Social Ecological Thinking
Many of my old notes from education and teacher training classes feature a trajectory — stages, scales, a hierarchy — theorized by a white man from the US or Europe and focused on the individual. Freud, Piaget, Kohlberg, Maslow. Linear and universal in their proclamations.
Today, if you’re studying disability, human development, social change, or public health, you’ve likely encountered a graphic intended to illustrate the systems approach to understanding your topic. Instead of considering a person as a point on a trajectory, these models locate the person among the interacting and interdependent influences on their lived experience.
While they come in a wide variety, they most often consider the individual, their social environment, their physical environment, and the role of various policies or institutions. This kind of a model can be helpful when working to understand how to best support someone’s development or identify the root of a worrying change in demeanor or behavior. In cases where our power to change a situation is limited beyond changing our understanding and framing of it, considering the various systems shaping our experience can shine light on other places where we do have the ability to make changes, to increase the comfort and support available to us as we deal with whatever it is we find ourselves dealing with. Recognizing more pieces of a situation increases the chances we’ll find pieces that are movable.
At the individual level, the physical body is a consideration. Do they need more rest or more sensory stimulation? Is their injured knee keeping them from the tag game they were looking forward to? Are they avoiding field trips because they are worried about access to a safe bathroom when they need one? Are they grumpy at the end of the day because they’re not eating enough lunch? Do they have what they need to feel as comfortable and powerful in their body as possible? We won’t always know, they won’t always want to tell, and we won’t always be able to do anything to “solve” the situation even in cases where we work with the young person to identify why they’re struggling. Even so, it’s worth checking. Sometimes a drink of water or stepping outside for a stretch and a few deep breaths can be just the reset we need.
The individual also has mental and emotional needs to consider. They also need to feel safe, seen, cared about, and powerful in the course of shaping their life and finding meaning. Are they stressed? Is a behavior a trauma response? Are they prone to distraction or thought-holes, and would benefit from help setting up alarms and timers to help them remember or track tasks through the day? Are they stuck writing that essay because they need a day to mourn? Or to laugh? Again, we won’t always know what’s up and won’t always be able to help even if we do, but sometimes we’ll have just the tool or reframing that’s needed, and offering it can change someone’s whole experience.
The next level is the social environment: family, friends, peers, neighbors, and wider community. The social environment impacts someone’s physical, mental, and emotional health. They impact the kinds of resources and support are available to the individual, as well as the kinds of models, interactions, and judgements shaping their experience of the world. The social environment is the source of the stories, roles, and norms the individual understands themself in relationship to. The same behavior can be cast as confident or arrogant, the same characteristic as a sign of success or of weakness, and which story someone is given about themself — and others are given about them — can be the difference between self-acceptance and despair. An optimal social environment for a self-directed learner, and for people generally, is stable, accepting, supportive, inspiring, and diverse. Additionally, we need to be aware of the social group’s stories. If they value some people over others, prescribe rigid roles, or otherwise are perpetuating patterns that would cast some kids as lesser, bad, or undeserving of as much love and freedom as others, those stories need to be challenged and replaced for the sake of the space’s culture.
In considering the physical environment, both the natural and the build environment are important. The natural environment may support or limit the young person’s efforts to live a satisfying life. Maybe it includes trails lined with fruit trees, or maybe it offers polluted water and air. Maybe they thrive in the cold and struggle with lethargy and a lack of focus during hot months…or maybe they’re most creative after time spend outside but are often kept inside by cold or by storms. While a family may consider moving based on the needs and preferences of its members, for a facilitator in a learning center understanding that a kid love the rain or struggles with high pollen days is mostly useful for planning and expectation-setting.
The built environment similarly can offer adaptations, supports, and inspiration, or it can be full of innavigable steps, too high countertops, and chairs designed for some bodies but not others. If there are little kids in the space, are there supplies where they can reach them? If there are lots of kids but also some adults, are there some chairs that the adults can sit comfortably in? How’s the lighting? The acoustics? Can everyone reach the bathroom sinks or do we need a stepstool? Details that an adult may overlook — the swing is too high, the doorknob gets too hot — kids may be able to tell you about or show you if you take time to watch how they interact with the space.
Ecological systems maps from Indigenous-led groups, like the Ayni Institute, and Indigenous thinkers, like Juhi Shareef and Teina Boasa-Dean, challenge the models in which the most meta influence on our lives is that of human-created systems, policies, and institutions. Yes, our concepts of, for example, nation-states and human rights are powerful. So, too, is the balance of life in the ocean and the role of the Amazon rainforest in providing the oxygen we and many other creatures need to breathe, forces humans neither created nor control…though we can influence them for better or worse. Considering the impacts of the legal, medical, or economic systems a young person is embedded in can be very important in understanding their needs and experience of the world. But positioning those systems as all-encompassing can make them feel too huge and abstract for us to change while obscuring that their continued existence and power depends on, beyond the individuals and societies that constitute them, the web of relationships between different social and environmental systems around the world. Research and medical supplies may be stopped by national borders, but viruses and polluted river water are not. The ship Ever Given may have been governed by laws tied to its Japanese ownership, Indian crew, registration in Panama, and stuck-ness in a canal owned by Egypt, but its 5 days wedged in the Suez Canal disrupted plans around the world and was resolved with the help of a full moon high tide. Humans are collectively powerful, and we’re also interdependent, along with our creations, on the non-human world.
Challenges to the idea of the singular human, of separateness, are worth contemplating, especially for those practicing self-directed education, which is so relationship-dependent, in contexts where stories about success, failure, survival, and exceptionalism as the result of an individual’s solitary efforts and abilities are a powerful influence on the broader culture. If the water and air of the world circulates through our cells, and if social conditions lead to stress that can change the chemistry of our brains, where do our bodies really end? If the paths and relationships available to a self-directed young person are limited by, say, threats of racist violence on public transit, by the imposition of rigid gender roles, or by ableist design of recreation spaces that make them inaccessible to would-be friends who use mobility aids, how free is that young person really? Efforts to support self-directed learning in a home or a center that aren’t coupled with efforts to make more of the world safe and supportive of the life and flourishing of all kinds of people — and plants and animals and other beings — is accepting the imposition of arbitrary limits on the potential of these young people, however delayed or indirect. Some limits are necessary. Some are inevitable. Some are inventions from fear of difference or change that kill dreams and steal futures, obstacles it’s our responsibility to do away with so future generations have more possibilities and vibrance than we did, not less.