Brofenbrenner's Ecological Systems Model, EDUC



Using Brofenbrenner’s Bioecological Model in the Classroom

Kinsey Weber

University of Calgary



Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn”. While this is certainly not a piece of advice for a teacher to live by, it illustrates just how important that a child’s surroundings,

2 environment and what influences and shapes their lives is, in their journey through school and life. Our environment, our surroundings, and all the people in them are what build, foster and help create the people that we become. How individuals function within the world that surrounds them is an integral part of understanding the process of teaching, learning and development. Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model of development describes the various external systems that impact children and their ability to find success in education. Bronfenbrenner asked questions like “how does the relationship between and among our experiences in different settings where we interact with other people impact our development? In what ways does an increasing complex and interconnected cultural, economic, and political world reach into our lives in ways that impact our development?” (Hess & Schultz, 2008).

Bronfenbrenner (2005) calls it “an evolving theoretical system for the scientific study of human development over time.” Woolfolk, Winne and Perry (2012) define

Bronfrenbrenner’s bioecological model as a theory that describes the “nested social and cultural contexts that shape development”. These social and cultural contexts are layers of interconnected and symbiotic layers of ecological systems that make up an individual’s environment. Everyone develops within a microsystem, inside a mesosystem, embedded in an exosystem, surrounded by macrosystem, all of which are part of a chronosystem. In the bioecological model, both objective and subjective elements are posited as driving the

BROFENBRENNER’S BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS THEORY course of human development, neither alone is presumed sufficient. Significance regarding the most impact and largest effect on the child begins at the microsystem, which includes the influences that shape a child’s thoughts and behavior. Parents are the most important of these influences, others include close friends, teachers, their home,

3 school and their own body. These influences are bi-directional, in that “the adults in the microsystem affect children’s behavior but children’s biologically and socially influenced characteristics also affect the behavior of adults” (Boemmel & Briscoe, 2001).

The next layer is the mesosystem, which Berk (as cited in Boemmel & Briscoe,

2001, p. 1) defines as “connections between children’s immediate settings and surroundings…It encompasses connections between microsystems, such as home, school, neighborhood, and child-care center, that foster children’s development.” The exosystem consists of all of the indirect effects on the child, because the influence from the exosystem usually impacts the child as it “trickles” down through other people in the child’s life (Victor Valley College, 2013). The macrosystem is the larger society, things like values, laws, conventions and traditions. Lastly, there is the chronosystem, which consists of all of the experiences that a person has had during his or her lifetime. The chronosystem includes environmental events, major life transitions, and historical events

(Williams, 2013).


My time in one of Calgary’s lowest socio-economic districts, and at two of the

“worst rated” schools in the city (Fraser Institute) has allowed me to have a better understanding of some of the reasons that having teachers that are able to understand the

BROFENBRENNER’S BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS THEORY contexts from which their students are coming from, and do everything they can to help

4 them overcome many of the disadvantages they have been dealt.

The schools are often labeled as ‘troubled’, ‘high needs’, ‘ghetto schools’ and other labels associated with lower social and economic class. Teachers at Erin Woods and

Forest Lawn are generally a very exceptional group of people. They deal with high numbers of special needs students, a great deal of behavioral issues, a high percentage of

English learning students and even more English learning parents, and in an area that has some of the highest crime and welfare rates in the city (average income of the parents of the students at Forest Lawn High School is $50,400 (Fraser Institute)). I believe that

Brofenbrenner’s bioecological model is extremely useful and relevant when being used to explain the contexts of children in environments of economic disadvantage, social stigma and cultural minority. My particular focus will be on classroom management and the formation of relationships that build trust, respect and understanding.

I spent a great deal of time in a Social Studies 10-2 classroom, observing a teacher that had been teaching at Forest Lawn for over 15 years (we can call him Mr. Murray).

The classroom was supposed to have 26 students, in the three days I visited, there were no more than 14 in attendance. Each day Mr. Murray would greet all the students by name as they walked in, and he would usually make some sort of joke about how he missed them last class, or how nice it was to see them for the second or third time in a row. It seemed he knew all of the students very well and he had built relationships with them that allowed him to engage in friendly and humorous banter. On one of the days we observed, they had a test scheduled to write, it was worth 20% of their overall mark.

Before he handed out the test, he said, “This is just a test. It won’t change your life for the


5 better and it certainly won’t change your life for the worse. You know it, or you don’t, so don’t let it get to you; don’t let it stress you out. Go with your gut, and if you don’t know it, move on. It’s not a test on life, it’s just a bunch facts you’ll probably never use again that allow you to get past these walls and away from my ugly mug. So good luck.” All the students responded with reactions like they had heard this speech a hundred times before, they took a deep breath and started writing.

Mr. Murray came to the back to talk to us and explained that over half the students in this class had failed it once already, and about three quarters of them were on their third time through. He also explained that he was teaching the curriculum for Social

10-2 as well as Social 20-2 in the same class because he believed there was no point in trying to repeatedly teach the same thing to students that had previously not had any success with it. He gave them a different set of concepts and skills to try and learn to see if they could find success. If they demonstrated applied knowledge and could show that they had learned the skills required to move onto social 30-2, he would give them the credit for Social 10-2 and 20-2. He said teaching “to your students” is far more important than teaching a mandatory curriculum that often sees students fail time and time. In speaking with one of the students in that class after the test, he said that he often didn’t go to class because “there’s no point”. He said “I have a job, a a girlfriend, I live 2 bus rides away, my friends never go either, and I’ll probably fail again anyway.” Mr. Murray had accounted for the outlook of this student, and the similar circumstances of a high percentage of students that occupied most of his Social classes at Forest Lawn. He addressed it by making the students feel like going to class wasn’t the worst thing in the world to have to do. He made each of them feel like they were someone, whose presence

BROFENBRENNER’S BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS THEORY or absence was always noted, but who had the freedom to do whatever they thought was

6 best for them. He acknowledged that Social Studies wasn’t the most important thing in the world, especially to most of these kids who had to deal with more trying things outside of school than most adults have dealt with in their lifetime. He built relationships with each of them, and he held out of school tutoring sessions for help as well as kept his personal email on the top right hand corner of the chalkboard with a note saying that “if you need anything, or someone to help…” He reported that over the two years that he had the note up there, 11 students had emailed him, each just needing someone to talk to about problems with their family, addiction, or questions about how to change their path so they could go to college.

Mr. Murray was able to become a strong and integral part of the microsystems of students who otherwise may have had little other structure and support. He tries to provide a lot of the necessary elements that help promote and foster the students sense of identity, confidence, and self-worth. He tries to be adaptive to the different circumstances and contexts of his students, understanding that they may not place that much value on school, but still being supportive of other self-fulfilling endeavors. He tries to involve their parents in their academic lives by arranging meetings and phone calls and writing notes home about positive progress and things that they should be proud of as opposed to always reporting bad behavior, academic trouble and misconduct. He is trying to create positive interactions within the students bioecological systems. Starting from the microsystem, he works to produce reverberating and encouraging effects throughout the meso and exosystems.



At the end of this next two years, I will be an elementary school teacher, specializing in early-childhood. I likely won’t see to many kids over grade three, which dramatically changes the approaches I saw in the high school setting. I believe that the

7 same concepts still apply though, and since the students are so much younger, their parents are an even more integral part of their microsystem than they are when the students are teenagers. In terms of promoting good classroom management at a larger level, I think one of the most important steps you can take as a teacher is trying to involve the students’ parents in what goes on at school. The more involved they are, the more the student will benefit. Establishing rules and expectations that parents are aware of, having cooperation with parents regarding behavior issues and having your students become positive members of the community are all things that can be shared between home and the classroom. Building up and fostering the bi-directional constructive influences between three of the most integral parts of their microsystem will allow them to see much more success than if you isolated yourself and them from their parents by closing those doors. This also allows you to have stronger relationships with your students, allowing for trust, respect and a general likeness that hopefully has an effect on the way they behave in your classroom.

Another practice that I believe is very important in a classroom is being able to adapt to the student. To know what success and achievement looks like to them, not to you, or to their parents, but what makes them proud of what they have accomplished, what standards and expectations they hold themselves to and what their goals are. To


8 enable students to behave well, manage tasks properly, and make the most of their time in class, you also have to pay attention to what they consider to be a positive learning environment. Whether it’s the way that the desks are set up, their morning routine, gathering on the carpet, or certain methods of instruction in daily activities and lessons, there is always a way to get them more engaged, attentive and co-operative.


One of the major strengths of using Bronfrenbrenner’s model is that it recognizes how important the connections are that build or conversely dismantle development.

Lewthwaite (2011) posits, “Bronfenbrenner‘s bio- ecological model encourages much consideration of what constitutes supportive interactions in fostering development. That is, it goes beyond identifying what might influence development, and, more importantly, assists in considering how and why it influences development”. Being more aware of the direct influences on child development and how you can further support the connections between these influences is very important as a teacher. Being a child’s teacher is a pivotal position at that time in their life when that are finding out who they are and building traits that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Bronfenbrenner’s model helps us see that we can help satisfy at least one of the two necessary conditions for child development, and therefore be held responsible as educators to do so.

Bronfenbrenner says that there are two environmental conditions that are necessary for human development. The first is that one or more adults must love them unconditionally; the second is that the adults must encourage the child and spend time doing joint activities inside and outside of the home” (Boemmel & Briscoe). Although teacher’s

BROFENBRENNER’S BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS THEORY can’t “love” their students, they can certainly take on the role of encouraging the child to

9 do any number of things that will improve their lives in and outside the classroom.

Setting goals, reaching their potential, trying new things, exploring their interests etc.

Plus all these things are done as joint activities, which further scaffolds their learning and builds their confidence.

One of the most poignant critique’s of Bronfenbrenner’s theory is that the “nested” element of his model is not actually nested, but rather a network of interconnected systems. Neal and Neal (2012) propose that influences have connections between the systems which in turn become part of the systems, but that systems are not actually within each other. They argue that “conceptualizing ecological systems as nested obscures the relationships between them.” Viewing the systems as nested undermines the theoretical coherence and conceptual utility of the model, and underestimates the impact of social interaction and overestimates the impact of setting. From a researching standpoint, Brofenbrenner’s nesting model made it hard to anylyze and interpret the larger systems and what their impact was on the micro and meso systems. The ambiguity and dramatic variance associated with the macro and exo systems proves to contain far too many variables that take away from what we can more easily gather from the micro and meso systems.

So as a teacher, attempting to build relationships between the elements of a child’s microsystem may not have any impact if there are stronger connections and influences comes from larger systems. We can’t always assume that in helping students build their sense of self to improve their behavioral and academic performance, as well as creating positive relations with their parents to further assist in their development, that

BROFENBRENNER’S BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS THEORY what will follow is a positive, morally sound, high achieving, well-behaved and happy

10 student. There are too many other larger factors that we have no control over. So instead of believing they are outside our realm of awareness, we need to consider them all to be part of the system. Being aware of greater and more powerful influences on development and bringing them into the context of your relationships with the student and the students parents can help mediate some of the negative consequences that come from allowing them to remain outside of your zone of responsibility.



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