Whole Child Development: How Educators Support Resilience

There are endless opinions on how to educate and prepare young people for the future, but ultimately, the end goal is the same: we want to help students find long-term success.
A popular shift in the K-12 world has moved focus away from pure academic achievement, and more on a whole child approach. This shift was already in motion, but has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic as schools adopt a whole school, whole community, whole child approach to responding to health and safety.

What is Whole Child Development?

The ASCD Whole Child Approach addresses the comprehensive needs of students to prepare for college, career, and life.

Of course, academics are a part of that. But they’re not everything. The whole child development approach recognizes that and transitions from “a focus on narrowly defined academic achievement to one that promotes the long-term development and success of all children.”

Whole child development and the ASCD Whole Child Approach has a foundation of five pillars:

  1. Healthy – Students learn skills to develop a healthy lifestyle (the CDC recently partnered with ASCD to expand on the health and wellbeing focus in their Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model)
  2. Safe – There is a physically and emotionally safe environment for students and adults
  3. Engaged – Students are actively engaged in learning and in the school/greater community
  4. Supported – Learning is personalized to each students’ needs, and every student has a support system of qualified, caring adults
  5. Challenged – Students feel academically challenged and are prepared for future obstacles

These five components serve as a framework for districts and schools to develop programs, plan professional development opportunities, and set goals. By ensuring students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged, a whole child development approach can help lead to more than higher test scores. It can lead to long-term achievement, success, and the overall wellbeing of today’s young students.

Students Are More Than Test Scores

We know that students are more than test scores, but it’s been such a heavy focus in recent years that it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

A national initiative launched by the AASA (The School Superintendents Association) works to bring that bigger picture back into focus.

AASA introduced new research-based metrics to assess that students are college ready, career ready, and life ready. These research-based metrics were developed as a response to dismal college and career readiness scores from standardized tests that “fail to portray a comprehensive picture of student potential.”

These new indicators align with the whole child development approach and recognize that students are more than academic test scores, and that there are other characteristics more accurately associated with a student’s long-term success and wellbeing.

For example, this framework cites characteristics like grit and perseverance as important traits to being “life ready.”

“Being Life Ready means students leave high school with the grit and perseverance to tackle and achieve their goals. Students who are Life Ready possess the growth mindset that empowers them to approach their future with confidence, to dream big and to achieve big. Our nation’s schools provide social and emotional support and experiences to equip students with the Life Ready skills they will need for success in their future.”

– AASA Annual Report

Although these qualities are not specifically called out as being associated with college readiness, these attributes are extremely valuable to colleges that are shifting to be more student-ready.

Being “student-ready” is a paradigm shift in higher education that parallels the K-12 transition to a whole-child approach. Colleges are being held more accountable for the high percentage (40%) of students who don’t complete their program, and are being called to transition to being more welcoming and supportive of students, as they are, rather than relying on them being “college-ready.”

College-ready institutions meet students where they are, making grit and perseverance important qualities for students continuing to college—perhaps even more so than test scores.

Learn more about this higher education paradigm shift in Part 1 of this blog post series: Becoming a Student-Ready College.

The Role of Schools in Whole Child Development

To better support students’ all-encompassing needs, K-12 districts and schools adopting a whole child development approach must put programs and systems in place to ensure its students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Some ways to support whole child development include:

When districts shift their focus toward a whole child approach, an emphasis is put on academic, social, and emotional support. This is especially important now, as both students and teachers face the mental health impacts of COVID-19. Addressing social and emotional needs has been proven to lead to academic achievement, which further supports the case for whole child development in schools.

The Role of Educators and School Staff

Educators and staff play a critical role in a child’s development. It’s not surprising that 88% of people say a teacher had a significant, positive impact on their life.

Educators who adopt the whole child approach are doing more than instilling academics into their classroom; they are also helping develop the other traits associated with long-term success. They are leading by example, which is why it’s important that they also have strong social-emotional skills, can display empathy toward their students, and avoid burnout in today’s emotionally trying and ever-evolving learning environment.

A lot of the effort from districts and schools to focus on whole child development relies on the cooperation and participation of faculty and staff. They are the ones who are most often implementing programs and have the most direct impact on students’ lives, and strong student-teacher relationships often serve as the cornerstone for improving school climate and student learning outcomes.

Are your educators prepared to address challenging topics such as trauma, mental health, and bullying?

How to Ensure Students are Ready for What’s Next

When students graduate from high school, they enter a world of adult responsibilities that require academic knowledge, as well as social-emotional skills. They need to have the ability to control their emotions, have healthy relationships, make good decisions, and overcome obstacles.

To help ensure your students are equipped with these life skills, ask yourself a few questions: Are your students supported by faculty and staff? Do they have the perseverance needed to succeed in life? Do they display a growth mindset, and exhibit social-emotional skills such as self-awareness and relationship skills?

When students feel safe, supported, and connected at school, it positively impacts their ability to learn and succeed in the classroom and in what’s next—whether that’s college or a career.

If you’re looking for strategies and practices to help you adopt a more whole child development approach, don’t miss our on-demand webinar presentation: Transforming School Climate: An Evidence-Based Toolkit for Districts. You’ll learn about evidence-based tools that educators and school staff are using to build knowledge and skills needed to support the whole child’s development needs, whether you’re adopting an in-person, remote learning, or blended learning environment.

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