A child’s development is affected by their social relationships and the world around them. The ecological systems theory introduced by Urie Brofenbrenner (1979) focuses on the development of a person within the ecological environment, outlining and explaining the complex relationship and exchange between the infant, the family and society, and how these exchanges impact upon child development.
Bronfenbrenner challenges previous understandings on how children develop and within his model, identifies a hierarchy of influence levels that impact on child development including the Microsystem, the Mesosystem, the Exosystem and the Macrosystem. This essay provides an introduction to and explanatory on Brofenbrenners theory whilst referencing the author’s own childhood development in the context of opportunities and risks. “A child’s well-being is an essential foundation for early learning, and all subsequent learning” (NCCA 2004).
Development occurs through the process of progressively more complex exchanges between a child and its environment, with Bronfenbrenner describing the ecological environment as a “set of nested structures, each inside the next like a set of Russian dolls” (Bronfenbrenner 1979). The ecological theory explains that an individual will encounter different environments throughout their lifespan, and that it is the interrelationship between the child and the environment that may influence their behavior to varying degrees.
An example of this is a child’s parents affecting their beliefs and behaviours whilst at the same time, the child affecting the parents’ in return. As such, each child’s ecological model is unique and has different environmental influences. The first system within the theory is the Microsystem. This is widely considered the most influential level of the Ecological Systems Theory and is the setting in which an individual lives and where most of their direct interactions occur. As the child ages, the Microsystem becomes more complex and involves a greater number of people such as childcare centers or pre-school.
The Microsystem comprises ‘a pattern of activities, roles and interpersonal relations experienced by the developing person in a given setting with particular physical and material characteristics’ (Bronfenbrenner 1979). Family, peers and school are all examples of the type of interactions that populate this system. Bronfenbrenner’s theory explains that an individual is not a passive recipient of experiences in these settings, with relationships being bidirectional. A child’s interactions with them determine what is possible and what is not.
Their responses to the environment they create, personal preferences and genetics dictate the possibilities of what a child might become as “microsystems evolve and develop much as adolescents themselves do from forces within and without” (Garbarino 1985). The importance of a baby’s attachments to their parents (mothers and fathers) has long been acknowledged (Bowlby, 1988), with the experience young babies have of forming relationships crucial in that it can influence all future relationships (Perry, 1995; Karr-Morse and Wiley, 1997).
As adoptive children may experience difficulties with behavioral and emotional control, the establishment of positive family relationships can be challenging (Brodzinsky & Pinderhughes 2002). Parental responses are linked to their own experiences from childhood and can determine the quality of current parent-child relationships and parenting styles (Howard, 2011; Newland, Freeman, & Coyle, 2011). Garbarino states that to develop a sense of self”adolescents need warm, responsive and active ‘partners”(Garbarino 1985).
As an adopted child who was emotionally reactive to the adoptive process, and having been placed in a family who were emotionally unable or unwilling, due to limited experience and understanding, to interact in a way that fostered a positive parent rapport and therefore develop a healthy relationship, this had a negative affect on my development as it lead to increased emotional unresponsiveness in my broader relationships, and negative self-evaluation (Garbarino 1985).
However, the development of independence from my family structure in response to the situation, led to an increase in my resilience which was developmentally positive as “resilient children are better equipped to resist stress and adversity, cope with change and uncertainty, and to recover faster and more completed from traumatic event or episodes” (Newman and Blackburn (2002). The next level of the ecological theory is the Mesosystem.
The Mesosystem consists of the interactions between the different parts of a child’s Microsystem, and therefore essentially represents the connections between the Microsystems. Keenan and Evans (2009) state “one could think about the mesosystem as the connections which bring together the different contexts in which a child develops”. Therefore, whilst the “proximal processes within the family are considered within ecological theory to be the primary mechanism of development, links between contexts in which the child participates also affect development trajectories” (Schweiger & O’Brien 2005).
The examination of the Mesosystem can be viewed as important to the understanding of family relationships, as a child’s experience in other contexts away from the family structure can alter their perceptions and ultimately influence the way that they interact with their parent and siblings (Schweiger & O’Brien 2005). A positive effect a Mesosystem can have on a child can be seen through the opportunities it creates to provide social support and consistency in its daily activities.
My adoptive father was a sergeant in the army. A common way for army families to bond and socialise when the regiment was on base outside of training periods, was for communal barbeques and parties to be held. This allowed me to come into contact with different mesosystems in new settings, and showed then when together, my adopted parents were united in raising me. However, Mesosystems also have the potential to cause stress for the child.
As an adopted child who has had access to and contact with my biological family, including siblings and other relatives, these interactions have been difficult and have affected my relationship with my adoptive parents even though they did not actively participate in the interactions. An example of this is the abandonment feelings that surface when interacting with my biological family and the expressions of anger and resentment that impacts on my adoptive parents through my negative behavior and emotional state which was sometimes directed at them.
This is the direct result of two microsystems coming together, and my feelings of being placed in a situation where | felt I had to play multiple roles at once. Beyond the Microsystem and Mesosystem, Bronfenbrenners system is expanded to include environmental factors that are less direct in a child’s life. The Exosystem is a setting that does not involve the child as an active participant, but structures existing within it can be see to indirectly impact upon them. As an adopted child, it is arguable that these outer systems are more important and influential than the microsystem.
The affects on an adopted child can be seen in greater detail through social services interventions in their life. Adoption is the choice of an individual/s to parent children who are biologically unrelated to them. The system of social services is engaged when establishing a legal parent-child relationship, and the ecological theory highlights the importance of the experiences between social workers and therapists in terms of how the experiences might affect the child (Schweiger & O’Brien 2005).
My adoptive parents’ experiences with social services were quite negative and challenging. When choosing to foster additional children this caused them to relive previous experiences and emotions and caused tension in the household. As a result this caused negative affects between me and my adopted parents as my views as a child hearing various comments and witnessing their behavior both pre and post social services meetings was that the adoption and fostering processes was a burden, and that I as the central factor was the cause of their problems.
It has also impacted on my beliefs and attitudes towards adoption and fostering as a whole, and my beliefs and attitudes towards them. The Macrosystem includes the belief systems or ideologies that inform cultures or sub-cultures. It is the overall culture that the child is involved in, and can include Australian culture. The ecological systems theory “emphasizes the impact that the wider society has on how families function and view themselves” (Schweiger & O’Brien 2005).
Traditional family preservation views and the stigma that is arguably still attached to the concept of adoption are all pressures and messages from the outer systems that influence a child’s own perception on who they are and what there identity is. All the levels in Bronfenbrenners Ecological Systems Theory play an important roll in the wellbeing of children and families. In concluding I have evidenced the complexity of Bronfenbrenners Ecological theory, whilst highlighting that