Interplay: Which dimensions affect education

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The success or failure of sexuality educational interventions depends on a myriad of factors. While having a quality educator is important, it is not the only determinant in how beneficial sexuality education will be.   While some of the other factors influencing sexuality education can be manipulated, such as classroom setting and media usage, other outside factors cannot be so easily controlled for.

A major consideration in the sexuality education of an individual is the people who interact with that individual on a daily basis and the systems the individual operates in. For some young people, the caregivers that surround them will have great deal of authority over how they integrate sexuality education into their life. Caregivers that are supportive and understanding of the sexuality education curriculum their child is receiving may be more apt to encourage the adoption of this learning and solicit changes in the child’s behavior, knowledge, affect, and skills surrounding sexuality. A caregiver who has a less supportive attitude towards the education their child is receiving may have a more sabotaging effect on the child’s education. Creating distrust between the child and instructor, reinforcing what is taught in the home above lessons that are taught in the classroom, and the legal removal of the student from class activities are all ways in which a caregiver may interject in what they view as an inappropriate curriculum.

Ecological Systems Theory

To more effectively educate, an instructor will need to understand the different dimensions at play that influence the learning occurring in the classroom. Models such as the ecological systems theory developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, also known as the socio-ecological model, may support the instructor’s understanding of areas where he/she/ze receives support or criticism for his/her/zer approach to sexuality education. This model could also be applied to caregivers and community members to help them understand their influence on the student’s education.  Compiling information on these interactions, the instructor can begin designing lessons that will enhance or depress the interplay between these environmental dimensions if these dimensions are within their control.

The public health sector has applied the ecological systems theory to various health behaviors in the past to elicit change in knowledge, skills, and attitudes. This model takes into account the interaction between different levels of the student’s life and experience. The dynamic existing between the individual’s microsystemmesosystemexosystemmacrosystem, and chronosystem all have the ability to affect how the student is able to learn and process information regarding sexuality. Once a student acquires knowledge regarding sexuality these systems and their existing interplay will influence the student’s ability to apply this knowledge via access to resources, health care, further knowledge, and support systems.


Ecological Systems Theory

If the student receives the best education possible but is unable to benefit from this education due to legal restrictions (exosystem) or moral objections (macrosystme) their new found knowledge will not be as useable as the instructor may have intended.  For example a student may have an in depth understanding of how contraception works but is not permitted to use contraception based on their morality.  Furthermore a student may not be able to access contraception due to lack of income, transportation, or contraception availability where they live.

The impact of other environmental levels influence how a student conceptualizes and uses their sexuality education

Effects on education

The affect these different dimensions will have on the student, classroom, and instructor differ. Cases where instructors were approached by critical or aggressive caregivers have been shown to impact their future educational interventions (Eisenber, Madsen, Oliphant, & Resinick, 2012). When a caregiver approaches an instructor with extreme emotion or expressing negative reviews of the instructor’s methodology or reputation it can become a situation the instructor refers back to before making educational decisions. This reminder of a prior occurrence when the instructor was confronted with an oppositional force could alter their behavior towards using methodology that will be less effective but also less likely to cause uproar among the community and caregivers. When instructors are able to teach without fear of repercussions from caregivers, the community, or educational systems they are able to devote time and resources that might have been spent on worrying towards best practices in sexuality education.  Understanding the interplay between the classroom and other environmental levels will allow to the instructor to anticipate where the greatest support or opposition may come from.  Having this knowledge before implementing educational interventions may serve the instructor by giving them time to research the evidence validating the benefits of their chosen intervention.

In educational settings small numbers of people can still makes great amounts of noise. When caregivers involve educational institutions, legal systems, and the community in their pursuits to change curricula, the interplay between these environmental levels can amplify the caregiver’s concerns and enact change that only a few out of many may truly want.  Developing the understanding that all spheres of a student’s life will be involved in the success of sexuality education can help an instructor determine the best approaches to education and determine how it is he/she/ze will teach.

If the instructor knows that a community is not open to obscenity and defines nudity as obscene, that instructor should not use material in the classroom that involves graphic nudity.   This may mean that the instructor is unable to show what different sexually transmitted infections look like, however they are still able to use educational methods to teach about the transmission of diseases and the importance of testing. Understanding that the community standards have an influence on the classroom and how the student has experienced education up to this point will help the instructor aim his/her/zer interventions in a way that will not make waves in the community, or at least make waves that will be tolerated. While some controversy can help spur education, it also has the potential to further impact what is allowed to be taught in the sexuality education classroom.  An instructor should avoid creating further restrictions within the classroom. Assessing and understanding the culture of the community should occur when the lesson plans are first created, not when a problem starts to arise.

Using models like the ecological systems theory can help an educator understand the complexity of teaching sexuality. Education does not occur in a vacuum and therefore the influences of systems outside of the instructor and the school must be incorporated into lessons to better serve the students. Giving students knowledge and interventions that work in one set of systems will be not be beneficial if that same knowledge and interventions do not work within the system the student operates in. To truly use best practices an instructor must factor in all the ways that a student is influenced and educated regarding sexuality and health.

Recommendations for further reading

For more information on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory:

Urie Bronfenbrenner. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-22457-4

If you benefit from videos explaining theories, try this video that explicates Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Approach.

For caregivers who are looking to become more involved in the sexuality education their children are receiving, SIECUS offers some quality resources specifically for caregivers.

If you’re a caregiver looking to advocate for comprehensive education Advocates for Youth have compiled a list of components quality sexuality education should include.  Being part of a community that teaches sexuality education means you have the ability to create change in the curriculum by advocating for comprehensive education.


Eisenber, M. E., Madsen, N. Oliphant, J. A., & Resnick, M. (2012). Policies, principals   and parents: Multilevel challenges and supports in teaching sexuality education.    Sex Education, 12(3), 317-329.

5 responses to “Interplay: Which dimensions affect education

  1. Thank you Damien,

    I thought your graphics regarding systems was very thorough and gave an excellent depiction of all the layers we as sexuality educators have to peel back. I am particularly drawn to the outer layer of the poltical system and how that so greatly impacts the family system even without directly being apart of the household. Since so many politicians undermine the impact and effects of sexuality education it challenges our authority in educating the very same public that they are voted in to aide. It is such contradiction. Many of these layers seem to battle one another. We really do have our work cut out for us.

  2. Your integration of theory into how we can be better educators is so on point! We have to be aware of so many factors if we want to be most effective in our teaching. Environment not only refers to what our students bring to the classroom and what we give to the classroom, but also what the outside world inherently brings into all our interactions. I’m a firm believer that parent involvement creates the most effective sexuality education. If we can create a learning environment where the learning leaves the classroom- and even better is expanded upon and reinforced at home- we have truly done our jobs. And while we’re not all going to run around with Ecological Systems Theory graphics in our pockets, keeping the effects of systems theory in mind while we go about our teaching isn’t a bad idea. Thanks for speaking to such a far reaching topic and addressing some of the many intricacies that make up our great job as educators.

  3. Well put, the context in which a sexuality class is put in, has to affect how the class is taught because of the sensitivity of the subject! Although this is the truth for any subject, it is particularly true for any subject that is not openly acknowledged or discussed. Thanks for relating all this to the ecological model! I hadn’t really though about it in this way before! I enjoy seeing things through different perspectives.

  4. This makes me think about a hippie philosophy teacher I had in high school who was always trying to get us students to question everything. From the school dress code to the very expectation of attendance in her class. I think that if we teach students to look critically at sexuality and how our culture monitors behaviors, limits access to services, presents gender roles, or the language around sex, so much of the learning would organically happen. Just having students reflect on why girls “should” act a certain way is taking a step in the right direction and maybe even crossing many of the systems in the ecological systems theory. Encouraging students to wonder about the “normal” world is not necessarily teaching any particular moral or belief. However, I think teaching students to question their world is a greater skill than any textbook lesson plan and, with regards to sexuality, can open up young minds far beyond their immediate worldview.

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