In 1977, American psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner conceived the Ecological Systems Theory to explain how children’s development can be impacted by social environments. Bronfenbrenner hypothesized that by studying children in multiple environments (ecological systems), we can have a better understanding of their development. According to this theory, every ecological system that a child interacts with will influence the child’s development. (2019)
Bronfenbrenner breaks the influence down into 5 ecological systems: Microsystem, Mesosystem, Ecosystem, Macrosystem, and Chronosystem.
The microsystem is the most influential level of the ecological system because it encompasses those with direct contact to the child. A few examples include parent(s), sibling(s), and teacher(s).
The next level of the ecological system is the mesosystem. The mesosystem refers to how a child’s development is influenced by the intersection of the microsystem. The relationship between different individuals or settings that the child interacts with can have an indirect impact on the child. An example would be how the home environment interacts with the school environment.
The ecosystem is encompassed by events that are not directly related to the child’s participation in the environment. This ecological system emphasizes how situations outside of a child’s decision-making process can impact their development. An example may be a child growing up with a parent working extra-long hours or a parent enlisted in the military. (Bronfenbrenner, 1979)
It is no surprise that the economic, cultural, and political environment a child grows up in can play an active role in their development. An example is the difference in development between a child growing up in a third world country versus the United States. (2019)
The last ecological system is the chronosystem. The chronosystem utilizes the dimension of time to understand phases of a child’s development. A few examples are parents’ divorcing, moving, and parent(s) losing a job.
How can this theory be applied to counseling?
I think the answer to this question will differ based on who you ask. In my opinion, I think the best way to assess an individual (whether minor or adult) is through a comprehensive background of their social environment growing up. I believe the best way to understand someone is to understand the factors that contribute to who they are and what they believe in.
One trend I see a lot is the idea that people do not change. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe every single person has the ability to change, to learn, and to grow. Yes, someone has to be willing to change. But another extremely important factor is connecting with people on a level they understand. Someone genuinely may not understand why arguing with you all the time is a big deal if that is the home environment, they grew up in. Likewise, if someone grew up in an area full of danger and fear, they may be on edge most of the time.
In counseling, a therapist can collaborate with a patient to form a treatment plan that respects the environmental factors that have contributed to their overall brain health, starting with the early development years. As a psych student, I truly value learning how to build comprehensive treatment plans that are in collaboration with the patient and offer support for why they reached out for therapy in the first place. However, never overlooking the developmental factors at play. If we do not acknowledge how the past shaped someone, then how do we expect to help break maladaptive behaviors or help the patient enforce boundaries, etc.?
What are your thoughts?
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
(2019) What is Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory? The Psychology Notes Headquarters.