Early Childhood Theorists Series: Urie Bronfenbrenner

What if everyone understood early childhood development? I’ve asked myself that question many times- and eventually, I asked my Facebook group the Parenting Posse. Turns out that parents DO want to understand early childhood development…but it seems overwhelming and like they need to go read a textbook or do a degree in early childhood to have a hope in hell of understanding it all. Lucky for you- I have a degree in early childhood…so this series is giving you the Coles Notes on the main players in the early childhood theories cannon!

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook Page.

Today we’re going to talk about Urie Bronfenbrenner. So let’s start with the dates: He is a Russian-born theorist, born in 1917. His family moved to the United States in 1923. He received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1938, his master’s from Harvard in 1940, and his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1942. He served as a psychologist for the United States military during World War 2. In 1964 at 65 he was appointed to a federal panel on the subject of children living in poverty and this panel was responsible for the creation of the first Head Start program. He passed away in September of 2005.

Bronfenbrenner’s theory is called the Ecological Systems Theory. And it’s exactly what it sounds like, it’s focused on how a child’s environment or their ecosystem influences their development. So another piece of that 3D puzzle we’ve been building. This theory isn’t going to give you any big actionable things to change in your parenting like a lot of the others have, but I still wanted to talk about Bronfenbrenner because I think his theory is important to keep in mind as parents because it’s not necessarily a subject that’s always top of mind but it has a BIG impact.

There are four stages or parts to Bronfenbrenner’s theory. I like to think of it like a bull’s-eye kind of. I’ve got a little visual I’ve drawn up here. So, in the centre is your child. This circle closest to them, that’s what Bronfenbrenner called their microsystems. Their microsystems contain the people and places that influence them the most, the people that are close to them, that see them on a regular basis. So Mom, Dad, and siblings. If they go to daycare then that would fall into their microsystem. If you live close to their grandparents and they see them multiple times a week- maybe they babysit often- their grandparents would fall into their microsystem. If they have a babysitter, that falls in there too. Friends they see frequently. School if they attend school and your immediate neighbourhood. All these places and faces that they interact with at the very least weekly- they’re all microsystems. And they’re different for each child. My son who is home with me all the time has a pretty tight microsystem. A child who goes to daycare might have a much larger one.

Obviously, these microsystems have the most influence on a child’s development. And it’s a two-way street- a child’s personality, temperament, and predispositions can affect how the microsystem behaves. One of the most significant things Bronfenbrenner put forth is that even two siblings with very similar microsystems can have vastly different experiences. My older son and younger son both have always been at home with me, no daycare. But my older son’s microsystem has been quite different from my younger one’s. My older son’s microsystem also changed drastically when we moved across the country. It went from me and his Dad and our friends, and I took him to a playgroup that consisted of mainly children who had special needs and were non-verbal…to moving here our families are now very close by, our friends are much different here. In Alberta, as I said, most of my friends had children with a developmental disability and we spoke a lot of sign language and English. Here our friends are all typical and we speak a lot more French and not much ASL…it was a DRASTIC change in microsystem for him.  And even now that they have the same basic microsystem, he does things like swimming lessons and gymnastics that my baby doesn’t. He also has a baby brother in his microsystem.

My younger son has never experienced that mainly peer, mainly ASL and English microsystem my older one did. And I can see how his experience has been much different, even though on the surface he’s still at home with me just like his big brother. He doesn’t speak as much ASL. He understands a lot more French. He watches a lot more TV…because his microsystem includes a big brother. And that’s had a drastic impact on him. His big brother comes with toys that certainly weren’t in my house when my oldest was a baby. He plays MUCH differently than my oldest did at that age. It comes with different peers. He’s been exposed to things like an indoor pool which my oldest never saw until he started swimming lessons at 3. My baby sees it weekly! My youngest has had my Mom in his life with a much greater frequency than my oldest did.

So even though technically they have the same microsystem, their experience of them is different, and that has an influence on their development. One place I’m seeing that very visibly is in their language development. my oldest had 1000 signs and 500 words at 18 months. My youngest has 8 signs and 5 words: Mama, Dada, Nana, what’s this, and suce. DRASTIC difference. It’s had a huge impact on their play development too. My oldest was in the solitary/onlooker play stage until he was almost 2 and a half. My youngest is 18 months and he’s already very much in the parallel play stage. This has to do with the fact that my youngest has always had a sibling and my oldest hasn’t.

The second level out is the Mesosystem. This one took a bit for me to wrap my head around initially. The mesosystem is basically how all your microsystems connect and influence each other. So for instance, I have my kids, my husband, my parents, my clients, my work, my home, my parent’s home, and two or three groups of friends in my microsystem. If something is going sideways with my work, that’s affecting my kids and my husband and possibly my parent and my friends, right? Because that’s pulling my time and energy, it’s probably putting me in a shitty mood, as I’m sure my husband can attest whenever something technological blows up on me. It might cause me to cancel plans with my friends or ask my parents to come help with the kids…one thing influences all the others. If my kids are in good health and happily playing together, my house is clean and tidy, my work is going well…if a friend calls and wants to have lunch, heck yeah I can do that! So you can see how all these microsystems play off each other and since the microsystems have the most influence on development, when it comes to young children, that can have a huge impact.

So the meso system is generally where I concern myself when I hear things like a child whose been going to daycare for years and suddenly there’s a huge sleep or toileting regression and they don’t want to go to daycare anymore. Okay, so there’s an interaction between microsystems going on there, let’s dig deeper and figure out what it is. Or, a long time ago when I was doing early intervention I had a client who I’d been working with for about 5 months and suddenly he became SUPER clingy with me. Leaving at the end of my shift was like physically peeling him off of me. Turns out there was some tension between Mom and Dad and Grandma and his much older sister but they’d all play nice when I was in the house because ya’know… people don’t want to air their dirty laundry. But that’s a perfect example of his microsystems interacting and causing behaviour. Or if Mom is SLAMMED at work and Dad is travelling a lot we can expect to see some heightened behaviours because there’s an interaction between Mom and Dad’s microsystems and her child’s via the mesosystem.

Does this make sense? I hope I’m explaining this clearly. I had a really hard time with the mesosystem concept at first. In the end, I kind of tried to picture it like balls in jello. If I put stress on one ball, the jello moves the other balls. There’s a chain reaction.

Why does this matter? Because it helps us step back and look at the bigger picture. We’re so often focused on the micro- Mom is mad or Dad is travelling or Grandma’s sick…and we forget that those things might produce interactions in other areas we aren’t expecting.

After the mesosystem comes the Exosystem. These are basically other people’s microsystems that we don’t experience first hand, but still influence us. So like, Mom’s work environment would be in our exosystem. The Parenting Posse! My Facebook group is in a LOT of children’s exosystems… they aren’t on Facebook. But what goes on in the Posse interacts with their mesosystem via their mothers or fathers. If big brother is in school and he’s having a rough time with a bully, that’s going to influence his younger sibling’s exosystem.

And the macrosystem comes last and that’s the wider cultural influence. A child growing up in Saskatchewan has a much different macrosystem from a child growing up in Miami from a child growing up in Switzerland.

All this to say the main focus for Bronfenbrenner was context. We need to look at our child’s behaviour in context. And this I’ve talked about this a few times in different ways but this is one of my BIGGEST pet peeves about modern parenting and you can see it especially well on social media. This HYPER focus on the micro. We’re so focused on what I call the itty bitty nitty gritty- and my theory is this is because our own exosystems as parents are being stressed, we’ve got people stressing out other people in our lives about the itty bitty nitty gritty so then that stress gets transferred to us because WE’RE THE ONES WITH THE KIDS. Right? And it doesn’t take long before that constant input causes us to start hyper-focusing on the itty bitty nitty gritty to an unhealthy level…and then that stress gets transferred to our kids which causes poor behaviour. It’s ALL ABOUT THE CONTEXT. It’s all about the chain reaction.

And that’s why I’m always telling parents: step back. Step off. Give your kid some breathing room, and give yourself that space too. We can solve individual behaviour problems but they almost always end up reoccurring because we’re so focused on what’s down here, we can’t see the bigger picture. It’s like those books where they show you a super-zoomed in section of a photo and you have to guess what the picture is about. And we always get them wrong. We never guess right. It’s the same with your child’s behaviour. If we’re blowing up the significance of each individual behaviour, we’re going to keep spinning out wheels. It’s important to step back to look at the influences outside of our immediate reach, and look to what the cause could be.

The takeaway from this theory is really to apply context to your child. Don’t just look at the itty bitty nitty gritty. I felt like this was important to discuss because A) it’s a huge pet peeve of mine and B) Whenever I take this approach people start calling me a genius. Or magic. I hear “How could you have known?!” every time I pull this out of my back pocket and apply it. I’m not magic. I’M not the genius- Bronfenbrenner was. I’m just applying his shiz.

So that said- if you’re like…I don’t really know how to apply this to my kids. Yeah, I get it, step back and take stock of the influences…there are elements of Bronfenbrenner in my Scripts for the Top 10 Crazy-Making Behaviours. There’s 11 audio recordings in there- they go through what my group decided were the Top 10 Crazy-Making Behaviours. They walk you through what to say and how to say it so that when you are dealing with specific behaviours you have a starting point. But they say it in a way- and I talk about this in the introductory audio so really don’t skip that one- they say it in a way that helps you take into consideration meso and exo systems. They’re 100% free- they’re my gift to you- and you can grab them by hitting the link up in the description of this video.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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