What are the ways that ecological theory supports culturally sensitive work with Hispanic children and families?

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On the most basic level, ecological theory concerns how individuals interact or adapt to their environment.

Thus, the ecological approach to social work among Hispanic families centers on acculturation strategies. Acculturation (as related to Hispanic families) refers to how immigrants assimilate or adapt to a culturally foreign environment. Ecological theory supports culturally sensitive work with Hispanic children and families by focusing on solutions within an ecosystem. In ecological or ecosystem theory, the ecosystem is a multi-connected network or matrix that consists of individuals, families, groups, and communities.

Bronfenbrenner (father of the ecological systems theory) hypothesized that the ecological or ecosystems framework allows social workers to study how interrelated systems within an ecosystem contribute to social dysfunction. Thus, analyzing the psycho-social factors that affect the individual allows social workers to find effective solutions to acculturation issues. The ecological/ecosystem approach allows social workers to focus on five main ecosystems that may affect any one immigrant: the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem.

The microsystem consists of the immigrant's closest relationships (parents, friends, teachers, caregivers, etc). The esosystem comprises the interaction between the different microsystems in an immigrant's life. For example, a Hispanic child may have supportive parents who attend PTA conferences. Here, the child's microsystems (parents and teachers) engage to provide the support he/she needs to thrive in a foreign environment. 

Meanwhile, the exosystem is not directly connected to the immigrant. It may consist of the child immigrant's parents' employers or members of the larger community. The macrosystem consists of the social, religious, and political systems that influenced the immigrant prior to his/her arrival on foreign soil. Last, but not least, the chronosystem involves changes in the immigrant's life, such as divorces, job transitions, or other types of social upheaval. 

So, ecological theory supports culturally sensitive work with Hispanic children and families by focusing on solutions that incorporate the interrelation between these five systems. Let's take the example of Hispanic elders who must rely on US-oriented caregivers. Many Hispanic elders experience difficulty in reconciling the virtues and values of their native culture with that of the foreign culture they encounter. To be efficient caregivers, nursing and medical staff must communicate an appreciation for the Hispanic patient's culture and values as well as acknowledge the validity of their perspective. Thus, attentive care at the microsystem level can lessen the development of mood disorders such as depression or anxiety among Hispanic elders.

Attention to stress-contributing factors at the exosystem or chronosystem levels is also important. Social workers who use the ecological approach understand the need to address the psycho-social factors that contribute to high poverty levels among Hispanic immigrants. Even though Hispanic immigrants often harbor strong work ethics, the lack of education prevents many from realizing the American Dream. An ecological approach would include on-the-job training, English proficiency classes, and GED classes. It may also include cultural awareness classes, where Hispanic children and families learn to appreciate and understand American culture.

At the exosystem level, many states require those on welfare to fulfill specific work requirements. Because Hispanic families often have low levels of English proficiency, they continue to live subsistence lives. An ecological approach would factor in these language challenges in formulating effective solutions to poverty issues. For example, state agencies may hire and assign Spanish-speaking social workers to work with Hispanic families. Ideally, these workers will have a knowledge of and an appreciation for Hispanic culture. Such workers can facilitate culturally sensitive discussions about the need for English-language proficiency classes, on-the-job training, high school diplomas, college educations, etc. 

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