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What is the ‘Whole Child’ Approach to Learning?

As with holistic medicine, in which a patient is seen as a whole person rather that a collection of parts, the whole child approach to learning embraces the concept that education should consider all influences on a child’s development.

What the Research Says

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) defines learning as “a social process.” They observed that “… the evidence supporting the importance of relationships, including mentorship, in connection to students’ academic and social-emotional outcomes continues to build. Students also don’t learn in a vacuum; physical conditions like hydration, sleep, and emotional state have direct impact on the learning centers of the brain and the ability to engage in the process of learning.”

CZI believes that comprehensive student development — and, therefore, comprehensive education — includes:

  • Academic, identity, social-emotional and cognitive development
  • Mental and physical health
  • Relationships
  • Community
  • Environment

Goals of the Whole Child Approach

The ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) describes the whole child approach as “an effort to transition from a focus on narrowly defined academic achievement to one that promotes the long-term development and success of all children.”

According to ASCD, the whole child approach ensures that “each student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged,” and adopts an overarching goal of the long-term development and success of all children. This approach develops and prepares students for the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow, enabling them to be responsible members of the global society.

Teach for America describes it like this, “The whole child approach together with social and emotional learning (SEL) aim to build skills and foster behaviors to accelerate students’ progress and help them navigate through life.” When teachers take into consideration the multiple ways children develop, schools create a stronger environment in which children flourish, building skills and behaviors that stay with a child into adulthood.

How This Approach Helps Students and Teachers

In a nurturing learning environment, the relationship between student and teacher is one of mutual respect and appreciation: all students feel valued and teachers are aware of how developmental needs affect learning. Teachers and students work together to set academic goals as well as goals for personal growth. In addition, students develop holistically by focusing on responsible decision-making, long-term skill improvement and building interpersonal relationships.

Teach for America reports that studies have found that SEL and the whole child approach result in higher academic achievement, graduation rates and attendance. At the same time, suspension and disciplinary incidents go down.

When a child’s school experience is primarily focused on academic achievement, the emphasis is on high test scores and grades. All activity is geared toward meeting the standards.

However, an environment where the whole child remains in focus is more conducive to academic achievement than a classroom in which the singular goal is meeting national or state standards. Students who learn about themselves, how to build relationships, how they manage emotions, and why it is important to develop a respect for other cultures and races are more ready to learn. Other important and life-long classroom skills, like solving problems, setting appropriate personal goals and learning to communicate effectively contribute to student success.

How Schools Can Support the Whole Child

“Four Ways Schools Can Support the Whole Child” from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley discusses ways that schools can best promote child development and nurture the emotional, academic and artistic possibilities in all children.

Research from UC Berkley shows that from a scientific perspective, “The brain’s capacity develops most fully when children and youth feel emotionally and physically safe and when they feel connected, engaged, and challenged.” Positive emotions open up the mind to learning while negative emotions reduce the brain’s ability to process information and learn.

The article states, “Adversity — poverty, abuse, neglect, or housing and food insecurity — produces toxic stress that affects learning and behavior.” Positive relationships, including student-teacher trust, awareness and empathy from adults who understand and listen to children, can help lessen the effects of even serious adversity.

When schools foster a supportive environment that promotes strong relationships among staff, students and families, they create an atmosphere that encourages learning. And, when students are actively involved in the management of their own learning in meaningful ways, they stay connected and engaged. Combined with direct instruction, student-directed learning helps students learn real-world skills.

Becoming an Early Childhood Education Leader

Southern Oregon University offers a 100% online program for educators who want to earn a Master of Science in Education degree with a concentration in Early Childhood Education. This program prepares educators to take a holistic approach to early childhood education and to foster cross-cultural, developmentally appropriate, and culturally responsive learning experiences for all students.

Learn more about Southern Oregon University’s online Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Leadership in Early Childhood Education program.


Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: Whole Child Approach to Education

ASCD: Whole Child

Teach For America: Education Beyond Academics

Greater Good Magazine: Four Ways Schools Can Support the Whole Child

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