Working toward Systematic SEL

In this post we will look at the connection between systematic improvement and SEL. It is helpful to consider what we mean when we discuss systems. Systems theory has its purpose and place across a variety of disciplines. Generally, a system is thought of as a group of interdependent, interactive parts that form a complex whole (Montouri, 2011). While broad definitions and examples of systems analysis includes examining a multitude of components within a system and the way they interact, Dennis Sparks (2005) makes an explicit connection between systems thinking and education:

Every system is specifically designed to produce the results it is getting. The interconnectedness of all parts of the educational enterprise means classrooms, schools, and school districts are tied together in a web of relationships in which decisions and actions in any one part affect the other parts and the system as a whole (p. 245).

Perhaps the most powerful insight and implication for schools within this description is the idea that systems will produce results based on their designs. Therefore, if we want to see systematic change, we must address the way the system is designed. While there may be many things, institutionally we have yet to overcome, there are many things that districts do have power over when it comes to integrating approaches into their systems. For example, districts can choose SEL resources and solutions to support their mission and values. The overall design and implementation of SEL in schools and districts should be thoroughly reviewed for who and how it is serving the system. Overall, if districts and schools want to see system-wide changes in SEL, they need to ensure a systematic process for SEL is in place.

It can be easy to address SEL in schools and districts in pieces. For example, adopting a curriculum that addresses tier 1 instruction, but having limited approaches and resources for supporting SEL interventions. Or, having some of your schools or grade levels that approach SEL but not the system. While these examples tend to be the norm for a variety of reasons, it is important to remember that SEL can be a strategy for systematic improvement, not just an intervention for at-risk students. Everyone, system-wide, should have access to this learning.


If districts and schools want to see system-wide changes in SEL, they need to ensure a systematic process for SEL is in place.

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According to CASEL (2021), having an approach where systematic SEL becomes a part of the coordinating framework maximizes the impact of SEL. CASEL (2021) shares what this looks like:

Schools use SEL as a framework to examine the importance of the range of adult and student identities and assets, reflect on and appreciate diversity, and foster an inclusive environment. Schools adopt evidence-based programs that are culturally-affirming and relevant to their communities and needs (para. 7).

With these ideas in mind, it is important to note the complexity of this task. It involves the inclusion of all stakeholders and a rigorous examination and evaluation of current SEL practices within a system. When SEL becomes systemic, available and iterative, we progress toward our goals of advancing equity in our schools. Perhaps the next question then is how? Check out our next blog as we explore ways to work toward systematic SEL in districts and schools.

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CASEL (2021). Equity and sel.

Montuori, A. (2011). Systems approach. Encyclopedia of Creativity, 414–421.

Sparks, D. (2005). Leading for results: Transforming teaching, learning, and relationships in schools. Corwin Press/NSDC.