Using the Social Ecological Model in Understanding the Effects of Poverty on Children and Families

Updated on March 17, 2020
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Claire studied autism, childhood and psychology at The Open University and has 20 years experience caring for children with special needs.

The social ecological model is a method that seeks to understand the dynamics and interactions among various personal and environmental factors that can affect the lives of children, young people and families. The social ecological perspective looks at all aspects that can affect people and how they live their lives. This means that issues within the home and family are investigated along with those that exist in the relevant community and society as a whole before attempting to present solutions to family’s difficulties. It is believed that by working in this way, the social ecological model can offer long term realistic solutions that are more likely to be successful as they keep the specific family and their needs fully in mind. Proponents of this model feel that it is useful in finding the root cause of problems and solving these rather than simply focusing on the immediate issues facing a family, child or young person. If these root causes can be found and resolved they hope that not only will it improve outcomes for the family but it will help in preventing the same difficulties reoccurring in the future.

For example, when working with families in poverty, the social ecological model would take into consideration all factors that may contribute to poverty whether these are within the family itself or as a result of issues present in their community and town or that are found in society as a whole. This may include issues such as addictions, poor education, disabilities, shortage of jobs, poor budgeting skills, lack of public transport and prejudice from people outside the home. By working in this way, professionals can build a view of everything that is contributing to a situation and so can put in place relevant and practical solutions to improve the lives of the children, young people and their families that they work with.

Sadly, children all ove rthe world live with poverty.
Sadly, children all ove rthe world live with poverty. | Source

Urie Bronfenbrenner and The Social Ecological Perspective

The social ecological perspective was first devised in 1979 by psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner (April 29, 1917 – September 25, 2005). He developed this way of working as a way to examine the social influences on children’s lives and development and the varying ways these affect them. In his model, Bronfenbrenner placed the child in the centre of the matter with all other effecting factors placed around them in concentric circles. Each factor was thought to influence and affect children, young people and families’ lives in some way and these were ordered based on how relevant he believed them to be. He also took into consideration that some issues will interact with each other and create further problems. Some of the factors that are considered include:

  • A child’s skills, ambitions and wishes and how these affect them and their families
  • The skills, ambitions and wishes of other family members and the effect of these
  • Disabilities or illness within the family
  • Availability and accessibility of local services
  • Unemployment
  • Social influence such as religious and other groups
  • Friendships of the child and their family
  • The local area (physically)
  • Attitudes of the people in the local community
  • Attitudes and ideologies of the culture

Within each of the circles around a child, there will be several influences to consider. For example, the child is placed as the central circle and their health status, sex, age, knowledge, resilience, wishes and abilities will affect how they react to any given situation as well as how they cope and adapt. Two children placed in the same situation may react differently and require different support and this can be true even if they are from the same family.

The circles used in Bronfenbrenner’s social ecological model are:

  • Individual – This layer contains the child or young person and relates to how their health status, sex, age, skills, resilience, personality and other personal factors influence their lives.
  • Microsystems – These are aspects of society and life that the child has direct contact with. These include but are not limited to, their family, school, the immediate neighbourhood, friends, childcare settings, church and social groups.
  • Mesosystems – Mesosystems are connections between two or more other systems. For example the connection between a child’s parents and their teachers.
  • Exosystem – This is a layer which contains aspects that the child may not interact with directly but that may influence their lives. These include things such as their parent’s workplaces and the lives of their peer’s families.
  • Macrosystems – This layer relates to the cultural values, customs and laws of wherever the child lives. Macrosystems also includes the influence of the provision of local services as well as those in wider society.

Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Theory
Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Theory | Source

When creating a picture of an individual child, young person or their family, professionals must take care to keep the child and their point of view central to all they do. It is important to also consider influences and factors that have a positive effect on a child and how these interact with other factors in their lives, rather than focusing on negative factors that are present. Whenever possible it is vital to consult the views and wishes of a child directly rather than make assumptions about what they want and feel or listen only to what their parent’s state they think or feel. What is considered as being best for children changes over time and can vary greatly between cultures or different constructions of children and childhood. This can have implications on what services are provided, how these are delivered and how children and their families are viewed by other people and the professionals working with them.

Poverty and Families

Poverty is defined in two different ways. The term absolute poverty is used to mean that a family do not have enough money to pay for things that are considered essentials. This includes being able to pay their rent and utility bills or buy adequate food to feed themselves. The second way of defining poverty is known as relative poverty. This means that a family cannot afford to pay for things that are generally part of family life or childhood and can include things such as day trips, holidays, electronic gadgets, popular fashion and clubs. Although these items are not necessities they are often seen as ‘must-haves’ or the norm among social groups and this can lead to children who do not have these being excluded or bullied. This can then go on to have a negative impact on wellbeing for example because they are made to feel different or are excluded from groups and activities leaving them more isolated. Either form of poverty is widely regarded to harm children including affecting their educational outcomes.

The social ecological model can be used to understand why a family are experiencing poverty and help in finding a workable solution. Many reasons can lead to poverty and the form and severity of that poverty can vary. In some cases, a family may experience temporary difficulties such as loss of a job and can solve the issue themselves and recover with no outside support. Unfortunately, in other situations poverty can become a severe and long term issue which is far more likely to have reaching negative effects on the health, education and well-being of children. Each situation and whether the poverty is absolute or relative will require different support or solutions and these can be found by being informed of all the factors that have led to the situation occurring.

This model aids anyone working with children, young people and families to make a detailed assessment of their circumstances by breaking it down into smaller elements and gaining an understanding of the factors that have led to them experiencing poverty. Strategies can then be developed to tackle these factors directly and improve life for families living with poverty. Where necessary, measures can also be put in place to help reduce the risk that the difficulties that led to poverty will reoccur. In practice, this can mean helping adults to develop better budgeting and money management skills or supporting them in seeking advice regarding debts so that they can make the best use of the money they have coming in. If unemployment is an issue advice and support on how to find work or ensure that people claim benefits they are entitled to may be appropriate. Not everyone is aware of the available support systems, especially in the case of changing circumstances such as a parent becoming disabled or living with a long-term illness. If this prevents them earning as much as they used to but the family are otherwise managing okay, being made aware of the additional benefits available, such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and how to claim these can be a big help.

Living with disabilities can sometimes lead to experiencing poverty.
Living with disabilities can sometimes lead to experiencing poverty. | Source

Although it is not always true it seems that some groups of people are more likely to experience poverty than others. For example, families who do not speak English as a first language as this can make it difficult to apply for jobs and benefits or find a suitable home. The family may be highly skilled or much to offer a community but if they are unable to communicate effectively with the people around them, find their way around the area or prepare a CV it may be impossible for them to find work and support, leading to a greater risk of falling into poverty. In some areas of the country, it can be difficult for people of other ethnic groups or who appear different from the norm to settle into and find work, support and friendship within a community. This is generally due to a lack of awareness and misunderstandings within the community and may not be easily fixed.

Looking at a wider view of the causes of poverty, the area in which a family live can affect them greatly. This can be due to costs such as renting a home being high and so taking up a lot of their income or due to a lack of facilities and service. For instance, the absence of public transport or the presence of a sporadic or expensive service can limit access to jobs, schools, childcare and other activities and services unless they drive. In this situation adults may also struggle to access training and appointments or interviews, putting them at a further disadvantage when seeking work or claiming benefits. These issues can play a large part in why are family are experiencing poverty and Bronfenbrenner’s social ecological model can be especially useful as it identifies all of the issues contributing to poverty rather than only focusing on the family and what they should do.

Living with poverty may lead to social exculsion, depression and anxiety.
Living with poverty may lead to social exculsion, depression and anxiety. | Source

Social Exclusion and Poverty

Once a family are experiencing poverty their lives can be further complicated by the social exclusion that can result. The lack of disposable income may deny them the ability to participate in social groups and activities, for example, children missing out on school trips, afterschool activities or joining groups such as Scouts or sports. This can also have a great effect on the adults in the family if they lose enjoyed activities such as meeting friends at the pub or taking part in hobbies. This affects the quality of their day to day lives as well as their inclusion in the wider community they live in. Parents may feel guilty that their children are missing out or feel that they are failing to give them the life they deserve. In some cases this can lead to depression, low self-esteem and anxiety which can make the family’s situation worse, for example, if a parent becomes too depressed to go to work or carry out tasks such as cooking or cleaning. These factors can have a great impact on the children of the family and leave them feeling unable to relate to their peers. They may feel socially excluded because they are unable to join in with school trips, activities with friends or buy the latest gadgets, games and clothing and children may also experience bullying because of this. On top of their personal negative experiences, children may have to take on more responsibilities at home to help and support their parents. Studies have shown that children often keep things such as school trips a secret because they do not want to burden their parents with the worry and stress of how they will pay for them.

Limitations of the Social Ecological Perspective

Although the social ecological perspective can be very useful in understanding the factors that contribute to poverty, it should be kept in mind that it also has limitations. For instance, although it helps in identifying difficulties relating to poverty it does not show how much on an impact each factor has. This can make it harder to identify which improvements will most benefit a family. As with all methods used by professionals the social ecological model is affected by the particular profession implementing it. Their personal view of childhood and families in general as well as their range of knowledge, for example on disabilities, can have an impact on how a professional interacts and works with a family. Unfortunately, professionals may also be restricted in what they can do by heavy workloads, available resources and lack of funding. Another difficulty that can arise is that the social ecological model does not specify what is good or bad for children. Therefore, it is left open to interpretation and this can lead to problems if a professional’s view varies greatly from that of the child, young person or their family. This can be an issue not only regarding personal views and opinions but with differences between cultures and lifestyles.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Claire


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