Individuals Exist Within Multiple Groups: How Does This Impact Program Design?

Melissa Cater, PhD

Programs are typically designed to influence individual behavior. Today, we will consider another approach to program design. Ecological Systems Theory (EST) was first proposed by Bronfenbrenner (1979). It has a number of pseudonyms of which social ecological framework may be the most commonly recognized. The theory considers the interaction of relationships and environment in explaining development (see Figure 1). While Bronfenbrenner’s EST was developed to explain child development, it may be used with a broader audience.

 Extension programs typically target individual change; however, the inclusion of supportive relational and environmental structures is often the difference between adopting new behaviors and continuing with the tried and true. Designing programs which target relational support systems may be as simple as providing family members, co-workers, teachers, or peers with knowledge. More often than not, though, these programs not only target increasing knowledge but also aim for increasing skills and changing environmental supports. Let’s consider the following example of developing financial security (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. LSU AgCenter Family Resource Management Debt Reduction Logic Model 

Applying EST to Extension Programming

 In the logic model above, one group that the program may reach is young families. If an EST approach to program development were used, the program may target extended family members, work colleagues, and community groups with which young families are affiliated – in addition, of course, to the young family (see Figure 3).

 While programs for the young families would focus on the short and medium term outcomes articulated in the logic model, programs for extended family may build family member skills in supporting young families’ financial decision-making. An example of a program objective could be: Extended family members develop communication skills for assisting young families with difficult financial decisions. If the program was targeting work supervisors, the following objective would be an option: Workplace supervisors acquire skills to guide young adult employees to make sound insurance decisions. Programs directed toward community groups may provide training which allowed members to serve as financial management mentors for young families.

 At first glance, the idea of using an EST approach to programming seems quite easy. As you delve more deeply into this idea, you will quickly realize that it is very hard to articulate actions that you want family members, peers/coworkers/teachers, and community members to take. We tend to gravitate toward program objectives like “increasing awareness” and “increasing knowledge” because we are unsure how we see the individual gaining support from the people surrounding them.

 I challenge you to spend a few minutes envisioning the ideal family, extended family, school, workplace, and community. If all of these people worked together, what would they be doing? What training is needed for them to be able to provide support to each other or to change the environment around them to make it more supportive?

 As always, comments are welcome!!  


 Bronfenfrenner, U. The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design.

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