What Does It Mean for a School to Support the “Whole Child”?
If you have school-age children, you may have heard the term “whole child.” But what exactly does that mean, and how is it put into action?
Going Beyond the Three Rs
Years ago, everyone agreed that it was the school’s job to teach “the three Rs”: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Today, educators understand that they have an even bigger, more complicated job: to provide resources that enable each child to arrive in class ready and able to learn. This mindset is called supporting the whole child.
For the education nonprofit Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, or ASCD, the whole child approach means that each student is “healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.” For ASCD, this goes way beyond classroom learning. Their goal is to go beyond thinking of academic success just in terms of annual assessments, test scores and similar measures, to a broader view of the “long-term development and success of all children.”
Equity vs. Equality
The whole child approach is part of a current, larger conversation around equity in education. It’s important to understand that equity is different from equality, in that equality means that all students get the same thing. But when schools strive to provide equity, it means that every child gets what he or she needs. Or, as 2015 National Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples once said, “Equality is everyone gets shoes. Equity is all the shoes fit.”
Equality means that all students get the same thing. But when schools strive to provide equity, it means that every child gets what he or she needs.
Children in Need
Of course, a child who comes to school tired, hungry, or in crisis is not prepared to learn. You may have received flyers in your child’s backpack about resources for homelessness, the availability of a food pantry, or medical or counseling services. Schools fundraise, work with families and community partners and train staff to respond to students’ diverse needs. That’s supporting the whole child.
Oftentimes, these needs are linked with socioeconomic factors such as poverty and homelessness. In 2016, a survey conducted by Scholastic of more than 4,700 public school Pre-K–12 educators about equity in their schools revealed that a majority of school principals have student populations who are:
- Experiencing family or personal crisis
- In need of mental health services
- Living in poverty
- Coming to school hungry
- In need of healthcare
- Homeless or living in temporary housing
- In need of English language learning support.
In 2016, the New York Times reported on the extraordinary measures that some schools take in order to support students. About half the student population of P.S. 188 in New York City is homeless. The Times found that the school “strives to be social worker, advocate, therapist and even Santa Claus,” giving children in need items like shoes, backpacks, computers, even access to washers and dryers to clean school uniforms. Today, an estimated one in 10 children in New York City are homeless, and schools struggle to meet the varied, urgent needs of this population. In cases like these, supporting the whole child begins at the most basic level.
Support for Every Child
But it’s not just kids from low-income families who need help. The Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report also found that “In today’s schools, the barriers to achieve equity are pervasive across school poverty levels and are found both in and out of the school environment.” In fact, 95% of all principals surveyed reported that they have students who are experiencing family or personal crisis. Many schools now incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) into their curriculum, helping children learn to manage emotions, set goals, show empathy, maintain relationships, and make good decisions.
Dr. Josh Garcia, Deputy Superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools in Tacoma, Washington, has made supporting the whole child the centerpiece of his approach for Tacoma’s students. In 2015, he told Education Week that his goal was to create a learning community in which “every day, every student is at the center of the conversation. This isn’t about the adults.” In Tacoma, schools’ success is measured by more than just test scores: Garcia has helped the district include a lot of other factors that can be harder to quantify, like whether students are attending school regularly or whether they are productive citizens.
Response to Tragedy
Increasingly, many schools also prepare to support students after tragedies such as acts of violence or natural disasters. A year ago, Clark County School District (NV) resumed classes the day after the Las Vegas massacre in which 59 people died. Though criticized by some families for the decision, the district reasoned that a return to structure and normalcy would support students’ mental health, and many schools are equipped with trained counselors who were prepared to guide children as they processed the traumatic event.
By seeking a variety of funding sources, and working with community partners and families, schools can support the whole child by giving every student what he or she needs to achieve academic success.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)
You may have heard of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a measure with a focus on equal opportunity for all students that was signed into law in 2015 and took effect during the 2017–18 school year. Like most government policy, it’s fairly complex and can be overwhelming try to to understand. But parts of it have a big impact on how schools can support the whole child. For example, there are funding options for schools with low-income students who need SEL interventions, or schools that want to train staff in crisis management and provide school-based violence prevention. So while schools are still measuring success through student testing, they can also use other factors such as, for example, school climate.
Individual Support for Every Child
Every child walks into his or her classroom each day with varying preparedness to learn. It’s possible that a student may be experiencing a turbulent home life, may be hungry, or may need English language help. Increasingly, schools recognize that in order to learn, students need individual supports. By seeking a variety of funding sources, and working with community partners and families, schools can support the whole child by giving every student what he or she needs to achieve academic success.
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