Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory of Development: Definition & Examples

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  1. 0:05 What Is Ecological Systems Theory?
  2. 0:47 Microsystem
  3. 1:41 Mesosystem
  4. 2:32 Exosystem
  5. 3:23 Macrosystem
  6. 4:11 Chronosystem
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Taught by

Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Learn about Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory in this lesson and explore the five levels of the environment that can influence human development.

What Is Ecological Systems Theory?

How is a child's development affected by their social relationships and the world around them? Ecological systems theory provides one approach to answering this question. The ecological systems theory was developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner.

Bronfenbrenner believed that a person's development was affected by everything in their surrounding environment. He divided the person's environment into five different levels: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystem. In this lesson, you will learn about these different environmental levels by meeting five-year-old Alex and examining the influences in his life.


We will begin with the first level of Bronfenbrenner's theory: the microsystem. The microsystem is the system closest to the person and the one in which they have direct contact. Some examples would be home, school, daycare, or work. A microsystem typically includes family, peers, or caregivers. Relationships in a microsystem are bi-directional. In other words, your reactions to the people in your microsystem will affect how they treat you in return. This is the most influential level of the ecological systems theory.

Let's look at the microsystem Alex lives in. The first part of his microsystem is his home environment. This includes his interactions with his parents and little sister. Alex's school is also part of his microsystem. His regular school interactions are with his kindergarten teacher and the other children in his class.


The next level of ecological systems theory is the mesosystem. The mesosystem consists of the interactions between the different parts of a person's microsystem. The mesosystem is where a person's individual microsystems do not function independently, but are interconnected and assert influence upon one another. These interactions have an indirect impact on the individual.

One aspect of Alex's mesosystem would be the relationship between his parents and his teacher. His parents take an active role in his school, such as attending parent/teacher conferences and volunteering in his classroom. This has a positive impact on his development because the different elements of his microsystem are working together. Alex's development could be affected in a negative way if the different elements of his microsystem were working against one another.


The exosystem is the next level we will examine. The exosystem refers to a setting that does not involve the person as an active participant, but still affects them. This includes decisions that have bearing on the person, but in which they have no participation in the decision-making process. An example would be a child being affected by a parent receiving a promotion at work or losing their job.

One part of Alex's exosystem would be his father's workplace. Alex's father is in the Navy. This often takes him away from the family, and Alex sometimes does not see his father for months at a time. This situation impacts Alex, and he becomes anxious when his father leaves. Alex's anxiety has an effect on his development in other areas, even though he has no interaction with his father's work or say in the decision making process.


The fourth level of ecological systems theory is the macrosystem. The macrosystem encompasses the cultural environment in which the person lives and all other systems that affect them. Examples could include the economy, cultural values, and political systems. The macrosystem can have either a positive or a negative effect on a person's development. For an example, consider the different effects on the development of a child growing up in a third-world economy versus that of the United States.

An important aspect of Alex's macrosystem is the fact that he is a military child. Because of this, he has already moved three times and lived in two different countries by the age of five. Alex is also influenced by the values of the military community that he belongs to.

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