If you were asked to imagine a student right now, you would likely imagine a uniformed, well-groomed child sitting in a fluorescent-lit classroom. They are likely working on an assignment or raising their hand excitedly to answer a question. It’s more difficult to imagine a teenager in a messy bedroom screaming over a hip hop song about how much they want to move out. It’s probably even more difficult to imagine a young child walking home from school to the piercing sound of gunshots or abusive language.

However, many of these images exist simultaneously. In fact, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study found that nearly 50% of people faced some sort of traumatic experience during their childhood. The study defined traumatic experiences as such: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, witnessing parental abuse, having a parent with mental health or addiction issues, divorce/ separated parents, or living with a previously incarcerated parent. Without this insight at the forefront of our minds, it is easy to assume all students come to school with the same trivial worries swirling around their heads. However, the truth is, every student faces a different set of challenges. Educators and faculty must address each student’s distinct human experience to truly assist their students on their pathway to knowledge. This approach to addressing a student holistically is called the whole child approach.

The “Whole Child” Approach Explained

While there are many different definitions surrounding the term, most whole child education approaches “focus on developing each child holistically”. The whole child initiative birthed in 2007 in response to the emphasis on assessments imbued in schools after No Child Left Behind. Instead of focusing on students’ abilities through singular tests and numbers, the approach examines the environment in which children learn. According to the Whole Child Organization, schools should address the following concerns to ensure students receive a comprehensive, realistic education: health, safety, engagement, support, challenge, and sustainability. The tenets are addressed by engaging a few different avenues surrounding students’ learning environment including curriculum and instruction, school’s climate and culture, students’ communities and families, teachers’ professional development and capacity, and assessment. In this holistic fashion, the burden of student improvement does not solely sit on the shoulders of teachers and students alone; the effort becomes collective and shares the responsibility with all of the pivotal communities within a student’s academic and emotional development. 

Addressing such concerns is an effective way to catalyze change within student’s lives—especially underprivileged students. According to The Learning Policy Institute’s article, “Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success” 46 million children experience violence, crime, abuse, homelessness or food insecurity and a number of other concerns that can cause psychological trauma. “This is a Student’s Brain on Trauma” states “People who have suffered emotional trauma can have lapses in their cognitive abilities. They may have trouble focusing on simple tasks.” The article cites Patricia Olney Murphy, a sexual abuse and trauma specialist, who explains that student’s brains may be “offline.” In other words, they may be unavailable to learn as their bodies are still processing and reprocessing their trauma. They may experience “intrusive thoughts, dissociation, flashbacks, or an under/over-active limbic system.” As a result of invasive physiological responses, students’ “learning and memory centers of the brain are conversely turned down.” And these adverse effects can be permanent, leading to “decreased ability to process new information, objectively analyze complex data, and engage in memory consolidation” (as cited by Dr. Elizabeth Studwell, clinical psychologist). While the future for students with trauma may seem bleak. There are ways to help students learn in spite of their trauma. Greater Good Magazine published an article titled “Five Ways to Support Students Affected by Trauma” in which they discuss ways to properly assist such students. Many of their suggestions offer solutions deeply entrenched with whole student education, including social-emotional awareness principles, building positive environments for students, and creating positive relationships with those in their schools. 

Implementing Holistic Education Into Our Schools

What’s exciting about whole child education is that schools do not have to reconstruct their curriculum to address student’s needs. Instead, these tenets can be interwoven into established curricula and programs.  Ned Noddings’ piece “What Does It Mean to Educate the Whole Child?” aptly states “Working within the present subject-centered curriculum, we can ask math and science teachers as well as English and social studies teachers to address moral, social, emotional, and aesthetic questions with respect and sensitivity when they arise.” Greater Good Magazine’s article suggests “teachers can directly teach students about their body’s own stress activation response and help them find techniques to regulate their heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. Teaching through rhythm—for example, learning about math to the beat of a drum, reading an English text while riding an exercise bike, or having a disciplinary conversation while walking around the schoolyard together.” While these may seem simple, these solutions apply theoretical knowledge to their lives, making the information timely and relevant. Students can develop critical thinking skills, common sense, and a deep understanding of the information while learning to address the issues in their own lives.

It is possible. We can see students for who they are and the lives they lead, beyond numbers and letters that deceptively assess students’ worth and abilities. As overt as it may sound, the answer to better-performing schools is, in fact, the students. As parents, teachers, principals, and school administrators, we must turn our attention to our students and address their immediate needs. We must teach lessons that will help them become good family members, friends, spouses, and people. We must construct schools where students feel safe and heard, where their lessons stretch beyond the textbook and follow them home. And it begins by understanding our students and meeting them exactly where they are.

Whole Child Education: How Holistic Education Can Help Disadvantaged Students