Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory | Simply Psychology (2024)

Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Nov 09, 2020

by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Key Takeaways
  • Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory viewschild development as a complex system of relationships affected by multiple levels of the surrounding environment, from immediate settings of family and school to broad cultural values, laws, and customs.
  • To study a child's development then, we must look not only at the child and her immediate environment, but also at the interaction of the larger environment as well.
  • Bronfenbrenner divided the person's environment into five different systems: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystemm.
  • The microsystem is the most influential level of the ecological systems theory. This is the most immediate environmental settings containing the developing child, such as family and school.
  • Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory has implications for educational practice.

Background and History

American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner was critical of previous theories of child development. He argued that studies of children in unfamiliar laboratory environments with one other person, usually a stranger, were ecologically invalid (See Mary Ainsworth’s 1970 experiment of the ‘Strange Situation’).

Bronfenbrenner (1974) claimed most earlier studies were ‘unidirectional’, meaning that the laboratory studies observed the influence of A on B (e.g. a stranger/mother with a child), rather than looking at the possible influence of the child on the stranger/mother, or any other third party’s influence.

Bronfenbrenner maintained that these laboratory features of research are not characteristic of environments that children actually live and develop in.

Bronfenbrenner recognized there are multiple aspects of a developing child’s life that interacts with and affects the child. His work looked beyond individual development, taking into account wider influencing factors and the context (or ecology) of development. He proposed the ‘Ecological Systems Theory’ based on these dynamic interactions that the environments have on the developing child.

Bronfenbrenner’s (1974) perspective has some resemblance to the works of Albert Bandua’s social learning theory and Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory in which the environment is explicitly or implicitly considered as a crucial mechanism in development.

The Five Ecological Systems

The Five Ecological Systems

Bronfenbrenner (1977) suggested that the environment of the child is a nested arrangement of structures, each contained within the next. He organized them in order of how much of an impact they have on a child.

He named these structures the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem and the chronosystem.

Because the five systems are interrelated, the influence of one system on a child’s development depends on its relationship with the others.

Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory | Simply Psychology (1)

The Microsystem

The microsystem is the first level of Bronfenbrenner's theory, and are the things that have direct contact with the child in theirimmediate environment, such as parents, siblings, teachers and school peers.

Relationships in a microsystem are bi-directional, meaning the child can be influenced by other people in their environment and is also capable of changing the beliefs and actions of other people too.

Furthermore, the reactions of the child to individuals in their microsystem can influence how they treat them in return.

The interactions within microsystems are often very personal and are crucial for fostering and supporting the child’s development.

If a child has a strong nurturing relationship with their parents, this is said to have a positive effect on the child. Whereas, distant and unaffectionate parents will have a negative effect on the child.

The Mesosystem

The mesosystem encompasses the interactions between the child’s microsystems, such as the interactions between the child’s parents and teachers, or between school peers and siblings.

The mesosystem is where a person's individual microsystems do not function independently, but are interconnected and assert influence upon one another.

For instance, if a child’s parents communicate with the child’s teachers, this interaction may influence the child’s development. Essentially, a mesosystem is a system of microsystems.

According to the ecological systems theory, if the child’s parents and teachers get along and have a good relationship, this should have positive effects on the child’s development, compared to negative effects on development if the teachers and parents do not get along.

The Exosystem

The exosystem is a component of the ecological systems theory developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner in the 1970s. It incorporates other formal and informal social structures, which do not themselves contain the child, but indirectly influence them as they affect one of the microsystems.

Examples of exosystems include the neighborhood, parent’s workplaces, parent’s friends and the mass media. These are environments in which the child is not involved, and are external to their experience, but nonetheless affects them anyway.

An instance of exosystems affecting the child’s development could be if one of the parents had a dispute with their boss at work.

The parent may come home and have a short temper with the child as a result of something which happened in the workplace, resulting in a negative effect on development.

The Macrosystem

The macrosystem is a component of Bronfenbrenner'secological systems theory that focuses on how cultural elements affect a child's development, such as socioeconomic status, wealth, poverty, and ethnicity.

Thus, culture that individuals are immersed within may influence their beliefs and perceptions about events that transpire in life.

The macrosystem differs from the previous ecosystems as is does not refer to the specific environments of one developing child, but the already established society and culture which the child is developing in.

This can also include the socioeconomic status, ethnicity, geographic location and ideologies of the culture.

For example, a child living in a third world country would experience a different development than a child living in a wealthier country.

The Chronosystem

The fifth and final level of Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory is known as the chronosystem.

This system consists of all of the environmental changes that occur over the lifetime which influence development,including major life transitions, and historical events.

These can include normal life transitions such as starting school but can also include non-normative life transitions such as parents getting a divorce or having to move to a new house.

The Bioecological Model

The Bioecological Model

It is important to note that Bronfenbrenner (1994) later revised his theory and instead named it the ‘Bioecological model’.

Bronfenbrenner became more concerned with the proximalprocesses of development, meaning the enduring and persistent forms of interaction in the immediate environment. His focus shifted from focusing on environmental influences to developmental processes individuals experience over time.

‘…development takes place through the process of progressively more complex reciprocal interactions between an active, evolving biopsychological human organism and the persons, objects, and symbols in its immediate external environment.’ (Bronfenbrenner, 1995).

Bronfenbrenner also suggested that in order to understand the effect of these proximal processes on development, we have to focus on the person, context and developmental outcome as these processes vary and affect people differently (Bronfenbrenner & Evans, 2000).

Critical Evaluation

Bronfenbrenner’s model quickly became very appealing and became accepted as a useful framework for psychologists, sociologists and teachers to study child development.

The Ecological Systems Theory provides a holistic approach which is inclusive of all the systems children and their family are involved in, accurately reflecting the dynamic nature of actual family relationships (Hayes & O’Toole, 2017).

Paat (2013) considers how Bronfenbrenner’s theory is useful when it comes to the development of immigrant children. They suggest that immigrant children’s experiences in the various ecological systems are likely to be shaped by their cultural differences. An understanding of these children’s ecology can aid in strengthening social work service delivery for these children.

A limitation of the Ecological Systems Theory is that there is limited research examining the mesosystems; mainly the interactions between neighborhoods and the family of the child (Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000). Therefore, it is unclear the extent to which these systems can shape child development.

Another limitation with Bronfenbrenner’s theory is that it is difficult to empirically test the theory. The studies investigating the ecological systems may establish an effect, but they cannot establish whether the systems are the direct cause of such effects.

Furthermore, this theory can lead to assumptions that those who do not have strong and positive ecological systems lack in development. Whilst this may be true in some cases, many people can still develop into well-rounded individuals without positive influences from their ecological systems.

For instance, it is not true to say that all people who grow up in poverty-striken areas of the world will develop negatively. Similarly, if a child’s teachers and parents do not get along, some children may not experience any kind of negative effect from this if it does not concern them.

As a result, people need to take care not to make broad assumptions about individuals using this theory.

Bronfenbrenner’s theory in the 21st century

Bronfenbrenner’s theory in the 21st century

The world has changed a lot since this theory was introduced in terms of technological developments. However, it could still be said that the exosystem of a child could be expanded to include social media, video gaming and other modern-day interactions within the ecological system.

This could suggest that the ecological systems are still valid but will expand over time to include new modern developments.

Kelly and Coughlan (2019) used constructivist grounded theory analysis to develop a theoretical framework for youth mental health recovery and found that there were many links to Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory in their own more recent theory.

Their theory suggested that the components of mental health recovery are embedded in the ‘ecological context of influential relationships’ which fits in with Bronfenbrenner’s theory that the ecological systems of the young person such as peers, family and school all help mental health development.

Classroom Application

Classroom Application

The Ecological Systems Theory has been used to link psychological and educational theory to early educational curriculums and practice. At the center of the theory is the developing child, and all that occurs within and between the five ecological systems are done so to benefit the child in the classroom.

  • To strengthen the development between the ecological systems in educational practice according to the theory, teachers and parents should keep good communication with each other and work together to benefit the child.
  • Teachers should also be understanding of the situations their student’s families may be experiencing, including social and economic factors that are part of the various systems.
  • According to the theory, if parents and teachers have a good relationship, this should shape the child’s development in a positive way.
  • Likewise, the child must also be active in their learning, engaged both academically and socially. They must work as a team with their peers and get involved in meaningful learning experiences to enable positive development (Evans, 2012).

Empirical Evidence

There are lots of studies that have investigated the effects of the school environment on students.

Lippard, LA Paro, Rouse and Crosby (2017) conducted a study to test Bronfenbrenner’s theory. They investigated the teacher-child relationships through teacher reports and classroom observations.

They found that these relationships significantly related to children’s academic achievement and classroom behavior, suggesting that these relationships are important for children’s development and supports the Ecological Systems Theory.

Wilson et al., (2002) found that creating a positive school environment, through a school ethos valuing diversity has a positive effect on student’s relationships within school. Incorporating this kind of school ethos influences those within the developing child’s ecological systems.

Langford et al., (2014) found that whole-school approaches to the health curriculum can positively improve educational achievement and student well-being, thus the development of the students are being affected by the microsystems.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

How to reference this article:

How to reference this article:

Guy-Evans, O. (2020, Nov 09). Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory. Simply Psychology.

APA Style References

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1974). Developmental research, public policy, and the ecology of childhood. Child development, 45(1), 1-5.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American psychologist, 32(7), 513.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1995). Developmental ecology through space and time: A future perspective.

Bronfenbrenner, U., & Evans, G. W. (2000). Developmental science in the 21st century: Emerging questions, theoretical models, research designs and empirical findings. Social development, 9(1), 115-125.

Bronfenbrenner, U., & Ceci, S. J. (1994). Nature-nurture reconceptualised: A bio-ecological model. Psychological Review, 10(4), 568–586.

Hayes, N., O'Toole, L., & Halpenny, A. M. (2017). Introducing Bronfenbrenner: A guide for practitioners and students in early years education. Taylor & Francis.

Kelly, M., & Coughlan, B. (2019). A theory of youth mental health recovery from a parental perspective. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 24(2), 161-169.

Langford, R., Bonell, C. P., Jones, H. E., Pouliou, T., Murphy, S. M., Waters, E., Komro, A. A., Gibbs, L. F., Magnus, D. & Campbell, R. (2014). The WHO Health Promoting School framework for improving the health and well‐being of students and their academic achievement. Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (4).

Leventhal, T., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2000). The neighborhoods they live in: the effects of neighborhood residence on child and adolescent outcomes. Psychological Bulletin, 126(2), 309.

Lippard, C. N., La Paro, K. M., Rouse, H. L., & Crosby, D. A. (2018, February). A closer look at teacher–child relationships and classroom emotional context in preschool. In Child & Youth Care Forum 47(1), 1-21.

Paat, Y. F. (2013). Working with immigrant children and their families: An application of Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 23(8), 954-966.

Wilson, P., Atkinson, M., Hornby, G., Thompson, M., Cooper, M., Hooper, C. M., & Southall, A. (2002). Young minds in our schools-a guide for teachers and others working in schools. Year: YoungMinds (Jan 2004).

How to reference this article:

How to reference this article:

Guy-Evans, O. (2020, Nov 09). Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory. Simply Psychology.

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Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory | Simply Psychology (2024)


What are the 5 main points of Bronfenbrenner's theory? ›

Key Takeaways

Bronfenbrenner divided the person's environment into five different systems: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystemm.

What is the problem of Bronfenbrenner's ecological theory? ›

Bronfenbrenner's theory virtually describes only the negative effects of how an individual will develop if exposed to adversity and travesty. The theory is lacking as it does not have a way to explain how an individual brought up in a negative environment survives and becomes successful.

What are the 4 components of the ecological systems theory? ›

Bronfenbrenner's theory identified four systems within which children exist that would combine to have an impact upon how they grow and develop. He uses the terms microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem and macrosystem.

What is Bronfenbrenner's ecological theory essay? ›

The composition of Urie Bronfenbrenner's ecological theory cultivate a framework to study the numerous connections between the developing child from mother and father relationships to the environment, community settings, cultural influences and financial factors.

How important is Bronfenbrenner's ecological theory to you as a student? ›

Urie Bronfenbrenner's bioecological theory is an important model to illustrate the complexity of reciprocal interactions between growing persons and their multilevel socioecological milieus. In higher education, students' achievement may be similarly affected by manifold bioecological systems.

Why do you think that Bronfenbrenner's theory is important? ›

His theory is important for educators to understand because it allows the educator to build fundamental relationships with their students and create a communication rich classroom that involves the parents.

What is the conclusion of Bronfenbrenner's theory? ›

Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory focuses on the quality and context of the child's environment. He states that as a child develops, the interaction within these environments becomes more complex. This complexity can arise as the child's physical and cognitive structures grow and mature.

What is a common criticism of ecological systems theory? ›

A critique of this model, however, from a childhoodnature stance, is that it ignores consideration of human-nature interconnections. Thus, it is a deeply anthropocentric model of human development that is at odds with emergent post-humanist thinking that seeks to de-center the human condition.

How is Bronfenbrenner's theory used today? ›

Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Model can be useful to help understand the student's learning environments and to establish quality learning environments.

What are the 5 levels of the ecological model? ›

The ecological model was selected to guide the formative research because it offered a concrete framework to account for the reciprocal interaction of behavior and environment. This model describes five levels of influence on behavior: individual, interpersonal, organizational, community and policy.

What are the first 4 levels of ecology? ›

The four main levels of study in ecology are the organism, population, community, and ecosystem.

What are the 4 types of ecology? ›

What are the different types of ecology? The different types of ecology include- molecular ecology, organismal ecology, population ecology, community ecology, global ecology, landscape ecology and ecosystem ecology.

What is ecological in your own words? ›

Ecology is the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment; it seeks to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them.

What is the main idea of Bronfenbrenner's bioecological theory? ›

The bioecological model is based on the idea that the relationships children have with parents and caregivers impacts their development – and that these relationships are affected by their work, school, and community settings, which are in turn affected by broader social, cultural, and policy conditions.

What is an example of Bronfenbrenner's theory and how it operates in your own life? ›

An example of Bronfenbrenner's bioecological model would be the relationship between a child's home life and a child's relationship with their friends. If a child is raised in a home where they are neglected and are unloved then he may develop certain characteristics. He may feel as though it is hard to trust people.

What is the greatest contribution of Bronfenbrenner in education? ›

Bronfenbrenner's primary theoretical contribution was his Bioecological Systems Theory, in which he identified four types of nested systems. Bronfenbrenner recognized that is it necessary to understand how not only the family or school influences human development, but how broader influences do as well.

Why is ecological system important? ›

Healthy terrestrial ecosystems are vital for human welfare and survival, as they provide us with essential products and benefits. Over 90% of our food comes from terrestrial ecosystems, which also provide energy, building materials, clothes, medicines, fresh and clean water, and clean air.

What are Bronfenbrenner's levels of environment that influence a person's development? ›

Bronfenbrenner believed that a person's development was affected by everything in their surrounding environment. He divided the person's environment into five different levels: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystem.

What is the main disadvantage of the ecological approach? ›

Limitations of the Social Ecological Model include:

Lack of motivation for change in the environment. Changing lifestyles can be extremely difficult. Not all diseases can be prevented. Many people are in denial and do not believe they are at risk.

What is a weakness of systems theory? ›

One flaw of social systems theory is that this approach to an individual's issues is not always adequate to explain their present circ*mstances. In these cases, a more traditional psychological approach might be used.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Bronfenbrenner's ecological system theory? ›

Pros and Cons of Ecological Systems Theory
Pros of Ecological Systems TheoryCons of Ecological Systems Theory
1. It's holistic rather than reductionist.1. It is difficult to text empirically.
2. It has a wide range of applications.2. Its terms and categoriesare sometimes vague.
1 more row
31 Dec 2021

Is Bronfenbrenner nature or nurture? ›

In answering the nature versus nurture question, Bronfenbrenner suggests that the contributions of nature and nurture cannot be separated easily because they are part of a dynamic system, constantly influencing one another.

How does microsystem affect a child? ›

The microsystem is where the most direct interactions between the child and the environment take place. In other words, the microsystems have a direct influence on the child's development. The child is also able to create the constructs, or conceptual elements, that exist in the microsystem.

What is a good example of microsystem? ›

Examples of microsystems include the family, school, religion, peer groups, and neighborhoods. Microsystems are the closest influences to a child that directly affect their psychosocial development.

What is Mesosystem examples? ›

The mesosystem includes the relationships between different microsystems. An example of a mesosystem is the relationship between a parent and their child's teacher. Another example of a mesosystem is the relationship between a child's siblings and their friends from school.

What are the 6 ecological relationships? ›

The interaction among organisms within or between overlapping niches can be characterized into five types of relationships: competition, predation, commensalism, mutualism and parasitism.

What are the 6 levels of ecology in order? ›

The following are the six levels of organization in the hierarchical order:
  • Individual.
  • Population.
  • Community.
  • Ecosystem.
  • Biome.
  • Biosphere.

What are the 3 types of ecology? ›

Some types are landscape ecology, population ecology, and behavioral ecology. Landscape ecology deals with spatial distribution, patterns, and behaviors across large geographical areas.

What are the 3 branches in ecology? ›

What Are The Different Fields Of Ecology?
  • Aquatic Ecology. It deals with the study of ecosystems found in water bodies such as estuarine, freshwater and marine. ...
  • Microbial Ecology. ...
  • Terrestrial Ecology. ...
  • Taxonomic Ecology. ...
  • Systems Ecology. ...
  • Evolutionary Ecology. ...
  • Behavioural Ecology. ...
  • Population Ecology.

What is ecology in simple words? ›

Ecology is the study of organisms and how they interact with the environment around them. An ecologist studies the relationship between living things and their habitats.

Who is the father of ecology? ›

Eugene Odum: The father of modern ecology.

Why is it called ecology? ›

“Ecology” is a term derived from Greek meaning learning about (“logos”) the ecosystems, where “eco” comes from the Greek word “oikos” meaning “household” (Odum and Barrett 2005) – in other words, learning about the life of populations.

What is an ecological system answer? ›

An ecosystem is a geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscape, work together to form a bubble of life. Ecosystems contain biotic or living, parts, as well as abiotic factors, or nonliving parts. Biotic factors include plants, animals, and other organisms.

What is a good example of ecology? ›

For example, an ecosystem ecologist might learn how beaver dams affect water flow through a forest ecosystem and how that impacts the survival of aquatic species or the distribution of sediment. A coral reef ecologist might study how changes in water temperature impact coral survival.

What is ecological balance short essay? ›

Ecological balance has been defined by various online dictionaries as "a state of dynamic equilibrium within a community of organisms in which genetic, species and ecosystem diversity remain relatively stable, subject to gradual changes through natural succession." and "A stable balance in the numbers of each species ...

What are the five levels of Bronfenbrenner's Bioecological? ›

Bronfenbrenner believed that a person's development was affected by everything in their surrounding environment. He divided the person's environment into five different levels: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystem.

What is the most important ideas of Urie Bronfenbrenner? ›

His greatest contribution to the field of developmental psychology was the ecological systems theory. At the core of this theory are four systems that shape a child's development: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem. Bronfenbrenner recognized that children do not develop in a vacuum.

What is an example of Bronfenbrenner's theory? ›

An example of Bronfenbrenner's bioecological model would be the relationship between a child's home life and a child's relationship with their friends. If a child is raised in a home where they are neglected and are unloved then he may develop certain characteristics. He may feel as though it is hard to trust people.

What was Bronfenbrenner's main goal of creating Head Start? ›

A proponent for the power of family ties to help children reach their full potential, Bronfenbrenner saw Head Start as a buffer against the stress experienced by impoverished parents.

What is an example of Macrosystem? ›

A macrosystem is the broad, all-encompassing influences that impact the child and all the systems that surround the child. Several examples of macrosystems are the education system, the law systems, the cultural systems, and the geographic location in which a child is raised.

What are examples of Exosystem? ›

Exosystem examples include a parent's workplace, mass media, school policy, social support systems, family friends, and local government policy settings. We can define the exosystem as any setting in which a child is not directly involved yet still which still influences them.

How does exosystem affect a child? ›

The Exosystem incorporates links between the child's immediate environment and the social settings in which the child does not have an active role, indirectly affecting development by acting on the child's Micro- and Mesosystems.

Why is systems theory important? ›

Systems theory plays a key role in the advancement of society. Only by looking at all the moving parts can we have a greater understanding of the whole and how it works—a principle that holds true in physical sciences and social sciences alike.

What are the 5 systems of Bronfenbrenner's ecological theory and why is it so valuable? ›

Bronfenbrenner's ecological model organizes contexts of development into five nested levels of external influence: Microsystem, Mesosystem, Ecosystem, Macrosystem, and Chronosystem. These levels are categorized from the most intimate level to the broadest.

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