What Does a Whole Child Approach to Education Look Like?
March 29, 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 13
Table of Contents
The Whole Child and Maslow
Schools are about learning, so it's only natural that educators typically think of students in terms of content: Are they acquiring skills in the 3Rs? Are they learning history and understanding chemistry? More and more, our effectiveness is determined by our success in teaching content, after all!
But that fairly narrow approach misses much of a child's development and many of a child's needs. In contrast, the whole child movement contains an appreciation of the many crucial aspects of a child's growth and development. One way to view this is to step back and consider children's growth in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Simply put, our basic needs must be served before we can pursue higher levels of comfort and understanding.
For all of us, Maslow's physiological needs come first. Unless we are fed, have enough sleep, and eat well, our capacity to learn will be impaired. This means that what does and doesn't happen outside the school comes into our classrooms whether or not we like it. We cannot ignore the fact that students who come to school tired or hungry will not learn as well as others. Schools aren't hotels or restaurants, but what can we do to ensure that our children's most basic needs are met? What services can we provide? How we can lobby on behalf of our children for the resources that they need?
A level up from physiological needs is what Maslow terms "safety needs." Do our children feel safe in school, both physically and emotionally? Are children's egos and bodies protected by what we say and what we do? Do we provide both physical and emotional structures to protect our students, and are we willing to intervene when things don't go as planned? If our students are worried about their safety or the presence of a bully, of course their learning will be inhibited. At New City School, we spend a great deal of time on the personal intelligences—intrapersonal and interpersonal; we directly teach students how to work with others, how to manage conflict, and how to give feedback.
Love and belonging are found in the next level of Maslow's needs, and I see that as inherent in the idea of community. Have we made our schools a place in which each child has connections? Does each student feel part of a larger group, and does each child feel connections with peers and adults in the building? Does each child have an adult with whom he or she has a connection? If not, why not? At New City, we've been using an advisory system with our 5th and 6th grade students for a few years. This helps students connect with an adult, and it provides a time to focus on the personal intelligences.
If these social needs are in place, then Maslow's fourth level, esteem, can begin to take place. Does the student feel good about her accomplishments? Is he part of success? Does the student show confidence when facing difficulties? At New City, we provide lots of different ways for students to excel and be recognized. Certainly we value achievements in the 3Rs, but we also applaud students' efforts in art, music, the garden, and on the playing fields. Finally, once these needs have been addressed—once a student is adequately fed and rested, feeling safe and loved, with a sense of self-confidence and self-respect—then we can work on the highest level in Maslow's hierarchy: self-actualization.
Self-actualization means finding one's path and achieving one's potential. It involves morality, spirituality, and problem solving. Self-actualization is the level at which we want our students to operate; indeed, it's the level at which we all want to operate. Multiple intelligences become even more prominent in this level of development, as students learn how to pursue their passions and turn their interests into opportunities for fun and learning. At the self-actualization phase, students—regardless of their age or what skills or subjects are being taught—become leaders in their own learning. They know how to learn, and their successes enable them to find ways to make learning a lifelong quest. Lifelong learners operate on the self-actualization level.
The self-actualization level is what all teachers and schools seek. It gives us successful students and grateful alums. But we must remind ourselves that this level of functioning only happens when the other hierarchical levels have been met. If our students are hungry or tired, what can we do about it? What resources can we help bring to their aid? If our students don't feel safe, how can we intervene, and who can we call to help change that environment and eliminate real or perceived threats? How can we build a school community to help ensure that every student is known, accepted, and engaged? And what can we do to help our students step out of their comfort zones and find success, because we know that this kind of success builds upon itself?
The pursuit of the whole child is far more complex than pursuing good teaching or the perfect curriculum. By definition, it means embracing all of a student's intelligences and looking at the context in which the student lives and learns. It means identifying and funneling other resources to students' homes, and it means providing input into policies and legislation that affect students' lives. Pursuing the whole child begins by asking the right questions, and Maslow's hierarchy of needs can be a useful tool in our quest to ensure that our students are prepared for a world in which the only constant is change.
Thomas R. Hoerr is head of school at the New City School, in St. Louis, Mo., and author of The Art of School Leadership (ASCD, 2005) and School Leadership for the Future (NAIS Press, 2008). Hoerr facilitates the ASCD Multiple Intelligences Professional Interest Community. Readers who are interested in MI or who would like to continue the dialogue can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 13. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.