Early Childhood Education

Bronfenbrenner, Urie (1917-2005)


Urie Bronfenbrenner is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading scholars in developmental psychology, child-rearing, and the ecology of human development. He spent most of his professional career at Cornell University, where he was the Jacob Gould Sherman Professor of Human Development and of Psychology. Born in Moscow, Russia, in 1917, Bronfenbrenner came to the United States at the age of six. After graduating from high school in Haverstraw, New York, he received a bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1938, completing a double major in psychology and music. He went on to do graduate work in developmental psychology, completing an M.A. at Harvard followed by a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1942. The day after receiving his doctorate he was inducted into the Army where he served as a psychologist in the Air Corps and the Office of Strategic Services. Following demobilization, he served briefly as the Assistant Chief Clinical Psychologist for Research in the new VA Clinical Psychology Training Program, and then did a two-year stint as an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1948.

From the very beginning of his scholarly work, Bronfenbrenner pursued three mutually reinforcing themes: (1) developing theory and research designs at the frontiers of developmental science; (2) laying out the implications and applications of developmental research for policy and practice; and (3) communicating— through articles, lectures, and discussions—the findings of developmental research to students, to the general public, and to policymakers, both in the private and public sector.

Bronfenbrenner’s 1979 book, The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design, was hailed as groundbreaking, establishing his place at the forefront of developmental psychology. His ecological theory, and his ability to translate it into operational research models and effective social policies, contributed to the creation of Head Start, the federal child development program for low-income children and their families.

Bronfenbrenner’s theoretical model transformed the way many social and behavioral scientists approached the study of human beings and their environments. His starting point was the observation that historically the study of early development had been conducted “out of context,” that is, in the laboratory rather than in the environments within which children grow and develop (what he called the study of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest period of time). He maintained that development needs to be understood in ecological context, as “the progressive, mutual accommodation between an active, growing human being and the changing properties of the immediate settings in which the developing person lives, as this process is affected by the relations between those settings, and by the larger contexts in which those settings are embedded.”

Bronfenbrenner pointed out that the environments shaping development can be specified as systems, and that the properties of those systems can be identified. In his 1979 book he laid out four systems levels, conceived as nested, one within the next, like a set of Russian dolls: microsystems (patterns of activities, roles, and interpersonal relations experienced by the child directly); mesosystems (the interrelations between two or more such microsettings); exosystems (settings that affect or are affected by the developing child, but do not involve the child as an active participant); and macrosystems (the beliefs and values found at the level of culture, society, or subculture that manifest themselves as consistencies in the form and content of the other three environmental systems—the “blueprint,” so to speak). Bronfenbrenner understood that a complete understanding of societal characteristics and dynamics requires comparison with other societies, which he pursued through extensive cross-cultural ecosystem comparison. His Two Worlds of Childhood: U.S. and U.S.S.R., written in 1970 at the height of the Cold War, provided unique insights into the ways that societal values are (or are not) transferred from one generation to the next. (For more on the ecology of human development perspective, see that entry.)

As a developmental psychologist Bronfenbrenner was as interested in the changing nature of the developing person as he was in the environmental systems that shape that development. In his view the developing person, through maturation and interactive experience, becomes increasingly capable of altering the environmental "niche” that it occupies. Thus Bronfenbrenner’s theoretical perspective was “optimistic,” in the sense that it included a belief in the power of influence by the developing person to modify the surrounding environment through active engagement and increasing personal control. In his view the social structural forces of society (class, gender, race, socioeconomic status) were not immutable in shaping individual destinies, but could be modified to some extent by developmentally competent persons. Richard Lerner points out that this optimism was manifest in Bronfenbrenner’s conviction, based on scientific evidence, that “applications of developmental science may improve the course and contexts of human life.”

Later in his career, Bronfenbrenner extended his ecological theory, adding the prefix “bio” to “ecological” in recognition of his long-held view that biological resources are important to understanding human development. But for him, biological potential was just that—potential. Whether it was brought to fruition depended on the presence of environmental systems that promoted enduring, reciprocal, highly interactive processes between a developing organism and other individuals or objects in the environment.

Bronfenbrenner has had and continues to have considerable influence within the field of early childhood education, both within the United States and abroad. His emphasis on the power of reciprocal relations (adult-child, child-child) as the “engines” of development reinforces much previous and contemporary theory and practice in early childhood education. In an influential paper written in 1976 for the Office of Child Development of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, he documented the importance of an explicit emphasis on the parent-child dyad in the design of early intervention programs, thereby shifting the programmatic focus beyond the individual child to include the parent or other significant adult. This insight, supported with empirical evidence, underscored the general importance of parent involvement in early education programs, and anticipated the shift to “two-generation” programming that has increasingly become the norm in the twenty-first century (Early Head Start is a prime example). Perhaps his most unique and enduring contribution to the field has been in helping policy-makers, practitioners, and academics track the ways that public policies developed and implemented at the national or state level shape the major institutions of society (work-places, schools, child-care settings) to affect the development of children through interactions with significant adults and peers.

Bronfenbrenner’s active involvement with public policy in early childhood was during a twenty-year period between 1965 and 1985, beginning with his service on the National Planning Committee for Project Head Start. He worked closely with staff of the national Office of Child Development (including Dr. Edward Zigler) during the 1970s, and was an advisor to Senator and then Vice-President Walter Mondale throughout that decade. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Bronfenbrenner codirected the Family Matters Project (with Moncrieff Cochran and William Cross Jr.), a five-country longitudinal study of stresses and supports in the lives of families that included (in the United States) development, implementation, and evaluation of a family support program (home visiting and peer support). The findings from that effort to understand and augment natural helping systems in the lives of American families helped to shape the national family support movement.

In his later years Urie Bronfenbrenner spoke and wrote often of his fear that the processes central to healthy human development are breaking down as disruptive economic and social trends in American society bring insecurity and violence into the lives of America’s families and children. “The hectic pace of modern life poses a threat to our children second only to poverty and unemployment,” he said. “We are depriving millions of children—and thereby our country—of their birthright ... virtues, such as honesty, responsibility, integrity and compassion.” The gravity of the crisis, he warned, threatens the competence and character of the next generation of adults—those destined to be the first leaders of the twenty-first century. “The signs of this breakdown are all around us in the ever growing rates of alienation, apathy, rebellion, delinquency and violence among American youth,” he wrote. Yet, he added: “It is still possible to avoid that fate. We now know what it takes to enable families to work the magic that only they can perform. The question is, are we willing to make the sacrifices and the investment necessary to enable them to do so?”

Further Readings: Bronfenbrenner, U. (1974). Developmental research, public policy, and the ecology of childhood. Child Development 45, 1-5; Bronfenbrenner, U. (1976). Is early intervention effective? Facts and principles of early intervention. In A. M. Clark and A. D. B. Clark, eds. Early experience: Myth and evidence. London: Open Books; Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Bronfenbrenner, U. (1992). Ecological systems theory. In R. Vasta, ed. Six theories of child development: Revised formulations and current issues. London: Jessica Kingsley, pp. 187-249; Bronfenbrenner, U., ed. (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecologicalperspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; Lerner, R., (2005). Foreword. In U. Bronfenbrenner, ed. Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Moncrieff Cochran and Stephen Ceci