During the COVID-19 pandemic, households became homeschools and we saw how connected life and learning really are.
As a former teacher and school leader, I experienced this every day. If students had a rough night, it impacted their behavior in my classroom the next day. When they were anxious, they struggled to focus or would forget something important, like an assignment or commitment. I saw how beneficial it was when students felt supported by every adult in their lives, and the impact that had on their learning. A student could turn their grades around because they were encouraged by a caring coach. Another might make huge gains in reading, because they studied a script to perform in the theater group they loved. Students were ecstatic when I stopped by a soccer game, church performance, or asked about their weekend.
I understood my students were raised in communities and families, and they had lives outside of my classroom. I also knew I lacked some of the knowledge and skills needed to support them when life impacted learning.
Today, students face more complex challenges than ever. Their struggles don’t slow down or stop when they get to school, and sometimes classrooms and classmates make things worse. From surging mental health challenges to fears of school shootings, surviving a global pandemic to extreme weather, increasingly smart and sentient technology to polarized politics, students are growing up and going to school in volatile times. All while experiencing age-old issues of childhood and adolescence.
For students to succeed, we must create learning environments and experiences that promote the conditions they need to thrive. Learning and living are integrated, and our supports and services for students need to reflect that reality. As a mom of school-aged children, this is personal. I need my children’s teachers to have the strategies and solutions they need to address my children and their classmates’ needs, especially around health and well-being. I want educators to have the knowledge and skills they need to nurture healthy relationships, build community and belonging, and prioritize students’ mental health. I want school to feel safe, and be a place where learning and joy are celebrated, meaning and purpose are cultivated.
We can expand our “whole child” practices and take on a “whole child, whole life” approach that views students as children, recognizing they are in our care whenever we spend time with them. Students’ learning, life, and development unfolds in our classrooms and schools, and also afterschool, on weekends, and during breaks.
A “whole child, whole life” perspective is activated by committing to these 3 priorities: (1) adopting whole child strategies that consider kids in context; (2) supporting students’ across the long and wide of their lives; and (3) Pursuing students’ thriving in every learning environment and experience.
Whole Child, Whole Life Approach
- Ensure “Whole Child” Strategies Consider Kids in Context: A comprehensive whole child strategy starts by learning who students are, what their lives are like, the people and places in their life, and what they love and enjoy. By taking a holistic view, we expand rudimentary profiles that view children as students in a single setting (school) to high-definition portraits that show children in the context of their history, development, communities, strengths, and struggles.
- Adopt “Whole Life”Practices that Support the the Long and Wide of Student Lives: After considering the whole of who a child is, we place that child on the ecosystem map of the people and places in their life (the “wide” of their lives). We operate under the belief that a student’s well-being today impacts their well-becoming tomorrow (the “long” of their lives). We start talking about lifelong thriving, just like we talk about lifelong learning.
- Prioritize Student Thriving in Every Learning Environment and Experience: By taking a “whole child, whole life” approach at school and in classrooms, we create the conditions necessary for kids to thrive. Luckily, these are the same conditions we need to thrive. You know your whole child, whole life approach is working when you see your students thriving. This looks like students who are (1) safe and supported; (2) healthy and healing; (3) rooted and connected; (4) learning and growing; and (5) expressing joy and purpose.
In my new book, Whole Child, Whole Life: 10 Ways to Help Kids Live, Learn, and Thrive, I explore what students need to be healthy and whole, and what that means for any adult who works with them. Throughout the book, I unpack the science of learning and development, share important information on physical and mental health, and describe ten actionable and proven practices that support students’ learning and lives, now and in the future.
Whole Child, Whole Life was written in response to requests from teachers, counselors, and caregivers across the US. Every time I spoke with them about what young people need to be ready for the future, they told me they worried kids might burn out or give up before getting there. They were looking for a guidebook, a one-stop–resource, to learn what kids need to be well right now. I felt their request in my bones, because I needed it too. I’ve tried to meet this need through this book. I hope Whole Child, Whole Life can be read and used by any adult in education and everyone responsible for a child’s care. May it give you the science and strategies you need to protect kids from harm, promote their well-being, and prepare them for whatever lies ahead.