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October 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 2

A Whole Child Umbrella

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Social-emotional learning starts with a focus on the whole child.

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Social-emotional learning
As social-emotional learning has gained prominence in K–12 education, some educators have wondered how ASCD's Whole Child approach intersects with this movement. In fact, the Whole Child approach encompasses and overarches the components of social-emotional learning, as well as other holistic education models, and as such can serve as a helpful "umbrella" framework for integrating such practices in schools.
ASCD's Whole Child approach is an effort to transition schools and systems from a focus on narrowly defined academic achievement to one that promotes the long-term development and life success of all children. At its core, a Whole Child education is one in which students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. This holistic approach, based on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, refocuses attention on each child's comprehensive and successful development to graduation and adulthood.
ASCD's Whole Child work aims to promote schools, systems, and policies that help educate students "who are knowledgeable, emotionally and physically healthy, civically active, artistically engaged, prepared for economic self-sufficiency, and ready for the world beyond formal schooling." Among other support resources, ASCD has developed a school-focused needs-assessment tool based on the Whole Child framework, which encompasses the five tenets and 50 related indicators. It also provides support to a network of Whole Child-focused schools and administers an annual Vision in Action Award to schools that have made significant progress in living out the principles of Whole Child education.
We believe that the Whole Child approach is the best organizing framework to provide the essential competencies and capacities for a well-rounded, supportive education. Whether the focus is student health and well-being, social and emotional support, active engagement and relationship building, or academic and cognitive growth, the content, methodology, and mindset necessary can be most effectively developed through the Whole Child paradigm.

Finding Common Ground

While Whole Child is an all-encompassing concept, there is an amazingly wide-ranging lexicon of terms to describe the many facets that comprise the approach. This varying terminology can be at times confusing to the public and distracting to educators, but we believe there is plenty of common ground—and an essential starting point for understanding. Jonathan Cohen, president emeritus of the National School Climate Center, has made the important point that "whatever label is used" for a particular holistic learning model, the first goal should be to educate the whole child, and the second goal should be to support the "whole village—school, parents, guardians—working together."
Educators must constantly keep in mind what their schools and systems are trying to achieve via education and what tools and approaches they need to achieve it. For ASCD, what schools should be trying to achieve via education is the development of students who are well-rounded, engaged, and equipped to take on complex challenges—in short, a graduate who is college-, career-, and citizenship-ready.
A number of national organizations have been instrumental in promoting more holistic visions of K–12 education and supporting progress toward their goals. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), Character.org, the National School Climate Center (NSCC), the Coalition of Community Schools (CSS), and the Aspen Institute have all done outstanding work by addressing specific Whole Child elements that foster meaningful student growth, innovative and supportive learning environments, personal development, and community engagement. Common threads connect such terms as whole child, character education, social-emotional learning, school climate, and 21st century skills. Certainly, all these terms establish that myriad factors—both inside and out of the academic environment—promote a student's long-term development and success. And yet, despite widespread agreement among educators on this vocabulary's importance in a child's overall educational experience, a persistent challenge exists to determining how best to incorporate these principles into the overall school setting and the curriculum.
How do we best incorporate and implement a focus on the whole child when state and federal policies and accountability measures often impede progress toward that ideal? One way is to ensure that the mission of each school is defined, articulated, and broadcast to all stakeholders, staff, students, families, and communities.

Beyond Conventional Metrics

Roger Weissberg, board vice chair and chief knowledge officer for CASEL, has neatly summarized the approaches to working with the overlapping definitions: "There are some people who are 'splitters' and some who are 'lumpers.' Lumpers look for commonalities and try to connect them and find synergies. Splitters look for differences and say what's unique about an approach."
Whatever the terminology or categorizations, there are no right or wrong nor preferred terms. Nevertheless, bringing a shared language to this Tower of Babel about student supports and services would help immensely in clarifying the confusion among parents, policymakers, and the public. Indeed, a common framework can help provide clear goals and understanding about what is needed to advance student learning and well-being beyond current metrics. The Whole Child approach is that unifying concept.

An Education Reform Lexicon

What follows are shorthand definitions of key terms in integrative education reform, as defined by organizations such as ASCD, Character.org, CASEL, NSCC, and P21.

School Climate: The "quality and character of school life as it relates to norms and values, interpersonal relations and social interactions, and organizational processes and structures" is the NSCC's definition of school climate.

Social-Emotional Learning: The "process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions," is the definition of SEL according to CASEL.

Character Education: The phrase "an educational movement that supports the social, emotional, and ethical development of students" articulates Character.org's use of this term.

21st Century Skills: Abilities that enable students to "actively engage in their education and directly apply their content knowledge through collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity," is how P21 defines this term.

Whole Child: ASCD's Whole Child approach is an effort "to transition from a focus on narrowly defined academic achievement to one that promotes the long-term development and success of all children."

End Notes

1 ASCD. (2007). The learning compact redefined: A call to action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

David Griffith is the former Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations. In this role, he lead ASCD's efforts to influence education decision-making at the federal, state, and local levels and the development and implementation of the association's legislative agenda. He played an instrumental role in promoting multimetric accountability and a whole child approach to education, as well as being a national speaker and resource expert on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Prior to joining ASCD, Griffith was the director of governmental and public affairs for the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE). Previously, he served as a congressional aide to two Representatives on Capitol Hill. In addition, he has worked on numerous political campaigns, was the legislative and grassroots coordinator for the American Arts Alliance representing the nation's leading nonprofit arts institutions, and traveled the country doing advance work for the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay.

He received his bachelor's degree from Villanova University and his master's degree in education from the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.

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Sean Slade is an education leader, speaker, and author, with nearly three decades of experience in education in the U.S. and globally. He serves as Head of BTS Spark, North America, the social impact arm of BTS focusing on educational leadership development. Prior to BTS Spark, Sean was senior director of global outreach at ASCD, where he launched and grew the ASCD Whole Child Network across 56 countries and led the development of the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child Model (WSCC) with the CDC. His latest book is The Power of the Whole: What is Lost by Focusing on Individual Things. 

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