The Ecological Approach and Child Development

By: Erin Kay, CFCC Student Fellow (2019-2020)

During the Fall semester of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) Student Fellows Program I, an experiential course at the University of Baltimore School of Law, we were introduced to Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecology of human development paradigm. This theoretical model gives us a framework to implement a holistic approach while analyzing the interactions among people and systems that influence a child’s development. The approach looks at four systems and their impact on the child. These four systems are the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem. Each one of these systems represents a different influence that affects children’s lives.

CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP) works with a group of students at several Baltimore City public schools to identify and address the root causes of each student’s truancy. Students who can benefit from this voluntary program meet in a restorative practice (RP) circle once each week. In the RP circle, students engage with the TCP team through exercises, scenarios, and various other tools. While the circle is in session, one by one, each student is call out of the circle to meet with other TCP members, a volunteer Maryland judge, and a representative of the school to review each child’s weekly progress and to address challenges. In both the RP circles and during TCP table sessions, examples from ecological approach emerge as influences contributing to truancy.

The first system to explore is the microsystem. This system involves those immediate person to person relationships that students experience every day. Examples within the TCP include child-teacher and parent-child relationships. In the RP circles, both of these relationships come up frequently. For example, during the fall semester at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, we asked students to speak on their feelings when adults lecture them. We then asked them to respond how they would handle a situation in which they were able to lecture back to those same adults. Many of the high school students responded with lectures they would give to parents and teachers. Some wished that teachers would offer them more of an opportunity to voice opinions and feelings in school. Others wished that they could lecture parents and guardians about how they have been treated at home. Negative attitudes that students feel toward both groups of adults have pushed them further away from success at school and in other aspects of their lives.

The second system to discuss is the mesosystem. This system is the relationships between the systems that make up microsystems. We see mesosystems in relationships between the school and a child’s home. As we law students discussed in the Fall semester of the Student Fellows Program seminar, “the stronger and more complementary the links between settings, the more powerful the resulting mesosystem will be as an influence on the child’s development.” See Barbara A. Babb & Judith D. Moran, Caring for Families in Court 34 (2019). In the TCP, we encourage parents to take an active role in their child’s education. We invite available parents and guardians to join us at TCP orientation and at table sessions. Unfortunately, the turnout at a high school is not always ideal. Many of the high school students take on adult responsibilities at a young age. Some students are forced to take sole responsibility for themselves and their education. In situations like these, it is rare that parents have a relationship with the school or its teachers.

The third system to analyze is the exosystem. This system is not directly related to children but often influence their lives. For example, the parents’ place of employment can influence a child’s development. There are some students in the TCP who have the responsibility to get themselves up, dressed, and out of the door for school at a very young age. Many of these cases are a result of parents working overnight or early in the morning. For some of the students, they start this routine as early as elementary school and continue until high school. When that amount of responsibility is placed on a child, something as small as not having a parent to wake them up can ultimately lead to increased school absences.

The fourth system to mention is the macrosystem. This system addresses the events, policies, and other cultural factors that leave a lasting impact on how a child develops in relation to his or her environment. More recently, the TCP has experienced these macrosystem events in relation to the recent COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, statewide restrictions on businesses, education, and transportation have forced some families of students in the TCP to change their everyday routine. While the schools remain closed, students who rely on meals at school are either missing out on that resource or must find their way to designated meal sites scattered throughout the city. Parents are learning to balance at-home educational instruction with working from home or a loss of work entirely. Specifically in regard to students, school systems are still actively trying to remedy the loss of in-person instruction. As a result of this pandemic, the school system’s policies are changing on a weekly basis and are having likely lasting effects on the children of Baltimore City. Parents with multiple children may not be able to give each child individualized instruction. Lack of technology and resources may leave some students at a disadvantage regarding their education. Without the ability to go to school and learn with the support of adult educators, there are some students whose education will suffer.

The systems that form the ecology of human development paradigm explore how a child’s environment can impact their lives. Relationships, both direct and indirect, affect the child’s development. In the TCP, we examine all of the systems mentioned as we analyze the many reasons why a student becomes truant. By looking at all of these relationships and how they are interconnected, we can do our best to discover ways to help them become more successful students and, ultimately, productive citizens.




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