What is the Ecological Systems Theory?

Melanie Smeltzer

The ecological systems theory, which is also known as development in context, is a developmental theory that serves to explain how a child's environment affects how he or she develops. This approach often focuses on interrelated processes and structures within four environmental systems. These include the micro-, meso-, exo-, and macrosystems. A fifth portion, the chronosystem, was not part of the original model but is now frequently included.

Ecological systems theory deals with ways in which a child's development is impacted by environmental factors, such as interaction with parents.
Ecological systems theory deals with ways in which a child's development is impacted by environmental factors, such as interaction with parents.

In addition to being known as the ecological systems theory, this approach is also known as the bioecological systems theory to help further emphasize the definition. This approach is defined as a manner of explaining the development of a child by way of both his biological progress and the influence of his surroundings. The main purpose of this study is to see how the child's environment connects with his personal development. It also serves to find out how the child interacts with his surroundings as both his cognitive and physical structures mature.

The environmental structure in the ecological systems theory typically consists of four, though sometimes five, different systems. The microsystem is said to be the environment that is closest to the child and refers to the close relationships with which the child has direct contact. These structures usually consist of close relations, schoolmates and teachers, caregivers and neighbors. Relationships at this level are considered bi-directional, meaning that the people in the child's life can directly impact him, while he may also have an impact on others.

Mesosystems and exosystems are usually defined by structures that the child cannot generally influence. For instance, the mesosystem can reflect how the child is affected by the interaction between a parent and a schoolteacher. Exosystems are usually the result of a much broader social system in which the child has no direct interaction, such as a parent's work schedule.

The macrosystem is thought to be the outermost layer and consists of cultural customs, values and laws. In most cases, this layer is far-reaching and may trickle down into all other aspects of the child's development. The fifth possible layer of the ecological systems theory, the chronosystem, deals with time. Timing of physiological changes in the child, or even the timing of a divorce or death, may directly influence a child. The reaction of the child may also be influenced by his age, which may have a further affect on his development.

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Discussion Comments


It would be interesting to study a child in this situation to get an idea of their motivation or desire to leave a bad situation behind by making the right choices for themselves or to simply mimic the behaviors they observe from family members and neighbors.

Poverty, dysfunction and crime are difficult issues from which to break free.

Hopefully, the ecological systems theory can be used to make a difference.


A good example of how the ecological systems theory could be applied in sociology or social work is determining whether growing up in a poverty-stricken, high-crime area influences a child's life choices.

A social worker may look for signs that the child does not make any effort to do well in school, shows disrespect for authority and thinks nothing of engaging in what may seem like minor criminal acts.

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