Why ecological systems matter in ECE

I spent some time in a post secondary classroom this week, and introduced ecological systems theory to first-year early childhood education students. This is by far my favorite lens for looking at the world in general, and my profession in specific. The focus on “big picture” thinking is something which I believe all human services professionals benefit from, and for child care professionals, I firmly believe it is integral.

The ability to stretch our brains to tackle an issue from a broader perspective is one which is learned, not intrinsic. We create neural pathways in our brains every time we engage in a new practice, and critical thinking is just as important a process as any other skill we must hone.

Bronfenbrenner was a life long ecology enthusiast. The theory which he worked on was modeled after his observations of the natural world. As an avid nature lover, I connect to his theory because I recognize his thinking to be both profound, and yet something I already knew unconsciously. Food chains and ecosystems were a well-loved topic of mine in school, and they make sense. Each level of an ecosystem must depend on the other levels. Our society, while sophisticated and technologically advanced, is still an ecological system. It looks different only in that our systems are both physical and philosophical in nature. Where animals have predators and prey, life and death, seasonal changes and the natural cycles of life, we have government policies and media influences, structured systems of belonging and leadership, among many other factors which shape our world.

For educators just starting out in a new role, there are necessary lessons which can only be taught through experience. It’s easy to become insular and focused on the situation in front of us, rather than looking beyond the immediate circumstances to see the broader policies, cultural values, subtle changes over time, and how these things both are affecting the immediate situations we find ourselves embroiled in. We also forget that what we take in, we put back out into the systems which surround us. Ecological systems are bi-directional. Just as a conversation is not one person speaking, ecological systems require a connection and interplay which is dependent upon reactions within each system. A conversation must, by it’s very definition, be between two or more individuals in order to be considered a dialogue…. otherwise we are just engaged in a monologue with the air around us.

So why am I talking about this? Why does it matter?

Leadership in early childhood settings requires a solid understanding that one’s role within our profession is bi-directional also. What I put out as a leader will come back to me within my workplace. If I begin to advocate for changes within my profession, such as higher quality educational standards, the culture which I live within will also be affected over time. How I choose to advocate for high quality childcare will influence my practice and the practice of other educators. This in turn begins to affect the children in our care, and the families which we serve. Cultural shifts take time. 30 years ago, value was not placed on high-quality childcare, nor was research a top priority of policymakers. Now, we are seeing a shift.

At the root of ecological systems theory is the individual. The child. They are a composite of their parent’s DNA and genetic predispositions. They bring their own unique temperament, personality, likes and dislikes. How do we best serve their needs as educators?

This brings me back to the beginning of my post, where I started by saying I spent time with post-secondary students. My passion is to contribute to a vibrant and thriving community of “big picture” thinkers who can work effectively to challenge society and create cultural shifts in how we respond to and value children.

This starts with honing my own skills as a leader. Part of the difference in working with adults versus children is that I am learning to engage in a different style of teaching. I am standing back to observe more, guiding less. Asking them to think of questions they have, things which I can’t answer. These questions become important in creating reflective thinking patterns. “What don’t I know?” “What is missing?” “How can I look at this differently?”

I had a student tell me I hadn’t given them enough information in their group’s case study to be able to answer all the questions effectively. I framed it back to them this way: “Even if I gave you more details, you still wouldn’t know everything. Start making a list of everything you don’t know.” The lesson? Keep asking questions.

My personal learning in being a facilitator was deeply impacting. I had to think on my feet, acculturate myself to the group’s needs, and shift how I communicated information to assist their learning. While I do this unconsciously with young children which I work with each day, it can be a far more intimidating and complex task with adult learners. I am still processing all the lessons which they taught me in that short 2 hour period, and will be spending time reflecting on how I can shift my approach next time, and in what ways I can step outside of my comfort zone to meet their learning needs more effectively.

My involvement in the mentorship of ECEs will have an effect on children’s ecological systems over time, just like other mentors within the community. The goal of creating a community of practice which is broad-minded and inclusive necessitates a cultural shift in our local community. Our value systems may need to be challenged. Our personal comfort zone may need to be adjusted. Our practice may need to be freshened. However, this will create a community which is ethical, responsive, and nurturing.

This is the type of community which all educators, families, and children deserve.

One thought on “Why ecological systems matter in ECE

  1. Wow just Wow! You are a natural, I am so proud of you and the engagement you have taken with the world, and the passion you have for your life’s work. I am so happy and excited to watch this all develop. You communicate like a professor and you just have it and see it and create an irresistible view of the opportunity to reshape the conversation around early childhood education. Well bloody done!


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