In this assignment, I will describe and critically discuss Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Ecological model of child development. I will look at the background to the model and at each element of it, and then discuss its application and critical analysis pertaining to “vulnerable” children living with disabilities. This will include children who are unable to walk, communicate, or would suffer from complex medical needs, such as severe seizures. “Vulnerable” is defined as “Those children in early years education up to 5 years and in childcare up to 14 years (16 years with special educational needs (SEN)) at risk of not achieving the five outcomes under ‘Every Child Matters’ (DFES 2007). The term “nuclear” family is also used as a sociological context describing a family consisting of a father, mother, and children living in the same dwelling.
Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005), a Russian-born American, is regarded as one of the world’s leading theorists in developmental psychology. It was he who developed an Ecological Theory (1979) to explain how influences within a child’s environment will affect how that child grows and develops. The model provides a holistic framework in many areas of child development to show the effects on an individual’s development. Along with other theories: Belsky and Vondra (1989), and Prilleltensky and Nelson (2002), it underpins the Department of Health’s (2000) ‘Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families’. Social care agencies working with children and families have strongly encouraged the application of ecological models. Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model of child development explains the relationships and levels of interaction between the individual and its environment. The model consists of five systems: micro-; meso-; exo-; macro-; and, more recently the chrono-system. Bronfenbrenner used the imagery of a set of Russian Dolls to assist with the understanding of the ecological context of his model, with each doll representing a layers nested within the others.
The first of these systems is called the micro-system. The micro-system is the closest layer to the child (Paquette & Ryan 2001, http://pt3.nl.edu/paquetteryanwebquest.pdf). Children’s micro-systems are generally small and will include the immediate relationships of family or other care-givers, peers and teachers (Berk 2000). Bronfenbrenner, writes that, at this level, relationships can impact in two directions – both away from the child and toward the child. For example, a child’s parents may affect its beliefs and behaviour. However, the child also affects the behaviour and beliefs of the parent. Bronfenbrenner describes these as bi-directional influences, and states that they can occur among all levels of environment. He believed that interaction of structures within a layer and interactions of structures between layers is paramount to this theory. These bi-directional influences are at their strongest within the inner systems, but may still impact the outer systems. Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model was heavily influenced by the work of Bowlby (1969) and Ainsworth et al (1978) in their studies of infant attachments and related behaviours.
As well as parental influences, other organisations or individuals may interact with the child at a micro level and “live” within the micro-system, such as social workers or health care professionals, should the child’s circumstances require them. How these groups and organisations interact play a vital role in how the child develops, both mentally and socially. The more encouraging and nurturing these relationships and places are, the better the child will be able to develop. How the child reacts to the individuals within the systems will also have an impact on how he/she is treated in return.
The second of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems is the meso-system. It refers to the way in which the complex structures within the micro-system interact. Keenan and Evans (2009:36) state that “one could think about the meso-system as the connections which bring together the different contexts in which a child develops”.
The meso-system is the second level of the hierarchy of systems and “it comprises the inter-relations among two or more settings in which the developing person actively participates (such as, for a child, the relations among home, school, and the neighbourhood peer group; for an adult, among family, work, and social life)” (Bonfenbrenner 1979:25). Bronfenbrenner (1979) identified four types of inter-connection between the home and school settings. Multi-setting participation; indirect linkage; inter-setting communication; and finally the inter-setting knowledge. He believed that the multi-setting participation was vital and a pre-requisite for the establishment of the meso-system. It relates to the interaction a child engages in between more than one setting, i.e. home and school or child-care setting. The other three types relate more to the communication means, not actively relating to the child, such as parent-teacher communications, school news letter, or knowledge that comes from a neighbour about a local school.
The third level of the Bronfenbrenner (1979) model is the exo-system. It encompasses the processes and relations taking place between two or more settings, and will not necessarily contain the developing child. It will be influenced by the processes and events occuring within the immediate setting of the child, for example, be the relationships between home life and a parents’ work place. Bronfenbrenner (1986) identified that three exo-systems are most likely to influence the family: parents’ workplace; parents’ social networks’; and the community influences. Bronfenbrenner emphasised the environmental context of the exo- and meso-system levels, stating that there needed to be mutual trust, goal consensus, and positive reinforcement between the linking person and the individual’s settings outside of the home, eg parents to teachers. These linkages provide benefits when the actions are made on behalf of the developing child.
The macro-system is the fourth level in Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) paradigm. It consists of the overarching pattern of the micro-, meso-, and exo-systems’ characteristics within a given culture, subculture or other broader social context. Particular reference is made to the developmentally-instigative belief systems, resources, lifestyle, opportunities, life pathways, and patterns of the social interchange embedded in each of the systems. Bronfenbrenner (1992:228) later believed that the macro-system may be thought of as a societal blueprint for particular cultures, subcultures, or other social context.
Finally, the fifth structure within the model is the chrono-system (Bronfenbrenner 1979). This layer refers to the dimensions in time relating to the child’s development. It could also be related to internal physiological or biological changes that occur within a child at certain stages in childhood, causing alternative reactions to changes within the child’s environment. Research has concluded, for example, that the timing of puberty may have a profound impact on a child’s future development (Keenan & Evans 2009:37).
Returning to the micro-system, Bowlby (1969) hypothesised that the development of a secure relationship is primarily dependant on the efficient interaction between the parent’s care-giving behaviours and abilities and the child’s attachment behaviour. He believed that if parents, and it is important to note that Bowlby believed the care-giver in these early relationships was always the mother, were not available to tend to the physical and emotional needs of the child, then the child would become anxious or distressed (Bowlby 1969). The work of Ainsworth et al (1979) in ‘The Strange Situation’ confirmed Bowlby’s research, proving that lack of parental input, generally from the mother, would inhibit the child’s attachment systems and the child would tend to develop an avoidant, ambivalent or disorganised attachment style. This research was considered significant in its day. However, the work of Bowlby (1969) did not take into account the other attachments that a child can form with fathers, siblings, or other primary care-givers. This was matched by the research of Winnicott (1964), who also believed that the development of a child was solely related to the mother’s ability to nurture and influenced by her child.
Bronfenbrenner believed that this research, although relevant, did not consider the environment the child was bought up in. Bronfenbrenner, along with Bowlby (1969), Ainsworth et al (1979) and Winnicott (1964), failed to consider the significance of their models when attributing them to children with disabilities and the challenges and relationships that cohabit within the micro-system.
The birth of a child with a disability can be traumatic in terms of the parents’ feelings and how they adjust. Having a child with a disability presents a significant threat to the parents’ attachment and their ability to provide the appropriate care-giving systems, as the parents can feel powerless to protect the child from a health and development perspective. Barnett et al (2003) reported that parents who were not able to develop the correlation of their child’s actual abilities to the abilities they had wished for, could lead be unable to parent in an appropriate sensitive way to develop a secure attachment with their child.
Parents, who are unable to accept the diagnosis, would experience guilt, anger and disappointment. Bowlby (1980) wrote extensively about the grief stages following the loss of a close relationship. Although it was not until 1996 that Marvin and Pianta proposed that Bowlby’s (1980) theory could be related to loss concerned with the actual death of a child or the intra-psychic loss of an expected child. I know, from my own experience, there can be a long period of grief which can consume you. You grieve for the child you hoped to have: the walking; talking; and the grandchildren you maybe would have been rewarded with for your hard work in bringing up the child.
Moreover, parents of children with learning disabilities are more likely to develop their own mental health problems, such as depression (Singer 2006). It has also been suggested that behavioural problems of children with learning disabilities can be predicted by their parent’s psychological distress (Lecavalier et al 2006). In contrast, behaviour problems are of a lesser concern, where there is a greater parent-child emotional bond within the family whether it is biological or adoptive (Deater-Deckard & Petrill 2004).
It is interesting that stage theory models have been used to explain the patterns of adjustment parents go through when coping with the birth of a disabled child or a subsequent diagnosis (Parks 1977). The number of stages varies depending on the investigator but, in general, there are three stages which have been delineated, although observational evidence for these stages is mixed (Blacher 1984). Work has turned away from attempting to document these stages, and is moving towards developing a deeper understanding of the variation amongst families, and importantly across the family life cycle (Bronfenbrenner 1992).
We already know that the micro-system affects the emotional and developmental aspects of the child (Bonfrenbrenner 1979). I believe that the bi-directional influences in Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) model are impaired. Not providing the infant or child with the appropriate amount of sensory and auditory stimulation will have a detrimental impact on the child within the micro-system cannot be easily attributed to a child with disabilities.
Also, having a child that does not “give” back to a parent can be a very traumatic and lonely existence, thereby rendering the bi-directional feedback between child and parent very difficult. I remember the point at which my daughter was first aware of me. She was 17 months old. I picked her up in my arms, and, for the first time, she looked right into my eyes, as if to say “I have been waiting for you Mum!” The love she gave me in that instant was more than I could have ever imagined and gave me the kick-start I needed, re-igniting the resilient nature of my personality.
Resilience is not a dimension that is included in the Bronfenfrenner (1979) model. It has been argued that it should be integrated into the model as it gives a better understanding of an individual’s capacity for overcoming negative influences and situations (Engler 2007). It is believed that we are all born with conditions for resilience. These may include how we react in social conditions, problem-solving, autonomy and a sense of purpose (Bernard 1995). Bronfenbrenner’s theory only describes the negative effects on how a child will develop if exposed to adversity and travesty. The model is lacking, as it does not account for how a child bought up in a negative environment could overcome it, and go on to survive or even thrive. Resilience is a concept that certain people have an innate capacity to overcome any obstacles, shown through positive-thinking, goal-orientation, educational aspirations, motivation, persistence, and optimism (Engler 2007).
Resilience has certainly been instrumental to my life in the last 6 years. I am the 4th of 5 children, born three minutes before my non-identical twin sister. I was the only child out of five who was able to go home from the hospital with my parents. I was a quiet but happy child, favouring the background of the family but left home at 19 to join the Royal Air Force, and then experienced a turbulent marriage and divorce. I was a single mother with two children before meeting my husband and having our daughter who has multiple learning disabilities and medical needs. I have always been independent, thereby very different from my twin sister, who always seemed to be more eager to please and seek reassurance from our parents. She has never experienced trauma as I have, and, even at the age of 38, feels anxiety when our parents go away for holidays. Out of all my siblings, I am the only one who left our home town as an independent young woman, to have been married more than once, and to have children from more than one partner.
I firmly believe that, had I not had been so independent from my family, my response to the situation I now face would have been entirely different. Newman and Blackburn (2002:12) state that “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”.
Certainly, parents who have a greater ability to self-reflect are much more in tune with their child’s perspectives and emotions, and are able to respond sensitively to their child’s attachment behaviours and needs (Fonaghy et al 1993). It is surprising that the power of a 17 month old’s eye gaze could have such an impact on my life, to me also providing evidence of the Resilience capability of a child with learning disabilities. Literature and research does not support the abilities she has. The intensive interaction and bi-directional influences within her micro-system are through her determination to be seen as more than a vulnerable child, despite having no concept of what that means, and her resilience has been instilled by me as a care-giver Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) model, does not take into account the resilience of children, nor does it take into account that children’s development can vary widely. In looking at the outer systems, in particular the mesosystem, and its interaction with the exosystem, it is easier to see the linkages and how they impact on the child with disabilities at the centre of its micro-system.
The remaining systems have already been described model. For a child with a disability, those outer systems may consist of great number of influences than those of a non-disabled child, such as social service agencies, special educational services, and various Health Professionals. Doctors might have input to the child in its micro-systems, and each of these professionals will have their own place in the meso- and exo-systems and the socioeconomic influences within the macro- and chrono-systems.
For a child with a disability, I believe these outer systems are even more important than the micro-system, thereby questioning Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) paradigm. The effects on the child with a disability more often come from the medical, educational, and social services interventions of their life. These inputs can have a positive or negative impact on how the parents behave in their own micro- and outer systems. In context, if a child has a condition that is not easily controlled, such as a seizure disorder, then multiple medications may be used to try and gain control. This information is flowed to the parents from the medical professionals sitting in the meso-system. The parents then “deliver” the medication to the child in its micro-system. In the event of the medication not working, the child may develop side effects, which may prevent them from going to school, have trouble sleeping, and stop interacting with its surroundings. This will not only impact the child, but also the parents’ role within the outer systems. The parents may feel anxious, and may speak to the professionals, medical or education, to resolve the resulting issues in the meso-system. This scenario could lead to problems for the parents in the exo-system, having to go to work whilst dealing with the stress of the child’s situation. They may have to extend their working day to make up lost time due to these problems, thereby impacting not only the child at the centre of the micro-system but also the other parent and siblings too.
Children with disabilities have much more to overcome. It seems that their lives are run by parents and multi-disciplinary teams. Most decisions are made within the systems that flow out of the micro-system. Even down to whether the socio-economic climate is good. If the economy struggles, in the macro-system, then budget cuts within health and social care can have a huge impact on a child living with a disability, including the availability of medications and therapies, or whether a care package is reduced.
Within the chrono-system, how a child with a disability is affected if there is a death of a parent is an altogether more traumatic problem. This may not be directly for the child, but more so, how the surviving parent is able to cope. Decisions on whether the child is put into residential care may be made, which then will impact back down the systems to the centre of mico-system.
It is interesting to note that Bronfenbrenner extended his theory in 1992 to encompass children with disabilities. This extension was undertaken as a response to his self-criticism that the original model resulted in “a surfeit of studies on ‘context without development’” (Bronfenbrenner 1986:288). “In 1989, Ramey, Krauss, and Simeonsson seemed to concur, suggesting that Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model may have outlived its usefulness as a perspective for the study of families of children with disability because of the extensive attention to ‘sweeping statements about the systems’” (Sontag 1996). This expanded ecological model, however, does support the research efforts that have been targeted at family and community influences and refocus on the child’s development-in-context, whilst at the same time providing a workable framework that will better understand the multitude of systems of interactions that influence children’s educational outcomes (Sontag 1996).
Bates (1987) writes “Human development is dependent upon how the individual responds to the things that are going on around and within them, the context in which they live their lives. Development is influenced by the interaction between the person, their experiences, history, environment and biological make-up”. I believe this fits more appropriately to children with disabilities.
In conclusion, I have described the various layers of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model of child development, and critically discussed various aspects in relation to children with disabilities. Bronfenbrenner is correct in his research that all aspects of a child’s development must be considered in understanding the interactions between the structures. However, his paradigm does not consider how resilience is an important biological feature of some individuals. It is pleasing that Bronfenbrenner expanded his theory, through self-criticism, to encompass children living with disabilities. Children with disabilities are great teachers; they can teach us more about resilience and overcoming adversity than many people will experience in a life time. Parents of children with disabilities, and us as potential social workers, hold their development and future existence in our hands.