Academic journal article Social Work

The Effects of Poverty on Children's Socioemotional Development: An Ecological Systems Analysis

Academic journal article Social Work

The Effects of Poverty on Children's Socioemotional Development: An Ecological Systems Analysis

Article excerpt

Bronfenbrenner's process-person-context--time model is used to examine theories that explain the adverse effects of economic deprivation on children's socioemotional development. In his model, each of five structures of the ecological environment--microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems, macrosystems, and chronosystems--is subsumed within the next higher level. Theories of the effects of poverty on proximal processes in the microsystem of the family have the most research support, but processes in other microsystems such as the peer group and school and in other levels of the ecological environment may also explain the relation between economic deprivation and children's socioemotional functioning. Social work practice and policy implications are drawn from the analysis.

Key words: behavior problems; ecological systems; poverty; socioemotional development

Despite a recent two-percentage-point decline in child poverty, approximately one in five children in the United States is poor (Lamison-White, 1997). Compared with children who live in families with more financial resources, poor children face a higher risk of developing a variety of socioemotional problems. These include depression (Dornfeld & Kruttschnitt, 1992), internalizing and externalizing symptoms (Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, & Klebanov, 1994), lower levels of sociability and initiative (Hanson, McLanahan, & Thomson, 1997), problematic peer relations, and disruptive classroom behaviors (Patterson, Kupersmidt, & Vaden, 1990).

This article uses Bronfenbrenner's (1995) process-person--context--time model to examine major theories of the processes by which economic deprivation results in children's socioemotional problems. The first section briefly discusses the assumptions of Bronfenbrenner's model. The second section uses his structures of the ecological environment as a framework for this analysis and draws social work practice and policy applications. The final section summarizes this review and the practice and policy implications.

Process--Person-Context--Time Model

Bronfenbrenner (1977) proposed an ecological systems model of the lifelong progressive accommodations individuals make to the changing environments in which they develop. He referred to the most recent conceptualization of his model as a "bioecological paradigm" (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994), which rests on two main assumptions that can be investigated within a process--person-context--time model (Bronfenbrenner, 1995). First, human development occurs through "processes of progressively more complex reciprocal interactions" between active, evolving "biopsychological" human beings and the individuals, objects, and symbols in the environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1995, p. 620). If these interactions, or proximal processes, are to be effective, they must occur with regularity over extended periods of time. Proximal processes occur between a parent and child and within peer, school, learning, and recreational activities; they are the mechanisms by which genetic potential for effective psychological functioning is real ized. Second, the effectiveness of proximal processes is determined by the biopsychological characteristics of the individual, the immediate and distant environments in which the proximal processes occur, and the developmental outcome being examined.

Bronfenbrenner (1994) conceptualized the ecological environment, or the context in which human development occurs, as a set of "nested structures." Developmental outcomes are influenced by interactions within microsystems, or the immediate settings that contain the developing person. The remaining structures, in order of the distance of their influence on the developing individual, include mesosystems (processes among two or more microsystems; both contain the developing person), exosystems (processes between two or more settings; only one contains the developing person), macrosystems (influences of the broader cultural and socioeconomic environments), and chronosystems (effects of consistency and change over the life course). …

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