Ecological Systems Theory

Urie Bronfenbrenner

Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) was born in Russia and at the age of six moved to New York where his father got a job working with disabled children (Bendtro, 2006). He attended Cornell University for his bachelor’s degree, Harvard for his masters, and completed his doctoral degree at the University of Michigan. He returned to Cornell where he researched, taught, and theorized about human development for a span of six decades. He is recognized in his field as being the first person to propose that child development be observed through the lens of a multidisciplinary approach which included education and the social sciences. The field that emerged from Bronfenbrenner’s theories and research became known as the ecology of human development and he continued to research and expand upon his original ecological systems theory for well over 30 years. His most notable and recognizable accomplishment is that he is the father of the Head Start program for low income children.

The Ecological Systems Theory is often referred to as the ecological model and the bio-ecological systems theory which was a later extension of Bronfenbrenner’s original work (Stolzer, 2005). The ecological systems theory was published in Bronfenbrenner’s book Ecology of Human Development (1979). He developed his theory to explain how everything in a child and the child's environment affects how a child grows and develops.This book hypothesized that there are five spheres that influence a child’s development, behavior, and personality (Swick & Williams, 2006). The five spheres are identified as the Microsystem, Mesosystem, Exosystem, Macrosystem, and Chronosystem. He proposed that there was a reciprocal relationship between the child and the multiple environments which they come into contact with.

The Microsystem is characterized by the “interpersonal relationships in an individual’s life” (Feinstein, Driving-Hawk, and Baartman, 2009, p.12). These relationships include close family members, friends, and teachers. The Microsystem starts small with the nuclear family and expands with the environments that ansystems.jpg individual is exposed to. It also includes the interactions and relationships of those within a child’s microsystem. If there are stressors, negative influences, or unhealthy relationships in this sphere, there can be long lasting effects on an individual (Swick & Williams, 2006). A disruptive ecology can often stunt development along with negative emotional and behavioral impacts for small children. Bronfenbrenner believed that a child’s emotional and behavioral problems were created as a result of problems within the microsystem (Bendtro, 2006).

It is the Mesosystem where “a set of interrelations between two or more settings in which the developing person becomes an active participant” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 209). These interactions would include a child spending time at home and school and the relationships between parents and teachers. A strong relationship between the parents and the school would be considered ecologically healthy and the positive relationship would benefit the child (Stacks, 2005). When there is conflict between two areas it can leave the child confused and create a negative long lasting impression. The school setting and environment is considered part of the mesosystem. Researchers have found that a bad relationship with a school setting has a correlation with drug use, gang activity, and teen pregnancy (Corcoran, Franklin, & Bennett, 2000; Coatsworth et al. 2002).

The Exosystem “consists of indirect forces on an individual’s life” (Feinstein, Driving-Hawk, and Baartman, 2009, p.13). These forces include a parent’s job where a child isn’t involved in the daily work, but they can still be affected by the stress that is brought home by the parent. Decisions by school administrators, school districts, and governments at the local to national level can all have an effect on a child even though they don’t come into direct contact with each other. Television, radio, the internet and other media would be considered part of the exosystem because they come from external sources that influence individuals.

The Macrosystem would be the overall culture in which an individual associates with and lives within. This can include large cultural complexes which are very broad like Western and Eastern thoughts and values as well as local and ethic cultures that have strong influences on individual identity and actions. If a student has a parent who identifies with a minority culture, this may create conflict if the student acculturates themselves with the dominant culture (Coatsworth et al. 2002). Students who have cultural traditions that are different from the dominant culture often run into problems surrounding self identity and worth. Government agencies and programs are considered to be part of a culture and so they are also included in the macrosystem (Swick & Williams, 2006). The macrosystems are the broad nets that hold the other systems in place.

The Chronosystem is the long term historical context of the interactions between the systems. This sphere allows for the element of time to be reflected upon events that subtly and dramatically change the environments that and individual lives within or is exposed to (Bronfenbrenner, 2005). The chronosystem allows for researchers to look at long term family relationships and individual actions to help identify patterns and trends that are positive or detrimental to the development of individuals. The macrosystem also includes things such as the relative freedoms permitted by the national government, cultural values, the economy, wars, etc. These things can also affect a child either positively or negatively.

While Urie was known for his work with the ecological systems theory, he was very passionate and dedicated to teaching. A former student gave this account of Bronfenbrenner's profound commitment to teaching which he called "doing God's work." The student was in the professor's office when they were interrupted by a phone call. After greeting the caller with typical enthusiasm, Urie promptly said, "I'm sorry, but I'll have to call you back. I'm meeting with a student." He hung the phone up and remarked, "Walter Mondale.... What a wonderful man." Urie had just told the vice president of the United States that an appointment with a pupil takes precedence over a phone call from the powerful (Bendtro, 2006).


Bowen, N. (1999). A role for school social workers in promoting student success through school- family partnerships. Social Work in Education, 21(1), 34-47.

Brandt, R. (1979). On Families and Schools: A Conversation with Urie Bronfenbrenner. Educational Leadership, 36(7), 459.

Brendtro, L. (2006). The Vision of Urie Bronfenbrenner: Adults Who Are Crazy About Kids. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 15(3), 162-166.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making human beings human: bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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

Coatsworth, J., Pantin, H., McBride, C., Briones, E., Kurtines, W., & Szapocznik, J. (2002). Ecodevelopmental Correlates of Behavior Problems in Young Hispanic Females. Applied Developmental Science, 6(3), 126-143.

Corcoran, J., Franklin, C., & Bennett, P. (2000). Ecological factors associated with adolescent pregnancy and parenting. Social Work Research, 24(1), 29-39.

Feinstein, S., Driving-Hawk, C., & Baartman, J. (2009). Resiliency and Native American Teenagers. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 18(2), 12-17.

Stacks, A. (2005). Using an Ecological Framework for Understanding and Treating Externalizing Behavior in Early Childhood. Early Childhood Education Journal, 32(4), 269-278., doi:10.1007/s10643-004-0754-8

Swick, K., & Williams, R. (2006). An Analysis of Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-Ecological Perspective for Early Childhood Educators: Implications for Working with Families Experiencing Stress. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33(5), 371-378.