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Discuss bronfenbrenners ecological model of child development

In this assignment I will critically discuss Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Ecological model of human development. I will look at the background to the model and will look at each system within it, discussing its’ application pertaining to children living with disabilities. Disabilities will be in the context of children that are unable to walk, communicate, and suffering from complex medical needs, such as severe seizures. The term “nuclear” family is used in the sociological context that a family consists of a father, mother, and children living in the same living quarters.

Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) is regarded as one of the world’s leading theorists in respect of 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 (2000); 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, and consists of five systems: micro-; meso-; exo-; macro-; and, more recently the chrono-systems. Bronfenbrenner (1979) used the imagery of a set of Russian Dolls to assist with the understanding of the ecological context of his model. Each doll representing one of the layers nested within each other.

The first of these systems is called the microsystem. The microsystem is the closest layer to the child (Paquette & Ryan 2001, http://pt3.nl.edu/paquetteryanwebquest.pdf). Children’s Microsystems are generally small and will include the immediate relationships of family or other caregivers, peers and teachers (Berk 2000). Bronfenbrenner (1979) 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 (1979) describes these as bi-directional influences, and states that they can occur among all levels of environment. He believed 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 from 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 may interact with the child at a micro level and “live” within the microsystem, such as social workers or health care professionals, should the child have medical issues and/or learning disabilities. How these groups and organisations interact play a vital role in how the child develops, both mentally but 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. We cannot, however, forget that genetic and biological influences can have an impact on personality, abilities and development.

The second of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems is the mesosystem. It refers to the way in which the complex structures within the microsystem interact. Keenan and Events (2009:36) state that “one could think about the mesosystem as the connecting which bring together the different contexts in which a child develops”.

The mesosystem is the second level of the hierarchy of systems “it comprises the interrelations among two or more setting in which the developing person actively participate (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 identified four types of interconnections between the home and school settings.

The first type is multisetting participation, meaning the interaction that a child engages in between more than one setting, for example, home and school or childcare settings. Bronfenbrenner (1979) considered this to be a direct, or first-order social network and believed it was vital and a pre-requisite for the establishment of a mesosystem.

The second interrelations are labelled indirect linkage which represents multisetting influences. Meaning, when the child is not actively participation in both settings, but it is a parent or caregiver, who establishes the connection between the settings as an intermediary. An example of this is, in relation to the “nuclear” family, might be parents taking an active interest in the child’s schooling and education, by attending parent-teacher consultations or watching dance recitals, this is delivered to help ensure that the child’s overall developmental growth is maintained in a positive way.

The third interrelations are labelled as intersetting communications. This is defined as relations for example between the two microsystems that are messages transmitted between the two, with the express purpose of providing specific information, for example newsletters or notes home from school.

The final relation may consist of intersetting knowledge. This is information or experiences that participants that are located in one setting may have about the other, and maybe come from a variety of sources. An example of this could be a neighbour having information or knowledge about the local school.

The third level of the Bronfenbrenner (1979) model is the exosystem. 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 that occur within the immediate setting of the child. For example, for a child, this could be the relationships between home life and a parents’ work place. Bronfenbrenner (1986) identified that three exosystems are most likely to influence the family: parents’ workplace; parents’ social networks’ and the community influences. Bronfenbrenner (1979) emphasised the environmental context of the exo- and mesosystems 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. The linkages between parents/teachers provide benefits when the actions are made on behalf of the developing child.

The Macrosystem if the fourth level in Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) taxonomy. It consists of the overarching pattern of the micro-; meso-; and exosystemsm characteristics within a given culture, subculture or other broader social contexts. Particular reference is made to the developmentally-instigative belief systems, resources, life style, opportunities, life course options, and patterns of the social interchange that is embedded in each of the systems. Bronfenbrenner (1992:228) later believed that the macrosystem may b e thought of as societal blueprints for particular cultures, subcultures, or other social context.

Finally, the fifth structure within the model is the chrono-system (Bronfenbrenner 1979). This layer of the ecological model 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 within their life, which may cause alternative reactions to changes within the child’s environment ie research has concluded that the timing of puberty may have a profound impact on a child future development depending on what age it starts at (keenan & Evans 2009:37)

To return to the microsystem, 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 the mother, was 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 therefore would 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 relate to her child.

However, Bronfenbrenner (1979) believed that this research, although relevant, did not consider the environment the child was bought up in, and, more importantly, the way in which the mother, or care-giver was raised. Bronfenbrenner, along with other theorists, however, failed to consider the significance of their models when attributing them to children with disabilities and the challenges and relationships that cohabit within the microsystem.

The birth of a child with a disability can be traumatic in terms of their 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 parent feel powerless to protect the children from their health and development. Barnett et al (2003) reported that parents who were not able to develop the internal representation of their child’ actual abilities rather than the abilities that they had wished for, could give rise to their inability to parent in a appropriate sensitive way in order to develop a secure attachment with their child (Aktkinson, Chisholm, Scott et all 1999). In their research, Pinta and Marvin (1996), found that mothers that had resolved these feelings were much more likely to provide secure attachments than so that hand not, believing this was due to a reduced level of parental sensitivity or responsively.

Parents, however, who are unable to accept the diagnosis and searched for another, 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 an actual death of a child or the intrapsychic 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 hope to have, the walking, talking, and the grandchildren you maybe would have been awarded with for your hard work in bringing up the child.

Moreover, parents of children with learning disabilities are more likely to develop mental health problems, such as depression, as a result (Singer 2006). It has also been suggested that behavioural problems of children with learning disabilities could 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 that parents go through when coping with the birth of a disabled children or a subsequent diagnosis (Parks 1977). The number of stages varies depending on the investigators, but in general there are three stages that 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 (Krauss 1997) (Bronfenbrenner 1992).

A child with additional needs requires an in ordinate amount of stimulation. We already know that the microsystem affects the emotional and development aspects of the child (Bonfrenbrenner 1979). I, as do others, believe that bi-directional influences in Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) model maybe impaired (????????). To conceptualise that by 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 microsystem which cannot be easily translated to a child with disabilities.

Moreover, 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 and 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 instance was more love than I could have ever imagined and gave me the kick-start that I needed, relighting the resilient nature of my personality.

Resilience has certainly played an instrumental part of my life in the last 6 years. I am one of 5 children, placed number 4, three minutes before my twin sister, it is important to note we are not identical. The only child out of those five that was able to go home from the hospital with my parents straight away. I was a quiet child but happy child, favouring the background of the family. I left home at 19 to join the Royal Air Force, experienced a turbulent marriage and divorce. Was a single mother with two children, before meeting my husband and having our daughter who has multiple learning disabilities’. I have always been independent, thereby very different from my twin sister who always seemed to be the centre of attention. She has never experienced trauma as I have, and actually at the age of 38 feels anxiety when our parents leave town for holiday’s etcetera. Out of all 5 of my mother’s children, I am the only one that left our home town as an independent young women, to have been married and divorced and then remarried and to have children from more than one partner.

I firmly believe, that had I not had been so independent from my family, the situation I now face myself in would be 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 better respond sensitively to their child’s attachment behaviours and need (Fonaghy et al 1993). It is surprising that the power of a 17 month old child’s eye gaze could have such an impact on my life, which to me also provides 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 love that she gives to everyone within her microsystem it is through her determination as a child to be seen as more than vunerable child, despite having no concept of what that means and her resilience that has been instilled by me as a care-giver. Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) model, does not take in account the resilience of children, nor did it take into account that children’s development can vary widely.

It is interesting to note, that Bronfenbrenner extended his theory in 1992 to encompass children with disabilities. This extension of the theory 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).

However, Bronfenbrenner’s (1992) expanded ecological model 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.

A features of the macrosystems which deserve particular attentions, is the concept of “a cultural repertoire of belief systems” (Bronfenbrenner, 1992:228)


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