School can be like family

What Is Ecological Systems Theory?

How is a child’s development affected by their social relationships and the world around them? Ecological systems theory provides one approach to answering this question. The ecological systems theory was developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner.

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. In this lesson, you will learn about these different environmental levels by meeting five-year-old Alex and examining the influences in his life.


We will begin with the first level of Bronfenbrenner’s theory: the microsystem. The microsystem is the system closest to the person and the one in which they have direct contact. Some examples would be home, school, daycare, or work. A microsystem typically includes family, peers, or caregivers. Relationships in a microsystem are bi-directional. In other words, your reactions to the people in your microsystem will affect how they treat you in return. This is the most influential level of the ecological systems theory.

Let’s look at the microsystem Alex lives in. The first part of his microsystem is his home environment. This includes his interactions with his parents and little sister. Alex’s school is also part of his microsystem. His regular school interactions are with his kindergarten teacher and the other children in his class.


The next level of ecological systems theory is the mesosystem. This is where we come in. The mesosystem consists of the interactions between the different parts of a person’s microsystem. The mesosystem is where a person’s individual microsystems do not function independently, but are interconnected and assert influence upon one another. These interactions have an indirect impact on the individual.

One aspect of Alex’s mesosystem would be the relationship between his parents and his teacher. His parents take an active role in his school, such as attending parent/teacher conferences and volunteering in his classroom. This has a positive impact on his development because the different elements of his microsystem are working together. Alex’s development could be affected in a negative way if the different elements of his microsystem were working against one another.

Mesosystems are very important to a child’s development and can be complicated in their effect on the child. I like to think of a Mesosystem as an opportunity to build a bridge between two settings in the child’s life that might otherwise be unrelated. For instance, if a child grows up in a home in which there is a particular value system expectations for behavior, discipline style, etc., and goes to school in a classroom with a slightly different set of expectations and discipline style, the child must cope with that transition independently every day. This is not an impossible task and in fact children tend to be quite good at learning that different settings or different people expect different things of them. (Remember how you learned at a young age which parent you should ask for a special privilege, or which parent you should tell when you had done something wrong, or how Grandma would let you get away with things you could never do at home!) However, when you think about all the many Microsystems a child experiences in a lifetime, you begin to realize HOW MANY adjustments the child must make. The child’s understanding of these variations and differences between settings is aided when we build a bridge between other familiar settings. This way, to some extent, the child does not enter every new Microsystem alone but with a part of another familiar setting.

REMEMBER, Microsystems and Mesosystems both affect the child DIRECTLY because they are settings in which the child personally engages and is socialized.


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