Bronfenbrenner’s Microsystems and Mesosystems
Bronfenbrenner developed a model for conceptualizing all the many environmental influences on a child’s life and socialization. This model is described in your text and my own pictorial interpretation of the model is in the other set of Lecture Notes. Take a look at that picture…print it out…and then read through this discussion of the various influences that might affect one hypothetical child. I think this will help you understand how Bronfenbrenner’s model can be useful to you as you attempt to understand all the influences affecting a child in your classroom.
Notice that in the middle of the drawing is the child. Every child’s ecological model is unique. Every child has a set of variables that affects life and development and that must be considered in order to understand the child’s values, beliefs, achievements, and behaviors. This model also helps us recognize the very important concept that the environment is not the only influence on the child’s development…but that the child brings a lot to the process too. The child brings his/her own temperament, learning style, and biological capacities, for example, which are all unique. So, despite the fact that my drawing may not be visually stunning, it should help you to recognize the major variables in a child’s development.
As we progress through this discussion of the drawing, or model, let’s refer to our child in the middle as Sam…just to keep things a little easier and more personal. Sam will be a five-year-old boy. His parents are divorced, but both are involved in raising him. Same lives in a small suburban town about 100 miles from a major metropolitan city. He attends a family childcare 3 days a week and will start Kindergarten in the fall at a local public school.
The Microsystem (represented by the red circles in the drawing)
Bronfenbrenner’s model is composed of 4 systems, the first of which is the Microsystem. The Microsystem refers to all the settings in which a child personally interacts and is influenced. Every child has many Microsystems. Some last a long time throughout childhood…such as the family, we hope. Others come and go regularly…such as a ballet class or a Cub Scout troop. In the Microsystem, the child is affected DIRECTLY. The child forms social relationships, takes part in activities that build cognitive or physical skills, experiences personal successes and failures, and is socialized first-hand through personal experience.
Sam experiences many Microsystems in his life. Sam has a home with his Mom and a home with his Dad, two Microsystems. He goes to a family childcare where he plays and learns and grows…another Microsystem. If he gets sick he visits the Pediatrician. The doctor’s office is another Microsystem. In his neighborhood is a local park where he runs and plays with the neighborhood children…yet another Microsystem. You can see that as Sam grows he will add MANY, MANY Microsystems to his personal experience. Some will have a profound impact on his development while others have a minor impact. But all of these Microsystems will contribute to Sam’s socialization through the relationships and experiences that he has within them.
The Mesosystem (represented by the blue arrows in the drawing)
The Mesosystem refers to those situations or events in which two Microsystems come together in some respect. The people or activities from individual Microsystems interact to form a new experience for the child. Mesosystems, like Microsystems, can be long term and recurrent…like family gatherings on holidays. They can also be solitary or one-time occurrences…such as a school field trip.
Mesosystems are very important to a child’s development and can be complicated in their effect on the child. I like to think of a Mesosystem as an opportunity to build a “bridge” between two settings in the child’s life that might otherwise be unrelated. For instance, if a child grows up in a home in which there is a particular value system…expectations for behavior, discipline style, etc., and goes to school in a classroom with a slightly different set of expectations and discipline style, the child must cope with that transition independently every day. This is not an impossible task…and in fact children tend to be quite good at learning that different settings or different people expect different things of them. (Remember how you learned at a young age which parent you should ask for a special privilege, or which parent you should tell when you had done something wrong, or how Grandma would let you get away with things you could never do at home!) However, when you think about all the many Microsystems a child experiences in a lifetime, you begin to realize HOW MANY adjustments the child must make. The child’s understanding of these variations and differences between settings is aided when we build a bridge between other familiar settings. This way, to some extent, the child does not enter every new Microsystem alone…but with a part of another familiar setting.
Let’s look at some of the possible Mesosystems in Sam’s life. Mommy and Daddy live apart but on Sam’s birthday, they both come to Mom’s house and help with the party. Now, Mommy and Daddy create a Mesosystem for Sam by bringing part of two different Microsystems together. Once in a while Sam’s childcare has a family picnic. This month, Daddy went to the picnic with Sam and had lunch with Sam’s teacher and friends. Thus, another Mesosystem is created when the Microsystems of childcare and Daddy’s house come together. If Mommy takes Sam to the park and two families from down the street are their playing, another Mesosystem is formed because friends and Mom come together in a new setting. If Sam’s childcare goes on a field trip to Sam’s Doctor’s office, two Microsystems are merged to create a Mesosystem. Also at childcare, Tuesday is “share” day and Sam shows his friends his favorite stuffed animal that he sleeps with at Mom’s house. In this way he brings a little bit of Mom’s house into a different setting and creates a Mesosystem. Mesosystems occur frequently for Sam if the pieces of his life overlap and form “bridges” that help him to maintain a sense of constancy and familiarity in his life.
I have described the Mesosystem as a positive influence on a child because it creates the opportunity to provide the child social support and consistency in his daily activities. The coming together of Sam’s Mom and Dad at the birthday provides the opportunity to show Sam that Mom and Dad both love him and that they are united in raising him. The family picnic helps Dad to better understand the behavioral expectations that Sam conforms to at school so that he might be more understanding of a behavior that he sees unexpectedly at home. It helps the childcare provider understand more about the values, stresses or roles in Sam’s family so that she can best adapt her curriculum to suit his needs. The field trip to the Doctor’s office shows Sam that other families value health and hygiene too, and that the Doctor is a friendly person…not just the man who gives shots! A great deal of social support is possible through the formation of Mesosystems.
However, Mesosystems also have the potential to cause stress for the child. The primary reason for this is that when two Microsystems come together the child is placed in a situation in which he may feel he must play two different roles at once. You have probably experienced this stress as an adult. For instance, you’re out at the store with your young child and you run into your boss from work. And your child picks this particular moment to throw a fit! Now you are trying to be disciplinarian parent AND model employee all at one time! OR maybe you are attending a wedding with your spouse and you notice an old boyfriend sitting at another table…how very uncomfortable! OR you are at a family reunion and you are being wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, and aunt all at the same time! It can be wonderful…and it can be exhausting.
Now let’s look at Sam in some of his Mesosystems. Mom and Dad come together for a birthday party… that also includes Sam’s friends from the neighborhood and childcare. Sam is now juggling his roles from at least four different Microsystems. How is he expected to act? Who is really “in charge?” Are we going by Mom’s rules or Dad’s rules? How are the expectations different during a “party” than during regular playtime? WOW, that’s a lot of challenges for a young child. Remember, Sam is five years old, which means he has limited social experience and a small repertoire of skills for coping with new situations. He also has a limited ability to cope with frustration. It is entirely possible that at some point during the party Sam will have a bit of a melt down. Mesosystems can cause stress for a child as well as providing support.
Does Sam’s melt down mean that the party was not a good idea? I don’t think so. But it is important to remember the stress that is present in Mesosystems as we plan events and activities for children (and ourselves, for that matter!). For instance, maybe Mom and Dad could divide up some responsibilities so that Sam is clear about who is doing what…Dad is leading the outdoor games with the children, and Mom steps in to take charge of the cake and singing and present opening. OR maybe the party is limited to just 3 or 4 of Sam’s closest friends so that the size of the group is not overwhelming to Sam. OR maybe we will bring cupcakes to childcare on Friday, and only include the neighborhood kids in the party on Saturday. Consider how Mesosystems can be created so that we maximize the opportunities for support and minimize the opportunities for stress.
REMEMBER, Microsystems and Mesosystems both affect the child DIRECTLY because they are settings in which the child personally engages and is socialized.