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Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part II


Developmental Psychology Theories 101 articles, as its name states, addresses different theories regarding psychological human development through life-cycle, and provide an approach on how different factors at each development life stage impact the individual's psyché.

Developmental Psychology serves as one of the academic courses in the field of Psychology, and it conceives of a person's development as a combination of maturation and learning. The maturation would come to consist of the biological unfolding according to a plan contained in the genes. On the other hand, learning would be the process through which experiences produce relatively permanent changes in thought, emotions, or behavior.

Therefore, development is a relatively permanent change, a mix between maturation (genes) and learning (experience), and includes:

1. Phylogenetic Development: development of the species.

2. Ontogenetic Development: development of the individual.

Developmental Psychology Theories 101 is the first part of the Developmental Psychology Theories, and it's divided into the following six chapters:

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part I (Baltes & Smith)

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part II (Bronfenbrenner)

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part III (Sroufe)

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part IV (Gopnik & Wellman)

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part V (Piaget)

-Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part VI (Vygotski)

Each chapter will address one different author and their theory regarding the first stage of life: childhood. This series will have a continuation, Developmental Psychology Theories 102, which will deal with the next life stages: Adolescence, Emerging Adulthood, Middle Adulthood, and Elder Adulthood.

Developmental Psychology Theories 101: Childhood Part II (Bronfenbrenner)

In this second article of the series, the theory of Urie Bronfenbrenner called Ecological System Theory (1987), will be addressed.

Image 1. Urie Bronfenbrenner (GoConqr, n.d)

Urie Bronfenbrenner was a Russian-American psychologist, best known for having developed human ecology theory (ecological systems theory), in which individuals are seen as maturing not in isolation but within the context of relationships, such as those involving families, friends, schools, neighborhoods, and society (BCTR, n.d). He worked at Cornell University as a Professor for over 50 years, and his work included:

1) developing theory and corresponding research designs at the frontiers of developmental science; 2) laying out the implications and applications of developmental theory and research for policy and practice; and 3) communicating–through articles, lectures, and discussions–the findings of developmental research to the general public and to decision-makers both in the private and public sectors (BCTR, n.d).

For the author, development is the change in the way a person perceives his environment and relates to it. The Environment is defined as a series of concentric systems that directly or indirectly impact the person and the important thing is the environment as perceived by the person (Bronfenbrenner, 1987). The ecology of human development studies the progressive accommodation between the person and his immediate environment (bi-directionality), as it relates to other environments and larger contexts.

Among the aspects of this study are:

1. Ecological experiment

It seeks to investigate the progressive accommodation between the growing human organism and its

environment. To understand this relationship, one must disturb the existing balance, that is, try to

change one part of this relationship and see what happens in the other (Bronfenbrenner, 1987).

2. Ecological validity

It refers to the extent to which the environment that subjects experience in a scientific investigation has the properties that the researcher thinks or assumes it to have.

3. Validity of development

To demonstrate that there has been human development, it is necessary to establish that a change produced in the conceptions and/or activities of the person also extends to other moments and environments (Bronfenbrenner, 1987). It can be verified with ecological experiments since these investigate the progressive accommodation between the growing human organism and its environment.

Ecological Environment

According to Bronfenbrenner (1987), the ecological environment is the set of serial structures, where each one is inserted in the one that follows it, which directly or indirectly impacts the person. The innermost level is the immediate environment that contains the developing person, the second is the interconnections of each environment, and the third level is the events that occur in environments in which the individual is not even present (but still affects him or her) (Bronfenbrenner, 1987).

Specifically, the different environments proposed by the author (Bronfenbrenner, 1987) are:

- Microsystem: the immediate environment in which the person plays an active role. It is made up of interpersonal relationships. For instance, the family.

- Mesosystem: It is the relationship between the person's environments (system of microsystems). For example, parents meeting at school.

- Exosystem: Environments where the developing person does not actually participate but is indirectly affected by. For instance, the parents' jobs.

- Macrosystem: Cultural context that contains the other 3 levels, which share common elements.

Image 2. The Bioecological Model. (Center for Child & Family Well-Being, n.d)

Ecological Transition

As postulated by Bronfenbrenner, a change in the environment or in the role of the person is called an ecological transition: it is the product and engine of development (1987). These occur throughout life and can be considered as causes and consequences of development.

Interpersonal structures as a context of human development

For the author, a relationship is established when one person in one setting pays attention to or participates in the activities of another (Bronfenbrenner, 1987). A bidirectional relationship is a dyad: a basic component of the microsystem.

A dyad is formed when two people pay attention to or participate in each other's activities (Bronfenbrenner, 1987). Its properties are reciprocity (what A does influences B), the balance of power (A dominates B, however, in order to learn and develop, the balance of power must gradually change in favor of the developing person), and the affective relationship (in a dyad it is likely that stronger feelings will develop towards each other) (Bronfenbrenner, 1987). If all conditions are optimal, we can speak of development dyads.

Image 3. Portray of a dyad example. (University of Cambridge, 2021).

Types of dyads (Bronfenbrenner, 1987):

1. Observation:

When one of the members pays attention to the activity of the other, and the other recognizes the interest that is being given.

2. Of joint activity:

The two participants perceive themselves as doing something together. It is considered that when joint activity and observation take place, the knowledge acquired from the activity that is carried out will be much greater, will last longer and will even be transferable.

3. Primary:

It is the dyad that continues to exist phenomenologically for both participants, even when they are not together (each is in the thought of the other). A primary dyad coupled with joint activity is considered to be much more powerful.

Among the properties of the dyads are reciprocity, the balance of powers (gradual transference), and the affective relationship (Bronfenbrenner, 1987).

If one member of a dyad experiences an evolutionary change, the other is likely to do the same. In a microsystem, the entire interpersonal system must be taken into account. Not only the dyads but also all the N+2 (triads, etc.) as contexts of development: that is the second-order effect (Bronfenbrenner, 1987). A special example is a family; the appearance of third persons greatly affects the development of a dyad.

The operation of an N+2 can constitute a sequential interaction system called a social network. This can be closed or incomplete, depending on whether all possible circuits are established.

In summary, Bronfenbrenner proposes a broader, differentiated, and valid conception of the ecological environment, with a growing capacity to discover, maintain or modify its properties. This is lasting in time and space, and gives rise to changes in the perception and action of individuals, thus building a validity of development that extends.


BCTR. (n.d). Urie Bronfenbrenner. Retrieved from

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1987). La ecología del desarrollo humano: experimentos en entornos naturales y diseñados. Paidós.


Image 1: Goconqr. (n.d). Urie Bronfenbrenner. Retrieved from

Image 2: Center for Child & Family Well-Being. (n.d). The Bioecological Model. Retrieved from

Image 3: University of Cambridge. (2021). The Power of Touch. Retrieved from

Cover Image: Sargent, J. S. (1882). The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Retrieved from:,_John_Singer_Sargent,_1882_(unfree_frame_crop).jpg#mw-jump-to-license

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Dinka Hernández Avilés

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