The Person in Environment

Learning Objectives:

  • Explore the Person in Environment Approach
  • Describe the Micro, Mezzo, and Macro Approach
  • Describe the Bio-Psycho-Social-Spiritual Approach
  • Describe Systems Theory
  • Describe Ecological Theory
  • Describe Ecosystems Theory
  • Introduce Strengths Perspective


Jason covering face with hands
Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

Jason’s parents have been called by the school social worker to discuss concerns related to fighting with a peer and declining grades.  His parents also report concerns at home with poor sibling relationships, anger issues, and “a bad attitude, always talking back, never listening or doing what we ask him to do”. They report a long family history of substance abuse and mental health issues (anxiety and depression). They report increased concerns related to this as they recently found marijuana in Jason’s room. Jason (14 y/o) reports “My parents don’t know what they’re talking about. My little brother and sister just get me in trouble because I don’t let them touch my stuff, besides, my parents don’t care, they don’t listen to me, they just want me to do what they say. And I don’t see what the big deal is with me smoking a little weed, it helps me feel better and not be so mad all the time.”

What comes to mind when you hear Person-In-Environment?

This approach is the concept that people can be heavily influenced by their environment. It highlights the importance of understanding an individual and their behavior through their environment. A person’s environment, along with their experiences, will help shape the way they view the world, how they think, and why they respond the way they do. In Social Work, gathering information from our clients is a foundation piece of the work we do and knowing what information to seek and how to organize it is like gathering pieces of a puzzle and working to put them together to get the whole picture (or at least as much of it as we can). This lesson will begin to introduce some particular approaches, perspectives, and theories that help build the lens and foundation of the Social Work profession.

Micro, Mezzo, and Macro

We will first start with the Micro, Mezzo, and Macro Approach. This is simply looking at levels within a person’s system, which will help give you some direction in what supports may be needed.

The Micro-level represents individual needs and involves direct interactions with clients, which is the most common type of social work. This level explores aspects related to biology, psychological needs, social (peer) and interpersonal (family) relationships or supports, and spiritual beliefs.

Jason’s micro level – Biologically no physical health issues have been reported but some concerns may be related to how use of marijuana may affect his physical health. He is an adolescent which means his body continues to experience hormonal and physical changes. Family reports history of substance abuse issues as well as struggles with mental health issues, which may indicate possible genetic connections to be explored. This may also be connected to psychological needs as he may be experiencing anxiety or depressive symptoms or if he reports use of marijuana as a coping mechanism. He is also reported to present with anger, fighting with his siblings and struggling with strained family relationships. This connects us to social aspects, exploring how he identifies his relationships and supports. No spiritual beliefs were reported in the vignette but would need to be explored when meeting with Jason.

The Mezzo-level represents connections or interactions with small groups, such as family, schools, churches, neighborhoods, community organizations, and peers/co-workers.

Jason’s mezzo level – Here we would look further into how his relationships and interactions with various groups impact him – family, peers, school staff/faculty, possible spiritual affiliation/church, and any community groups or organizations he identifies being connected with.

The Macro-level represents connections to systemic issues within large systems, such as laws/legislation, policy, healthcare systems, and international associations. This level also explores ethical frameworks, historical impacts of group experiences, and how discrimination and prejudice can impact marginalized populations.

Jason’s macro level – Education/school policies, mental health policies, healthcare systems, culture and historical impacts of group experiences, drug laws and policies, and possible discrimination and prejudice impacts need to be explored.

It is important to remember to explore the interconnectedness and interactions between what information is presenting on each level for the person and how this may have an impact on their functioning and development within their environment.


The Bio-Psycho-Social-Spiritual Approach assesses levels of functioning within biological, psychological, social, and spiritual dimensions (and how they are connected) to help understand human behavior. This approach includes much of the same information you will find in the Micro level but we are wanting to take a deeper look at how the individual is functioning in each dimension as well as how they can impact one another.

The Biological component includes aspects related to overall health, physical abilities, weight, diet, lifestyle, medication/substance use, gender, and genetic connections/vulnerabilities.

Jason’s biological aspects – No concerns with overall physical health, developmental aspects of adolescence need to be considered, substance use concerns and impacts, identifies as male, and possible genetic connections/vulnerabilities (substance abuse, anxiety, depression, or any other family history of concern).


The Psychological component includes aspects related to mental health, self-esteem, attitudes/beliefs, temperament, coping skills, emotions, learning, memory, perceptions, and personality.

Jason’s psychological aspects – Anger, substance use concerns and impacts, possible esteem issues, poor coping skills and emotional regulation, cognitive development and any related concerns, personality and temperament characteristics, and explorations of how he perceives his world.

The Social component includes aspects related to peer and family relationships, social supports, cultural traditions, education, employment/job security, socioeconomic status, and societal messages.

Jason’s social aspects – Strained family relationships, school relationships/educational supports, exploration of socioeconomic impacts, exploration of cultural traditions, and identification/exploration of peer relationships and supports.

The Spiritual component includes aspects related to spiritual or religious beliefs, or belief in a “higher being” or higher power they feel connected to or supported by.

Jason’s spiritual aspects – No spiritual aspects were reported but we would want to explore what this means to Jason. Does he identify with a church, religion, or higher power/being? What does it mean to him? Does it bring any support and comfort or is it causing increased stress as he is working to “figure out what it all means”?

Looking at each dimension of the Bio-Psycho-Social-Spiritual Approach allows you to engage in a more holistic exploration and assessment of a person as it examines and connects four important domains of their life.

Systems Theory

Systems Theory states behavior is influenced by a result of factors that work together as a system and are interconnected – each part plays an important role in the function of the whole, and the whole in turn supports and sustains the parts. A person’s family, friends, school, work, economic class, home environment, and other factors all influence how a person thinks and acts. A social worker must observe and assess all of the systems a person experiences, as they contribute to their behavior and well-being, and work to strengthen those systems as they are connected and influence one another. This is used to develop a holistic view of individuals within their environment, which is then used to lead to the most appropriate practice intervention.

Within Systems Theory we will also explore roles (routine tasks and behaviors of people within a system). We all have roles and engage in them whether we recognize it or not. Some examples of roles are leader, caretaker, parent, child, sibling, enabler, scapegoat, citizen, spouse, and worker. Many people feel their roles identify them. This may reinforce behaviors when positive feelings or experiences are associated with the role(s) or maybe a motivator for change when the role(s) are connected to more negative feelings or experiences. Knowing what roles a person is engaged in, and how they perceive each role, will support your work in understanding their experiences and what needs are presenting.

Ecological Theory

Ecological Theory focuses on the interaction between the individual and their environment. It discusses the active involvement of people with their environments and development as well as both (environment/development) continuously changing.

“Thoughts become perception, Perception becomes reality. Alter your thoughts, Alter your reality.” ~ William James

An important reminder of this theory is to remember the importance of perception – how people perceive or interpret their environment and experiences influences their overall functioning or well-being. This is also regardless of how problems or concerns may appear to the social worker. You will need to explore how the client views their situation before assuming certain situations are problematic. We need to try and see it through their eyes and get an understanding of how they were feeling. It is their story and their reality. In social work practice, this can best be understood by looking at individuals, families, policies, communities, and cultures and identifying strengths and weaknesses in the transactional processes between the systems.

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Model used to explore Ecosystems Theory:

Bronfenbrenner believed an individual’s development was affected by everything in their surrounding environment and divided the environment into five different levels: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystem.

The microsystem is the system closest to the individual and the one in which they have direct interactions. Some examples include home, school, or work. A microsystem typically includes family, peers, or caregivers. Relationships in a microsystem are bi-directional, meaning, how you respond and react to the people will affect their response and reaction to you. This is the most influential level within the theory.

The mesosystem is where a person’s individual microsystems are interconnected and influence one another. These interactions have an indirect impact on the individual, which can be positive or negative depending on the elements of the system working together (positive) or working against each other (negative).

The exosystem refers to a setting in which the person is not an active participant, but still affects them. This includes decisions that affect a person, but they have no decision-making abilities. An example of this would be a child affected by a parent losing a job.

The macrosystem is the cultural environment in which the person lives and all other systems that affect them such as economy, cultural values, and political systems.

The chronosystem encompasses transitions and shifts throughout a person’s life. It looks at the timing of the event in relation to a person’s development, such as how death affects children of different ages. Historical events that occur during a person’s life are also explored such as the impacts of the September 11th attacks.

Jason’s story – With use of Systems Theory, we will want to look at aspects of micro, mezzo, and macro levels as well as bio-psycho-social-spiritual dimensions above and how they interact and influence one another. Here we will also explore what roles Jason feels he engages in (son, brother, student, friend) as well as roles he may not recognize or identify (leader, caretaker (if he is asked to help with caring for younger siblings), or role model). We will also want to explore how Jason perceives each role (positive or negative) to gain a better understanding of his experience and work in supporting his needs. With use of Ecological Theory, we add the addition of looking at how development and environment continue to grow and change, and how this continues to impact our clients as they engage within their systems.  Ecosystems Theory takes from both Systems Theory and Ecological Theory, combining major tenets from each and providing us the opportunity to look deeper into the complexity of each network a client experiences and gain a better understanding of how they interact and impact one another. 

Strengths Perspective

A foundational perspective of Social Work is the Strengths Perspective. All people have strengths and abilities that allow them to grow and adapt. This perspective takes the focus off the problem and allows us to identify ways for clients to use their strengths in achieving their goals. Clients are seen as the experts of their experiences. We utilize their insights to explore times of resiliency and partner with them to identify supports and solutions and help support their ability to grow. It is also important to remember to evaluate the environment for possible barriers and impacts while assessing needs and strengths.


Jason’s StrengthsFamily support, both biological parents in home and still together, awareness of family history, school supports, able bodied, no developmental delays reported (but should be explored if any concerns connected to this), has found a coping skills (even if it is not the most appropriate way, he is engaging in some self regulation work), and was able to engage with the school Social Worker during their meeting instead of remaining closed off and refusing to speak.

What other strengths can you identify? 

How would you work to explore and identify strengths with Jason?

Exploration of Strengths: The following link will discuss strengths based practice values and explore the 5 types of questions Dennis Saleebey (University of Kansas, a pioneer in developing and promoting Strengths Based Practice)  suggests to use to help assess strengths of our clients. The example questions have a focus on parental interactions but the examples and ideas can be expanded to working with any client population.



Please continue on to Chapter 1: How We Use Our Expectations to explore more about our expectations, judgments, responses, and biases.


Key Takeaways:

  • Think about a person’s whole experience. What does that encompass? Childhood? Family? Friends? What else comes to mind?
  • We need to look at their experiences at each level and within different systems, as well as how they interact, to get the whole picture (Person in Environment).
  • The Strength’s Perspective is a foundational perspective in the field of Social Work. It states all people have strengths and often times these strengths can be found within their struggles.


The Audiopedia. (2017, May 1).  What is STRENGTH-BASED PRACTICE? What does STRENGTH-BASED PRACTICE mean? [Video file]. Youtube.



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Human Behavior and the Social Environment I Copyright © 2020 by Susan Tyler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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