Ecological Influences on Parenting and Child
Gordon Jack began his career in social work in 1974, working in three local authority social services departments in the north of England.
He has always worked with children and families— eleven years as a practitioner and five years as a manager—with special emphases on
adoption and fostering, child protection and direct work with children. Since 1991 he has been lecturing in social work at Exeter University,
where he is now Head of Social Work Studies. He is involved in qualifying and post-qualifying training, as well as writing and research into
Correspondence to Gordon Jack, University of Exeter, Department of Social Work Studies, Richards Building, St. Lukes Campus, Heavitree
Road, Exeter EX1 2LU, UK.
The development of children and young people and their subsequent life chances in adulthood are the product of a complex set
of interacting factors, at individual, family and community levels. An ecological framework is used to examine the mutual influ-
ences between the different systems that are important during childhood. The links between poverty and health and the
influence of social exclusion and structural inequalities on family and community functioning are considered in some depth,
utiliz- ing findings from a wide range of research disciplines, in different parts of the world. The identification, development and
protection of sources of informal social support, available to families living in impoverished circumstances, are identified as key
tasks for social workers and other welfare professionals. Together with features of resiliency, found amongst children and
families coping successfully in high-risk environments, this knowledge is used to point the way towards features of effective,
ecological assess- ment and intervention strategies.
Within the context of a series of high profile child abuse inquiries and a hostile political and media environment, the main
focus of social work with children and families in the UK over the last two decades has been the development of systems to
identify and protect children from ‘significant harm’. Unfortunately, this restricted focus has deprived other areas of social
work with children and families of both resources and professional status, and created barriers of mistrust and suspicion
between disadvantaged families and professional workers (Jack, 1997).
More recently, in the light of legislative changes and research findings, an effort to re-focus services, locating child
protection in the wider context of family support provision, has been made. However, insufficient attention continues to be
given, within social work policies and practices, to the structural and environmental factors that are at the root of most of the
problems experienced by families (Blaxter, 1990; Kumar, 1993; Nazroo, 1997; Wilkinson, 1996). A proper understanding of
the pro- cesses of mutual influence between individuals and their social and economic envir- onments requires an ecological
perspective. This will be considered in some depth and the implications of the ecological model for assessing families and
designing appropriate interventions will be highlighted. In particular, the major structural and environmental influences on
children’s health and development will be examined, together with the roles of different sources of support and resilience.
The social ecology of families
What aspects of children’s environments have the most significant effects on their development? What factors influence
parents in the way that they bring up their children? Answers to these questions began to emerge within what became known
as the ecological perspective in the 1970s.
Researchers investigated the way in which social relationships outside the family can influence parental behaviour and child
development (Cochran and Brassard, 1979; Belsky, 1984), as well as physical and psychological illnesses (e.g. Cassell,
1974; Cobb, 1976; Tolsdorf, 1976) and reactions to stress (Coyne and Downey, 1991). Meanwhile, other studies looked at
the impact of inequalities and environ- mental factors in the community on outcomes for children and families (Garbarino
and Kostelny, 1992; Rutter and Madge, 1976; Rutter and Quinton, 1977; Rutter and Giller, 1983). Uri Bronfenbrenner
developed a systems model for analysing the social ecology of families, in which parenting capacity to meet children’s
develop- mental needs is related to such external factors as the parents’ work patterns, the adequacy of available childcare,
the level of social support provided by friends and neighbours, the quality of local welfare services and the safety of the area
in which they live (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
The ecological model first outlined by Bronfenbrenner in relation to families and children, focuses on the balance of stresses
and supports in the family environment and the interactions between them. A detailed consideration of these factors will
form the main body of this article. The model also places an emphasis on people’s subjective perceptions of their own
circumstances as a significant determinant of outcomes. The implications of this phenomenological approach will also be
consid- ered for social work assessments and interventions.
Stresses on families—the effects of inequalities
The links between inequality and personal health and development are well-known and clearly demonstrated by a large body
of empirical evidence from around the world. People living in poverty are more likely to suffer ill health and premature
Ecological Influences on Parenting and Child Development 705
death than their more affluent counterparts. Equally, poor health and disability are recognized as significant factors
contributing towards the risk of experiencing pov- erty (Blackburn, 1991; Bywaters and McLeod, 1996; Kumar, 1993). Here
we see a perfect illustration of the ecological model, with the mutual interactions of indi- viduals and their environments
demonstrated in study after study.
A good example of these processes is provided by the British Health and Lifestyle Survey (Blaxter, 1990), which showed
how different aspects of physical and psycho- social health all tend to demonstrate a social class gradient, with poorer
outcomes the lower down the social class ladder you go. Similar health associations were also found for other indicators of
social disadvantage, such as unemployment and lone parenthood. The specific influence of unemployment on health was
also demon- strated in a study of eight hundred adults living in South London, where it increased the risk of suffering
psychiatric problems by a factor of three, for both men and women (Bebbington et al., 1981).
Numerous studies have investigated the links between inequality and mortality rates. For example, a study in the Northern
Health Region of England found death rates for adults were four times higher in the poorest Wards than in the most affluent
Wards (Phillimore et al., 1994). The same associations are also found in relation to children, with road traffic accidents and
fatal accidents in the home both showing clear social class gradients (Spencer, 1996). There are also close and consistent
relationships between deprivation and educational achievement at all ages (Kumar, 1993) and between poverty and rates of
recorded child maltreatment and crime (Garbarino and Sherman, 1980; Rutter and Giller, 1983). Children growing up in
poverty are also at much greater risk of developing conduct and emotional disorders and chronic illnesses and of not
reaching their full cognitive potential (Ross et al., 1994; Woodroffe et al., 1993; Steinhauer, 1998; Duncan et al., 1994).
Health and developmental inequalities of this nature have risen sharply in the UK over the last twenty years, in line with
increasing inequalities in income distribution and a rising proportion of the population living below the poverty line (most
com- monly defined as half of average earnings, after housing costs). Among developed countries only New Zealand has
experienced a larger growth in inequality of income distribution during this period (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1995).
New Zealand has also witnessed sharp rises in social and psychological malaise during this period, with youth suicides
having doubled and the crime rate having soared to the point where both of these measures are now the highest in the
industrialized world (Steinhauer, 1998). Although the pace of change slowed in the UK during the latter part of the 1990s, it
remained ‘top’ of the child poverty league in the EU, with more than one third of its children living below the poverty line,
compared to an EU average of 20 per cent and only 5 per cent in Denmark (Department of Social Security, 1998; Guardian,
Ethnic minority and lone-parent families are disproportionately affected by this process of growing impoverishment because
they are over-represented among the unemployed, the low-paid and those households dependent on diminishing state
benefits (Kumar, 1993; Platt and Noble, 1999). For example, the proportion of lone parents (mainly women) living in
poverty in the UK rose from just over a quarter
706 Gordon Jack
in 1979 to nearly three-quarters during the 1990s (Department of Social Security, 1994). Children living in ethnic minority
or lone-parent families are therefore at increased risk of health or developmental problems (Smaje, 1995).
The illustrations of the close and consistent associations between inequality and health are particularly significant in the light
of emerging evidence that, in the developed world, it is the degree of inequality within a population, rather than its overall
level of prosperity, which has the major influence on levels of health (Marmot and Davey Smith, 1989; Davey Smith et al.,
1990; Hertzman et al., 1990; Wilkinson, 1996). The explanation for this conclusion is considered in the next section, which
focuses on social support and its ability to both enhance quality of life in general and offer protection from the potentially
harmful effects of stressful life events and circumstances.
Protective factors—social support, resilience and social capital