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ONLINE JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 68 SEPTEMBER 2004 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

models for understanding

Some thoughts on using an ecosystem perspective

Jack Phelan, Grant MacEwan College, Edmonton

Most Child and Youth Care programs teach the systemic theory described by Uri Bronfenbrenner, which details the circles of influence that surround each of us, which he names the microsystem (your immediate family, school, neighborhood, friends and religious/cultural orientation), the mesosystem, which is the place where interactions between various parts of the microsystem interact and influence each other and eventually the individual, the exosystem (your local town, community dynamics, school system, minority/majority culture, community resources available, economic status), the macrosystem (the political environment, the larger economy, educational opportunities or lack thereof, prevalent prejudices, environmental conditions). Bronfenbrenner helps us to understand that we are all existing within a context that influences both who we are and how we respond to life situations.

The usefulness of this theory, like other systemic viewpoints, is that we often try to understand people in isolation from the factors that create both reinforcement for behavior and patterns of interaction. This makes our judgment about what is happening for the other person quite limited and often inaccurate.

When we can begin to think more systemically, we see all manner of relationships and dynamics which have been relatively invisible. Bronfenbrenner gives some useful suggestions about the way to use ecosystem information — the points of interaction between elements in one’s system are the most effective places to focus our change efforts. The connecting link between family and school or school and peers is a more useful focus than trying to work in isolation with discrete segments of a microsystem — for example, with an individual in isolation.

Think about the wisdom of trying to influence the relationship or interaction between people rather than trying to change the fundamental beliefs or ingrained behaviors of an individual. Systemic interventions allow the Child and Youth Care practitioner to be a coach and facilitator for a youth or family, rather than someone trying to control and influence beliefs about self and the world.

However, our helping efforts can involve constructing a new, artificial ecosystem around the youth, where we believe the youth can function more effectively. This effort to create a safer, more predictable environment allows the youth or family to slow down and achieve relief from the chaos around them, and they perform more capably. This often occurs, and many Child and Youth Care practitioners see major improvements in attitude and behavior while the youth is inside this new ecosystem. Unfortunately, we also witness the "regression" that results when a youth is placed back in his old ecosystem upon discharge from the program.

Youth workers, particularly in residential programs, can inadvertently find themselves building "firewalls" around a youth to prevent the youth’s ecosystem from negatively influencing the treatment approach. The natural tendency is to believe that the youth needs to be removed from the reinforcements that created the problematic situations which brought them to your attention. Even immediate family members are often restricted in their access to the youth. Peers are particularly suspect and are often strongly discouraged from contact.

If we allow ourselves to view TREATMENT in a systemic way, we can suddenly become aware of the paradox of trying to help someone live better, but not allowing them to live where they exist. Our job is not to remove people from their ecosystem, but to join them in negotiating new relationships and perspectives about themselves and how their world functions.

One simple example, a youth goes for a job interview poorly prepared, dressed too casually, perhaps arriving late, and when they don’t get hired, blames the other person for being prejudiced, stupid, etc. They have an ego-centric view of the interactions within their microsystem and our job is to coach them to maximize the benefit of their interactions by understanding what is happening. To do this, we need to be able to step outside of the system, not needing to control things for the other person or be responsible for the smooth running of the system.

Workers who are more systemic in perspective often can stop themselves from becoming a part of the microsystem when it is more useful to be an outside voice prompting the youth or family to expand their awareness.