Ecological Systems Theory

Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917–2005) is responsible for an approach to child development that moved to the forefront of the field because it offers the most differentiated and complete account of interrelated contextual influences on children’s development. Ecological systems theory views the child as developing within a complex system of relationships affected by multiple levels of the surrounding environment. Because the child’s biologically influenced dispositions join with environmental forces to mold development, Bronfenbrenner characterized his perspective as a bioecological model.


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Structure of the environment in ecological systems theory. The microsystem concerns relations between the child and the immediate environment; the mesosystem, connections among immediate settings; the exosystem, social settings that affect but do not contain the child; and the macrosystem, the values, laws, customs, and resources of the culture that affect activities and interactions at all inner layers. The chronosystem (not pictured) is not a specific context. Instead, it refers to the dynamic, ever-changing nature of the child’s environment.


Bronfenbrenner envisioned the environment as a series of interrelated, nested structures that form a complex functioning whole, or system. These include but also extend beyond the home, school, and neighborhood settings in which children spend their everyday lives. Each level joins with the others to powerfully affect development.