Using the Social-Ecological Model to Understand and Help Families Living in Poverty.

The social-ecological model is used as a way of working with children, young people and families that aims to keep them at the centre of anything that is undertaken to help and support them. The social-ecological perspective looks at all aspects that can affect people and their lives. This means that issues within the home and family and also in the wider community and society are taken into account before any attempts are made to find ways in which to solve the present issues. By assessing every aspect of a given situation, the social-ecological model aims to offer long term workable solutions. This is more likely to be successful if the root of problems are discovered and steps are taken to correct these rather than only solving or improving an immediate issue that may then later recur due to other issues.

When looking at families in poverty and how best to help them, anyone using the social-ecological model would look at all the factors that may be contributing to the poverty. This approach gives a view of everything that is contributing to a situation and can enable the most effective decisions to help improve the lives of children, young people and their families.

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

The social-ecological perspective was first devised in 1979 by Urie Bronfenbrenner. He used it as a model to look at the variety of social influences on children’s lives and development and how these can affect them. In his model, Bronfenbrenner saw the child as being at the centre of any situation and everything else is then placed around them in concentric circles, ordered based on how much influence he believed each factor had.

Each of the layers within the model will influence and affect children, young people, and families’ lives in some way. Some layers will have a lesser affect than others and each layer will also interact with each other and can create further problems to be considered. This includes how the child’s own skills, ambitions, and wishes will affect the world around them as well as how others such as siblings, parents, grandparents, teachers, and other influences such as disability, availability of services, unemployment and education may have an effect on them for good or bad.

Within each layer there will be several influences to consider, for example each individual child’s health, sex, age, knowledge, resilience and abilities will have an effect on how they react to a situation and are able to cope and live.

The layers of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model are as follows:

  • Individual – In this layer is the child as an individual and how their health status, sex, age, skills, resilience, personality and other personal factors have an influence on their lives.
  • Microsystems – These are aspects of society and life that the child has direct contact with. These include but are not limited too, their family, school, 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 will have an influence on their lives. These include things such as their parents workplaces and the lives of their peers families.
  • Macrosystems – Macrosystems are the cultural values, customs and laws of wherever the child lives and includes the influence of provision of local services as well as wider society.

Not all the influences and issues that arise will be negative and so practitioners need to take care in their assessments and also ensure that they are looking from the point of view of the child and what is best for them in matters where there is no actual harm present.

What is considered as being best for children changes over time, between cultures and based on different constructions of children and childhood. This has implications on what services are provided, how these are delivered and how children and their families are viewed. It has been proposed that there were at least five separate ways to define children’s wellbeing – need, rights, poverty, quality of life, and social exclusion. The wellbeing of children can be looked at from each of these perspectives and education, help and services can be provided to help fill any deficit.

Poverty is defined in two different ways. The term "absolute poverty" is used to describe a family that does not have enough money to pay for things that are considered essentials. These include rent and adequate food. The second way of defining poverty is known as relative poverty and means that a family does not have enough money for items such as day trips, holidays, electronic gadgets, and designer clothes. Although these items are not necessities, they can very often be seen as "must haves" among many social groups, which can lead to the exclusion and bullying of children who are not able to have these items. This can also have a negative impact on their wellbeing. Poverty in all forms is widely regarded to have a negative impact on children, including their educational outcomes.

The social-ecological model aims to look at all the factors that may contribute to causing a family to fall into poverty. As well as there being different reasons that poverty may occur, the nature of poverty may vary. For example whether the problem is absolute or relative poverty and also whether the poverty is chronic or a short- term difficulty that will be rectified in the future or can be improved with short term support. Some groups within a community are more likely to be affected by poverty and it is important that the reasons behind this are also addressed. This model allows anyone working with children, young people, and families to look at their situation in detail by breaking it down into various elements and gaining understanding of what factors have led to them experiencing poverty. Each factor can be assessed and strategies and solutions can be developed to improve their lives and help the family maintain that improvement. In practice, this can mean helping adults to develop better budgeting and money management skills, in searching for employment, or helping them to ensure they are claiming all benefits that are available to them if they are not in a position where they are able to work, due to illness or disability for example. Families in which English is not the first language can also struggle in this area as they will not be as able to understand benefits or job application forms. This can lead to a lack of employment even if they have the necessary skills to carry out the jobs.

Looking into a wider view of the causes of poverty, where a family lives can affects them greatly. Easy access to services such as public transport to travel to work can leave a family struggling to find work as they are only in a position to find a job very close to home. Good access to appropriate childcare and help and support in finding work or training for new skills can also have a large impact on families and whether they are at risk of falling into poverty or not.
Once a family is living in poverty their lives can be further complicated by the social exclusion that can be a result. A lack of money may deny them the ability to participate in relationships and activities enjoyed by many other people such as meeting friends in a pub or taking up a hobby or sport. This in turn, then affects the quality of their day to day lives, but also their inclusion in the wider community that they live in. In some cases this can also lead to further problems such as depression and low self-esteem, which often make the families' situation worse, for example if a parent becomes very depressed and cannot work or fails to carry out tasks such as cooking or cleaning. This can have a great impact on any children of the family as they may then have to take on more responsibilities and 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. Studies have shown that children will even go to the lengths of keeping 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 or whether they can let their children go at all.

Although the social-ecological perspective can be very useful in understanding the causes of poverty and the factors that contribute to them, it should be kept in mind that it also has limitations. An example of this would be that, although it can tell us what factors are causing or contributing to a situation, it cannot show how much of an effect each factor has overall and therefore which would benefit the family the most if improved or solved. The model may work very well by itself, but when being used by practitioners, their personal perspectives, such as how much work they have to do, their working hours, and how they believe childhood is constructed can also influence how they work, what approaches they are willing to use, and what decisions they make. These factors will also affect how they work with other practitioners and agencies who may also be involved with the family. The social-ecological model also does not specify what is good or bad for children so this is left open to a lot of interpretation and problems may arise if a practitioner’s view differs greatly from that of the child, young person, or family.

Though it does have limitations, the social-ecological perspective is a very useful model for working with children, young people and families and understanding how many different factors influence and affect them in their day to day lives. This can then lead to practitioners being able to devise helpful and practical strategies in overcoming any difficulties and inequalities that may be present. The model is very useful in that it considers all perspectives and can be used as a basis or map to guide practice while being able to always keep the child’s needs as the central focus.

© 2014 Claire


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