A Reexamination and Critique of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory:  A Contemporary Critique and New Theories for Assessing the Black Male Experience

A Reexamination and Critique of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory: A Contemporary Critique and New Theories for Assessing the Black Male Experience

A Reexamination and Critique of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory: A Contemporary Critique and New Theories for Assessing the Black Male Experience

Jessica A. Griffen, Ed.D., The Soft Skills Training Institute of Florida

John A. Rigsby, The Soft Skills Training Institute of Florida

Sherri L. Zimmerman, Ph.D., University of West Florida

The purpose of this article is to address the limitations that exist with Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (1979, 1994, 1995, 1999) when it comes to adequately assessing Black males. This is a collaboration between Jessica A. Griffin, John A. Rigsby, and Sherri L. Zimmerman to develop a model that includes the tenets of the Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1994, 1995, 1999), emotional intelligence (Salovey & Meyer, 1990; Goleman, 1995, 2009) and the Soft Skills Training Institute of Florida PeopleSmart™ model (Griffen & Rigsby, 2006). This model will allow researchers, practitioners, educators, policy makers, and community leaders to holistically optimize their approach when assessing challenges and bad choices faced and made by Black males in America.

One of the most critical points in Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory as it relates to any group or class of people is that human development does not and cannot lack perspective. As researchers, it is critical to understand how these contexts factor into the development of human beings because these contexts ultimately influence outcomes. Further, as a researcher, I’ve learned that an individual’s viewpoint drives contexts in their environments and these contexts can have a strong or weak argument as it pertains to a person’s perspective. This is how biases, strengths, and weaknesses exist and mindsets are developed throughout a person’s life span. Bronfenbrenner (1979, 1994, 1995, 1999) defines human development as:

“…the process through which the growing person acquires a more extended, differentiated, and valid conception of the ecological environment, and becomes motivated and able to engage in activities that reveal the properties of, sustain, or restructure that environment at levels of similar or great complexity in form and content.” (p. 27).

According to Bronfenbrenner, the objective of his theory on human development is to understand the processes and results of systems framed around human development and use these systems such as the Ecological Systems Theory, as a common equation of man and environment. However, Bronfenbrenner’s theory imposes certain restrictions in regard to effectively examining and assessing the state of Black males’ interactions and their environments. Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory fails to understand the underlying meaning of interaction that Black males are exposed to in their environments. Black males’ experiences are unique because of the impositions society has drawn from their enslaved experiences. Bronfenbrenner’s five primary subsystems does not allow for researchers to adequately address situations such as a Black male’s spiritual, psychological, social, and educational development experience in educational systems.

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory consists of five primary subsystems. These subsystems include: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem. The microsystem is composed of the direct surroundings in a person’s life. It includes patterns of behavior, roles, and interpersonal relationships experienced by an individual in a given situation (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1994, 1995, 1999). The microsystem is the environment in which a person has direct social connections with his or her relationships (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1994, 1995, 1999). According to Bronfenbrenner (1979, 1994, 1995, 1999), individuals are not just beneficiaries of these experiences they have at the time of interacting with other people in the microsystem environment, but they contribute to the structure of these environments (Bronfenbrenner, 1979,1994,1995, 1999). Some of the examples identified in the microsystem included, but were not limited to, family, school, peers, gangs, teachers, classroom settings, neighborhoods, religious institutions, and the workplace in some of the participants’ environments.

The mesosystem comprises the interactions in the microsystem within a person’s existence (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1994, 1995, 1999). It connects the interrelations of two or more settings in which the developing person actively participates (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1994, 1995, 1999). For example, if a child is neglected by his loved ones, mainly his parents, he or she may not develop a positive attitude with authority figures outside of his or her immediate environment. Moreover, this child may feel uncomfortable in the presence of peers and may choose to withdraw from his or her group of classmates because of those negative influences and experiences at home.

The exosystem involves two or more activities that do not involve the developing person as an engaging participant but the events that occur in the environment where the developing child is contained has an effect on what happens to the child in this environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1994, 1995, 1999). The child can also affect what happens in the environment. Examples of exosystem include a parent’s place of work or a sibling’s class, and the parents or siblings’ network of friends.

The macrosystem represents the traditions, beliefs, and ideals of a developing person (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1994, 1995, 1999). The context, in the form and content of lower order subsystems such as the microsystem, mesosystem and exosystem, that exist or could exist, at the level of the culture or subculture are contained in the developing person’s belief system or ideology framed around the environments in which he or she lives (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1994, 1995, 1999). Examples include, home, neighborhoods, and work settings.

The chronosystem includes the evolution and changes in the developing person’s lifecycle (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1994, 1995, 1999). This subsystem entails the combination of social and historical factors that have impact or persuasion on a person. An example of this concept is the loss of a loved one. Not only does the loss create significant changes in a person’s life in the present but it also affects how this person might operate across his or her lifecycle because the behavior shows up in his or her actions (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1994, 1995, 1999).

A significant point in Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory model is that individual development is more thorough when there are belief systems in place. For example, challenges arise when the microsystem of the home collides with normative behavior in the mesosystem of school. An example of this would be a child that is exposed to dysfunctional behavior at home as an acceptable means of communication coming to school and then interacting with others in a dysfunctional manner. Bronfenbrenner argues that development occurs through a process that is progressively a more complex exchange between a child and somebody else especially someone who considers the child special. Researchers need to fully grasp this “complex exchange” in order to articulate impacts that exist between messages in ecological systems.

Further, along these same lines, Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory allows the individual to understand context in understanding the individual. Instead of reductive and sweeping judgements, individuals in the mental health professions are able to understand the role that context plays within an individual’s development. As a result, a lack of development can be traced to a particular system. Being able to recognize the messages being transmitted in this particular system and supplementing it with messages accepted in other systems can become and intervention that those in the helping professions can offer. Bronfenbrenner’s theory is not designed or modeled to address the messages being transmitted in the environments of Black males (Bush & Bush, 2013). It is important to note that after more than 40 years of research, no unified theory has emerged as a conceptual framework to explain the lives of Black boys and men (Bush & Bush, 2013). In fact, Bush and Bush revealed in their research that a significant number of studies and other scholarly writings over the last 40 years concerning Black males had no explicitly stated theoretical framework.

Bush and Bush (2013) introduced the African American Male Theory (AAMT), a theoretical framework that can be used to articulate the position and trajectory of African American boys and men in society by drawing on and accounting for pre and post enslavement experience. AAMT is a multidisciplinary and trans-disciplinary approach to theorizing about the experiences of African practice (Bush & Bush, 2013). According to Bush and Bush (2013), AAMT has the capacity to serve as the framework and guide for Black males in education. AAMT is provided as a unique opportunity to be used as a framework where communities, institutions, policies, and programs intersect with the lives of Black males (Bush & Bush).

Bush and Bush (2013) incorporates all five of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979, 1994, 1995, 1999) interconnected environmental systems. AAMT divided the microsystem into two categories: inner microsystem to capture components such as a person’s biology, personality, perceptions and beliefs while the outer microsystem provides the space to analyze the impact of such aspects as the family, peers, neighborhoods, and school environments. Further, AAMT expands the mesosystem to show the links between the environments of the inner microsystem, outer microsystem, and a sixth division and system added by AAMT called the subsystem.

The subsystem introduced by Bush and Bush (2013) provides the opportunity to consider the influence and involvement of such matters as the supernatural and spirit, the collective will, collective unconscious, and archetypes (Bush & Bush, 2013). It also provides the opportunity to consider what physicists describe as multidimensional levels of reality existing in parallel spaces of the individual male level in the microsystem and as an underpinning of other systems in the model (Bush & Bush, 2013). According to Bush and Bush, spirituality is important to a significant number of Black males.

AAMT has six tenets.  The six tenets involved are: 1) The individual and collective experiences, behaviors, outcomes, events, phenomena, and trajectory of African American boys and men’s lives are best analyzed using an ecological systems approach, 2) There is something unique about being male and of African descent, 3) There is continuity and continuation of African culture, consciousness, and biology that influences the experiences of African American boys and men, 4) African American boys and men are resilient and resistant, 5) Race and racism coupled with classism and sexism have a profound impact on every aspect of the lives of African American boys and men, and 6) The focus and purpose of study and programs concerning African American boys and men should be the pursuit of social justice (Bush & Bush, 2013). The intent of AAMT is to undermine oppression by explicitly investigating, exposing, and correcting those practices, policies, programs, systems, concepts, and institutions that promote its continuation (Bush & Bush, 2013).  AAMT is designed to draw upon the historical and current culture, consciousness, and community to determine what is, and strives to achieve, social justice for Black males (Bush & Bush). It is important to find approaches to help researchers and practitioners totally understand the Black male experience in educational settings.

For over 20 years, the Schott Foundation has published national data on the four-year graduation rates for Black males in comparison to other groups. The Schott Foundation (2015) recently published, “Do Black Lives Matter”. This publication is intended to further inform the nation of the reality of Black males when they are denied opportunities in K-12 education environments. According to the Schott Foundation (2015), Black males in America have been radiated in a light that is extremely negative and society has been dismissive of their actual contributions to family, community, economy, and country. The data collected by the Schott Foundation indicates that of the 48 states where data was collected, in 35 states and the District of Columbia, Black males remain at the bottom of four-year high school graduation rates. This fact provides apparent confirmation of a systemic problem impacting Black males rather than a problem with Black males.

In order to thoroughly understand the full dynamics of Black males in education, researchers are looking toward emotional intelligence development to understand their emotions.

Emotions do matter (Salovey & Mayer, 1990; Goleman, 1995, 2009). What we do with our emotions is especially important. When perceived accurately and regulated effectively, emotions help us to focus on important tasks, make effective decisions, enjoy healthy relationships, and manage life’s ups and downs. In their article from 1990, “Emotional Intelligence” Salovey and Mayer define emotional intelligence as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (Salovey & Mayer, p. 189).

This definition shows that emotions can be used to guide logical thinking and goal-oriented actions. Emotions can actually enhance rationality.

Salovey and Mayer conceptualize emotional intelligence

Salovey and Mayer (1990) present an illustration that conceptualizes emotional intelligence, showing that it has three focal areas: 1) Appraisal and expression of emotion, 2) Regulation of emotion, and 3) Utilization of emotion. Under the third focal area, Salovey and Mayer (1990) list four more categories. Each of these categories encompasses one way that an individual can utilize their emotions. The four categories or skills are: 1) Flexible planning, 2) Creative thinking, 3) Redirected attention, and 4) Motivation.

Salovey and Mayer (1990) list several studies that show how working with emotions can enhance each of these skills. Since then, several more studies have been conducted to further illustrate this point such as the work researched by Goleman (1995, 2009) on the five pillars of emotional intelligence. Researchers will continue to see a rush forward of this type of research as society begins to realize the need for greater emotional intelligence in all of our endeavors.

Salovey and Mayer address the complexity of emotional intelligence

According to Salovey and Mayer (1990), “The emotionally intelligent person, however, does not mindlessly seek pleasure, but rather attend to emotion in the path toward growth (p. 17).” Emotional intelligence involves self-regulation appreciative of the fact that momentarily wounded feelings or emotional self-control is frequently essential in the service of a greater objective (p. 201).” Negative or painful emotions are not seen as being inherently flawed or useless, but as a necessary component of personal growth. And philosophically speaking, we may only be able to feel joy and happiness to the extent that we are likewise able to feel pain and sadness.

Salovey and Mayer (1990) provide one example of how sometimes feelings need be temporarily hurt in the name of personal growth. They refer to a case where a person helps others in the long-term, which may require self-sacrifice and even emotional endurance in the short-term. In the short-term it may not be pleasant or rewarding for that person to go through the sacrifices or emotional challenges, but the end result of successfully helping another may transform the negative aspects of the experience into positive ones, or at least transmute the experience as a whole into one of value and personal meaning. “Thus, emotionally intelligent individuals accurately perceive their emotions and use integrated, sophisticated approaches to regulate them as they proceed toward important goals (Salovey & Mayer, p. 201).” Emotionally intelligent individuals realize that there is a bigger picture at work that dwarfs the limited perspective by which we all too easily confine ourselves.

Emotional intelligence means utilizing all emotions intelligently

Nearly twenty years ago, Salovey and Mayer touched on a most important aspect of emotional intelligence: utilizing all emotions, even the painful ones, to realize a greater goal. According to this perspective where all emotions can be useful and instrumental in personal development and self-growth, we need to adopt this mindset of working with, rather than against our emotions. Those of us who do adopt this mindset may find it awkward, or even lonesome at first, pulling against the mainstream of thinking, where emotions are still viewed as “disorganized interruptions of mental activity, so potentially disruptive that they must be controlled” (Salovey & Mayer, 1990, P. 185). Together, individuals can learn how to befriend, rather than ostracize their emotional self, no matter how seemingly irrational-at-times that emotional self and all of its emotional baggage may be. Besides, as we feel emotions we are only irrational to the extent that our underlying belief systems and assumptive networks reflect illogical thought. Sorting through all that baggage is a way to take inventory of all the cognitive processes that are driving behaviors, and whether or not they are in a person’s best interest.

Emotional intelligence means embarking on the path of self-actualizing

Another most important characteristic of Salovey and Mayer’s (1990) research is that they intimately examine and access what emotional intelligence encompasses. According to Salovey and Mayer (1990), “People who have developed skills related to emotional intelligence understand and express their own emotions, recognize emotions in others, regulate affect, and use moods and emotions to motivate adaptive behaviors (p. 200).” When a person learns how to effectively manage their emotions, they naturally garner the benefits of getting to know themselves more intimately. When individuals have a clearer sense of who they are and who they are becoming, they can make wiser and more introspective choices in life by strengthening their response to everything that happens to them in life. Self-discovery is a lifelong process, and it can serve individuals for an entire life span. Self-discovery is the basis for self-care, and self-care is the foundation for long lasting satisfaction and happiness in life. All of these elements are intricately intertwined to mental, emotional, and physical health.

In a presentation from the 2013 Yale Presidential Inauguration Symposia, Professor Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, describes the theory of emotional intelligence developed at Yale under President Salovey’s direction and shares his decades of research on the relationship between emotional intelligence and the “ruler”, which is designed to induce important life outcomes. Professor Brackett also discusses the concept of the Center’s evidence-based approach to teaching emotional intelligence in school systems, which has shown the increase in academic performance, decrease in bullying, and enhanced school climates. Professor Brackett also discusses how creating emotionally intelligent communities can help to build a happier, healthy, productive, and compassionate society. Emotional intelligence development is part of the panacea for improving the quality of Black males in America.

Emotional Intelligence and Black Males

Given the historical and current dialogue about the underachievement of Black males and the problems they continue to face because of their lack of education, researchers such as the Schott Foundation (2015), have found some answers to help curb this epidemic that plagues Black males. In order for Black males to develop the building blocks needed to obtain and gain positive experiential learning, Black males must engage in or refrain from particular types of thoughts, words, actions, and habits that produce negative or undesirable outcomes. Black males do not live in a place and time where being without skills is an option. In fact, if they are going to problem solve, in that is skill. Education is no longer about teaching Black males how to read. It is about teaching them to think critically about what they read, question what they read, interpret what they read, and relate what they read to their own lives. This is where Black males break down and need help bridging the gap. Black males need to learn how to persevere to respect others, to be aware of their actions, and to reason and weigh evidence, and to appreciate people who are different from themselves; aspects of what Goleman (1995, 2009) calls emotional intelligence.

According to Goleman (1995, 2009), students who have learned to collaborate, to think critically, and to be more confident about their own ideas also tend to make better moral judgements because they are competent. Competence promotes confidence, which builds critical thinking and problem solving skills. In the past, a lot of focus has been placed on particular aspects of intelligence such as logical reasoning, math skills, spatial skills, understanding analogies, and verbal skills. Researchers were puzzled by the fact that while intelligence quotient (IQ) could predict to a significant degree academic performance and, to some degree, professional and personal success, there was something missing in the equation. Students with high IQ scores were doing poorly in life.

One of the missing parts in success, especially for Black males, is emotional intelligence. Individuals with high levels of emotional intelligence tend to be more successful in life than those with lower emotional intelligence, even if their IQ is standard. Therefore, while a decent IQ might get a Black male through school, including a good college, it will not get him far without a well-developed emotional intelligence. If the primary objective of education transformation for Black males is to make sure that they acquire the skills needed for success in the 21st century, then society has to find nuanced approaches to motivate them to be inquisitive and creative and to enjoy learning. Additionally, professionals, practitioners and those in academic environments, whether K-12 or postsecondary, must learn to help Black males rethink the meaning of the term family (Johnson, 2011). Any teacher, who wants to make meaningful connections with Black males, must also make connections to their families and learn about their family by asking who comprises a family.

While a significant amount of research has been devoted to understanding the various definitions of family, Johnson (2011) argues that Black families are typically organized across several households and children are often not considered to be the possessions of a single, private family. Many Black families are considered an extended family for this reason. According to Johnson (2011), majority Black families are not typically representative of a triadic family model, which includes a mother-father, child.

Black families are best understood as a network of persons related immediately, distantly, and associatively who work together to sustain themselves in spite of challenges or obstacles. Such diverse structures have contributed to the myth that Black parents and families do not care about and are not invested in their children’s schooling. When educators challenge their beliefs and bias about normal family structures to include multiple generations and extended family and non-family members, then they can start to see the strengths of the student’s emotional intelligence rather than to be excessively attentive on deficits. When educators change their beliefs in this regard then it will be easier to see how and why a Black male raised primarily by a grandmother and a single mother could grow up to become a graduate of an Ivy League college such as Harvard and a senator and president of the United States of America.

Without a high school education, regardless of race or ethnicity, Black males have a poor chance for a successful life where they can provide their own children the education foundation necessary to escape the consequences of poverty. To improve the academic achievement of Black males in public schools, teachers, white females in particular, must take a more active role than ever before. With the enrollment of students of color at an all-time high, as much as 70% in some schools, and percentage of male teachers being at an all-time low, the role of White female teachers is vital in promoting academic achievement among Black males.

Johnson (2011) outlined twelve principles that can produce a roadmap to success for Black males in America. The elements framed around these twelve principles encompass 1) Identify a definite purpose and writing down goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-driven; 2) Make a commitment to enter into a working and supportive relationship with at least one person that is purpose driven and has direction. There is power when two more persons with purpose and direction come together in harmony to meet a specific goal; 3) Black males must make a commitment to become knowledgeable about how they identify and shape their cultural beliefs and share information about their contributions to American society; 4) Black males must develop positive and substantive relationships that matter. The ability to discern the quality of their relationships is the most important element to their well-being and success; 5) Black males need instruction on how to take actions daily to move positively toward their goals and objectives. Without having this inner power, there won’t be any energy to effectively complete their goals and objectives set to have a quality successful outcome in life; 6) Black males need to go beyond the call of duty to produce a quality outcome; 7) Black males must focus and learn to be resilient in the face of adversity and hardships. This might be one of the highest forms of self-discipline since it requires a person to coordinate all of their mental faculties and direct them to accomplishing goals; 8) Black males must be taught to visualize themselves performing at the highest level possible; 9) Black males must be taught and given the tools to be successful in and out of the classroom; 10) Black males must be taught life and career skills, flexibility, adaptability, self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity, leadership, responsibility and accountability; 11) Commit to workforce readiness and preparedness by developing the proper skill sets needed for the 21st century marketplace; and 12) Black males must commit to reading because reading is essential and the key to success. Of all of the basic skills in an academic setting, reading is the one skill that is fundamental to every kind of success, whether academic, social, physical, spiritual, family, or financial. The bottom line is that for Black males to be engaged in today’s classroom, educators must teach them with tools that are relevant to their lives and their futures. If teachers are to equip Black males to be successful in a globally competitive workforce and business community, teachers must infuse 21st century skills into the classroom environment. This is likely to be a tremendous challenge for teachers in the United States, given their already strong tendency toward providing Black males with a far less rigorous education.

The 21st Century Skills Movement

According to Jaime Page, since 2002, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has been the leading advocacy organization in the United States focused on infusing 21st century skills into education. Its Framework for 21st Century Learning, the result of a consensus among hundreds of stakeholders, describes the skills, knowledge, and expertise students need to succeed in work and life. In their discussions with the partnership about the framework, educators recommend a combination of rigorous courses imparting both core content knowledge and skills to engage students and increase achievement. Civic and community groups outlined a set of 21st century skills and knowledge that citizens in a participatory democracy must possess. Business leaders identified skills and knowledge they perceive as essential for success in the workplace. Four components of the framework describe these skills and knowledge: 1) Core subjects and 21st century themes (such as language arts, mathematics, science, global awareness, and financial literacy), 2) Learning and innovation skills (such as creativity and innovation and critical thinking and problem solving), 3) Information, media, and technology skills, and 4) Life and career skills (such as initiative and self-direction).

Each stakeholder group independently identified these skills, supporting the need for students to develop deep content knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge across disciplines. To provide educators with concrete solutions from the field, the partnership collaborated with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Council for the Social Studies, the Nation Council of Teachers Association, and the National Council for Geographic Education to craft core subject maps that show how to infuse 21st century skills into core classes. To successfully face rigorous higher-education coursework and a globally competitive work environment, schools must align classroom environments and core subjects with 21st century skills. By combining both skills and content, educators can impart the expertise required for success in today’s world.

In addition to these 21st century skills identified by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Black males need to build their soft skills in the areas of workforce and business development in order to be successful in the 21st century marketplace. Soft skills are attributes that enhance the personal and interpersonal characteristics of a person. They refer more to who we are rather than what we know. Additionally, soft skills enhance an individual’s interactions, job performance and career prospects. Unlike hard skills, which are about a person’s skill set and ability to perform a certain type of task or activity, soft skills relate to a person’s ability to interact effectively with others and are broadly applicable both in and outside the workplace. Soft skills are designed to support the development of emotional intelligence through its five pillars as introduced by Goleman (1995, 2009). The five pillars as introduced by Goleman are named below.

The Five Pillars of Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness. People with high emotional intelligence are usually very self-aware. They understand their emotions, and because of this, they don’t let their feelings rule them. They’re confident because they trust their intuition and don’t let their emotions get out of control. They’re also willing to take an honest look at themselves. They know their strengths and weaknesses, and they work on these areas so they can perform better. Many people believe that self-awareness is the most important part of emotional intelligence.

Self-regulation. This is the ability to control emotions and impulses. People who self-regulate typically don’t allow themselves to become too angry or jealous, and they don’t make impulsive, careless decisions. They think before they act. Characteristics of self-regulation are thoughtfulness, comfort with change, integrity, and the ability to say no.

Internal motivation. People with a high degree of emotional intelligence are usually motivated. They’re willing to defer immediate results for long-term success. They’re highly productive, love a challenge, and are very effective in whatever they do.

Empathy. This is perhaps the second-most important element of emotional intelligence. Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand the wants, needs, and viewpoints of those around you. People with empathy are good at recognizing the feelings of others, even when those feelings may not be obvious. As a result, empathetic people are usually excellent at managing relationships, listening, and relating to others. They avoid stereotyping and judging too quickly, and they live their lives in a very open, honest way.

Social skills development. It’s usually easy to talk to and like people with good social skills, another sign of high emotional intelligence. Those with strong social skills are typically team players. Rather than focus on their own success first, they help others develop and shine. They can manage disputes, are excellent communicators, and are masters at building and maintaining relationships.

An individual’s soft skill EQ is an important part of his individual contribution to his own personal and professional success. For this reason, soft skills are increasingly sought out by employers in addition to standard qualifications.

The Soft Skills Training Institute of Florida is a soft skills training and development company; a national firm based in Pensacola, Florida that specializes in the integration of emotional intelligence and soft skills through the development, design and implementation of workforce, business and organizational education and training in urban communities across the nation. Their soft skills training model is framed around the five pillars of emotional intelligence introduced by Goleman (1995). SSTI’s enterprise model contains over 130 soft skills training

courseware and train-the-trainer products and services across a myriad of disciplines pertaining to soft skills training in urban communities. The team at SSTI understands that in order to promote success for Black males, Black males must develop in the areas of emotional intelligence and soft skills development.

Soft skills training courses such as anger management, communication skills, conflict resolution, decision making, and emotion intelligence classes, just to name a few, can help dig to the root of the personality problem or disorder of the troubled Black males. According to Griffen and Rigsby, soft skills development allows Black males the opportunity to develop their emotional intelligence. Soft skills development will pay off in dealing effectively with issues and incidents that affect Black males’ personal, academic, professional, and business environments. Griffen and Rigsby (2006) introduced the approach to Black males adapting to emotional intelligence development through addressing core competencies. Core competencies in soft skills refer to proficiencies gained through strategic skill-set development. Think of core competencies as pooled knowledge and technical capacities that allow an individual to compete more effectively in the marketplace. The substance of the core competency is to prepare a foundation for a healthier and more capable analysis in key areas of emotional intelligence development. Simultaneously, the core competency is a comprehensive workforce and business readiness and preparedness tool that offer the competitive advantage of those Black males lacking hard or technical skills.

A study published in 2000 by Abbott Laboratories documented that clients whose mental health treatment was managed through a formal soft skills training program showed client improvement over a three-year period versus those clients who did not participate in a formal soft skills program, especially when it came to people of color. In addition, the soft skills program is also designed to help participants realize the effect of their criminal activity and to be made aware of their responsibility with respect to changing their behavior. The Positive Transitions program uses various exercises that focuses on self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, empathy, social skills development, conflict, responsibility, decision-making, positive thinking and winning attitude, and stress management. Time management is also addressed to help participants deal effectively with their leisure time. This soft skills training platform teaches Black males how to constructively respond to problem situations such as stealing or similar behaviors that are inappropriately demonstrated in their day to day activities.

Do Soft Skills Work

Soft skills are tools and when assessed properly can be quantified in dollars and cents. Soft skills enhance technical skills; in fact, technical skills without soft skills create significant gaps in the quality of people and/or employees. According to Joe Williams of The Target Group, a workforce development consulting firm, based in Chicago, Illinois, many employers are choosing soft skills competency over technical skills when identifying Black males for careers in their companies because they have learned that they can train for the technical skills, if the soft skills are present.

SSTI advocate that soft skills are practical application. No different than technical skills, experience matters. The more a person applies the skill sets acquired through soft skills training, the more intelligent and comfortable they are in the exercise. Soft skills actually train towards a core competency. Through structured guided group discussion, benign confrontation, targeted role plays, and thought-provoking stories and activities, soft skills challenge Black males to examine how their own attitudes and perceptions have justified a tendency toward harmful or illegal behaviors and teach them how to change their trajectory toward a better life. The soft skills training platform allows participants to explore the hidden code of conduct employers expect good workers to understand, and practice valuable new communication and problem solving skills to handle difficult situations (such as dealing with criticism and expressing complaints) in an appropriate, professional manner.

Introduction of the amalgamated model to effectively asses the attitudes of Black males toward education

For many Black males in America, the value and benefit of education is not a primary focus because of the negative experiences encountered in and out of the classroom. While Bronfenbrenner’s theory addresses the assessment of a developing person’s experiences, it does not specifically allow for those unique experiences evolved around the developmental environments of African Americans as it relates to the historical perspective of their experiences in the United States dealing with the underpinnings of pre and post slavery. Bronfenbrenner (1979, 1994, 1995, 1999) developed the Ecological Systems Theory to explain how everything in a developing child’s environment affects how a child grows and develops. He labeled different aspects or levels of the environment that influence children’s development, including the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystem. To provide a recap on Bronfenbrenner’s theory, the microsystem is the small, immediate environment the child lives in. Children’s microsystems include any immediate relationships or organizations they interact with, such as their immediate family or caregivers and their school or daycare. Bronfenbrenner’s next level, the mesosystem, describes how the different parts of a child’s microsystem work together for the sake of the child. For example, if a child’s caregivers take an active role in a child’s school, such as going to parent-teacher conferences and watching their child’s soccer games, this will help ensure the child’s overall growth. The exosystem level includes the other people and places that the child herself may not interact with often herself, but that still have a large effect on her, such as parents’ workplaces, extended family members, the neighborhood, etc. Bronfenbrenner’s next level is the macrosystem, which is the largest and most remote set of people and things to a child but which still has a great influence over the child. The macrosystem includes things such as the relative freedoms permitted by government, cultural values, the economy, wars, etc. These things can also affect a child either positively or negatively. The fifth and final level of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory is known as the chronosystem. This system consists of all of the experiences that a person has had during his or her lifetime, including environmental events, major life transitions, and historical events. These five levels introduced by Bronfenbrenner do not address the issues and challenges of “arrested development” experienced by African American, specifically Black males. Bush and Bush’s (2013) African American Male Theory, which is a theoretical framework that can be used to articulate the trajectory of Black males in society by drawing on and accounting for pre and post enslavement experiences, while capturing their spiritual, psychological, social, and educational development. Although Bush and Bush (2013) incorporates Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory in their six tenets too, the amalgamation of these two theories still do not adequately address the total Black male experience as it relates to assessing and examining the challenges of Black males. In order to address these challenges, researchers must assess and examine the levels of emotional intelligence and soft skills development for Black males. Griffen and Rigsby (2006) of The Soft Skills Training Institute of Florida (SSTI), are the developers of the PeopleSoft™ model, which is an integration of emotional intelligence and soft skills designed to increase critical thinking and problem solving skills in the five pillars of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, empathy, and social skills development through the use of soft skills development. Figure 1 depicts the PeopleSoft™ model developed by SSTI.

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Figure 1 PeopleSmart™ Model

The recommended model to adequately address Black males and their educational experiences should encompass Bronfenbrenner’s (1979,1994,1997) Ecological Systems Theory, Bush and Bush’s (2013) African American Male Theory, and Griffen and Rigsby’s PeopleSmart™ Model. The amalgamation of these three models will provide the substance needed in order for educators, researchers and practitioners to meticulously access the thought process and mindset of Black males in education. Figure 2 is the depiction of The Black Male Asset theoretical framework.

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Figure 2 is recommended to educators, practitioners and policy makers to further examine and understand the spiritual, psychological, social, educational, emotional intelligence and soft skills levels of Black males as it relates to pre and post enslavement experiences encountered and its impact to Black males in America. As stated previously by Bush and Bush (2013), we, too see our work here as only the beginning and just part of the solution for addressing the challenges faced by Black males in America. Researchers must delve into nontraditional approaches to undergird situations that have not been addressed in traditional settings that are guided by our historical perspectives and precepts. It is only then we will overcome the challenges faced by not only Black males, but all people of color in America.

About the Author


Dr. Sherri Zimmerman

Sherri Zimmerman, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the University of West Florida. She has experience as both a building and district administrator and has been researching the topic of teacher evaluation since 1999.