles, they parent their child more effectively. In contrast, marital conflict is associated with inconsistent discipline and hostile reactions towards offspring and the children suffer (Davies and Cummings, 1994).

The second level in a child’s environment, according to ecological systems theory, is the mesosystem, which consists of the connections between the different microsystems that influence development within a child’s life (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). For example, a parent’s involvement in the child’s school environment helps to promote the child’s academic progress (Grolinck and Slowiaczek, 1994). The number of relationships between microsystems, particularly ones of respect and support, are important to a child’s resilience (Garbarino, personal communication, July 26, 2004).

The exosystem consists of the wider social settings in which the child does not participate, yet which affect the child’s experiences (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). These could include health and welfare services or the parent’s work place and social networks. For example, flexible work schedules, paid maternity/paternity, and leave for parents whose children are ill will aid parents in their parenting roles and indirectly enhance the development of children. On the other hand, isolated families tend to have increased rates of conflict and child abuse (Garbarino and Kostelny, 1992).

The outermost level, the macrosystem, is not a specific context, but rather consists of cultural values, laws, customs, and resources that influence the other levels of a child’s surroundings (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). The value placed on children’s needs by the macrosystem significantly influences the amount of support they receive at the inner levels of their environment. The overarching chronosystem represents the temporal changes of a child, his or her experiences, and his or her environments. These changes could arise from within the child such as the physiological changes that occur with the growth of a child, or be imposed externally such as the timing of a parent’s death. The chronosystem, representing dynamic environmental transitions such as milestones and turning points, produces new conditions that affect the development of the child. Both research and clinical practice in the area of child abuse supports Bronfenbrenner’s theory on the beneficial influence of relationships within a child’s ecological system.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Davies, P. T. and Cummings, M. T. (19894). Marital conflict and child adjustment: An emotional security hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 116. pp. 387-411.

Garbarino, J. and Kostelny, K. (1992). Child maltreatment as a community problem. Child Abuse and Neglect, 16. pp. 455-464.

Grolnick, W. S. and Slowiaczek, M. L. (1994). Parents' involvement in children's schooling: A multidimensional conceptualization and motivation model. Child Development, 65. pp. 237-252

Fenske, P. (2005). Perople in children's lives: Adults who promote resilience in children who have experienced abuse. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice,18, 3. pp. 50-55.

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