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Why Education Needs a 'Whole Child' Approach

The research is clear: Supporting social and emotional development improves academic achievement and behavior.

Two kid hands connecting couple jigsaw puzzle piece with drawn red heart
This year is shaping up to be a big one for public education, as 20 new governors, 16 re-elected governors and more than 100 new mayors settle into their roles. Many of these leaders committed as part of their campaigns to an education focus, and voters will hold them accountable. The hopeful news is that these leaders have an education policy priority that they can rally around in 2019, regardless of their political beliefs: "whole child" education.

We now have robust evidence affirming our instinctive understanding that every student learns best when treated as a whole child, with education that supports their social, emotional and academic development. There is demand among students, educators, parents and the business community for this approach; it appeals to both conservatives, with its emphasis on developing character, and progressives, as it has powerful benefits for vulnerable children.

A new report from the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development, on which both of us serve, presents convincing evidence that by creating a school environment that features strong, secure relationships and helps students gain and use an array of skills -- perseverance, empathy, respect, self-mastery, collaboration -- academic achievement and behavior can be greatly improved for all children. Social and emotional supports and skills are especially important for the 46 million American children who are exposed to violence, crime, abuse, homelessness, food insecurity and other trauma each year.

Previous formulas for school improvement have been so frequent, limited in capacity and difficult to implement widely that a new approach is likely to be met with understandable skepticism. But this approach is different, anchored as it is in the latest brain science and developmental knowledge showing that social and emotional development are inextricably linked with academic learning. By creating environments in which children learn to recognize and manage their feelings, focus and interactions -- and in which they receive supports that allow them to solve problems and take on a growth mindset -- we're preparing them more effectively for school and life compared with a focus on academics alone.

Over the past 50 years we have seen firsthand the power of the whole child approach, beginning when a team from the Yale Child Study Center used an organic change approach, called the School Development Program, in two New Haven, Conn., elementary schools. Previous interventions focused largely on "people deficits"; how students weren't "measuring up." The Yale team focused first on the school environment by creating committees of school stakeholders who promoted supportive relationships among students, staff and parents and teaching them about how children develop and learn. Through activities that valued and modeled the expression of empathy, responsibility, self-initiative, creativity, collaboration and other useful life traits, students "caught" and sought to express the same. And because all owned the effort, they monitored their progress and adjusted to achieve and maintain success. This enabled low-income African-American students previously achieving at the lowest levels in the city to begin to rival those in schools at the top.

Since then, thousands of schools across the country have made it a priority to support students' social and emotional development as well as their academic growth. However, educator preparation, education policy and public knowledge, which are are still largely rooted in outdated notions about how children learn and behave, need to catch up.

State and local policymakers are uniquely positioned to help schools continue to build this movement. They can engage communities in setting a clear vision for students' comprehensive development. They can create the structures for establishing healthy learning environments and using data about a school's safety, culture and climate to diagnose needs. They can invest in educator preparation and development so that adults have the capacity to support all aspects of students' development. They can provide integrated health and mental health supports as well as extended learning time to address students' comprehensive needs. They can guide spending and allocate resources toward programs that develop students as whole people.

In short, governors, mayors and other policymakers have an unprecedented opportunity to help support children who can develop the full array of social, emotional and academic skills necessary for success in school and in life. Otherwise, we risk missing the opportunity to help so many of our young people reach their highest potential.

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