How Schools Can Meet the Moment With Programs to Teach the Whole Child

The emergence of COVID-19 variants is impacting schools working through exactly how to spend the federal…

By Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School

The emergence of COVID-19 variants is impacting schools working through exactly how to spend the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) stimulus funds. On the one hand, these American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds give school leaders a chance to incorporate research-based whole child teaching and learning that focuses on each student’s learner variability, unique cultural identity, and ability. On the other hand, there’s a risk that this one-time funding will bring about short-term solutions.

Find out how much your state is getting and learn more about leveraging the funds for long-term transformation

This means that local school systems, including our team at Brooklyn Laboratory High School (Brooklyn LAB)—an XQ school located in Brooklyn, New York—are working to accomplish long-lasting change by revising our budget intentionally with the goal to employ whole child teaching and learning. 

The whole child approach—an approach that considers not only the academic content and cognitive abilities of the learner at each level of schooling but also a student’s social-emotional and background factors—provides insights into how youth learn and grow. Since high school is a crucial lever in the trajectory of our nation’s young people, educators, and school systems need to focus on utilizing tools that support each student’s individual needs. Since this past year has been unlike any other, young people and their families depend even more on schools to motivate and empower each student to meet their potential, honoring their unique lived experience. What follows is our reflections and early learnings on how high schools can use ESSER funds to put these ideas into action.

This piece is part of an Equity and ESSER series written by Brooklyn LAB in partnership with the Educating All Learners Alliance. See also: Equity and ESSER: How Schools Can Embrace a Participatory Approach to Amplify Family Voices in Budget Planning and Why You Should Prioritize Supporting Students With Disabilities With Your Federal COVID Relief Dollars.

A Whole Child Approach

Even before the pandemic, public education in America never adequately supported all students. “Teaching to the middle” began in the one-room schoolhouse and emerged as a standard operating procedure, as systems tacitly acknowledged that some students would be bored, while others would be left behind. 

Plainly, this approach ignores the fact that each student learns differently and that different factors in their lives affect their ability to learn. In her blog, How Can We Support the Whole Child, Medha Tare, research director at Digital Promise’s Learner Variability Project, reminds us that “everything that happened to the child before walking in the door that day has an impact on learning” and that it takes synthesizing knowledge from multiple fields – psychology, education, sociology, neuroscience, health – to inform educator practice to better understand learner variability in order to teach the whole child.

Beginning with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s (ASCD) launch of its whole child initiative in 2007, learning sciences and developmental psychology research demonstrate that if we “teach to the whole child”—we can create a sense of belonging for each student, and provide rich learning experiences. Adolescence is a critical time for shaping identity, and the brain continues to develop throughout the teenage years, making whole-child learning important from early childhood through high school. 

This approach not only helps all students succeed in the short term; it cultivates learner curiosity, encouraging students to apply what they learn in the world and seek out opportunities where students can continue to learn even as they graduate and begin their adult lives.

The Five Principles of Whole Child Learning

The SoLD Alliance—under the leadership of Pamela Cantor, founder and senior science adviser of Turnaround for Children, and Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute—captures five critical elements for Whole Child Design in schools:

  • positive relationships;
  • environments filled with safety and belonging;
  • rich learning experiences and knowledge development;
  • development of skills, habits, and mindsets; and
  • integrative support systems.

Cantor explains that these elements map to the way our brains learn. “Picture a shape like a web—a web of experiences—because this is how our brains actually develop: lots of connections that happen between the structures of the brain, and these connections produce increasingly complex skills,” she says.

Amanda Morin, associate director of thought leadership at Understood, similarly explains that by using a whole child approach, educators ensure that each student’s unique needs are addressed. It allows educators to understand barriers and opportunities to learning outside of academics, which is incredibly important given the multifaceted challenges presented by the pandemic. “We must look at how trauma interacts with learning differences, with poverty”, with language acquisition, she says. “How are we meeting those needs, too? What are the trauma-informed supports we can put in place?” 

As local school systems consider how to use their ESSER funds, it’s important to prioritize fostering whole child education and recognizing learner variability. However, systems defined around teaching to the middle create a barrier for doing so. The first step to reimagining schools that understand and meet the needs of individual students starts with and continues to include an integration of parents and community members in the learning process and emphasizes creating equity for students who have been historically pushed to the margins.

“If educators teach only discrete skills, some children will ‘learn it.’ But if they teach to the whole child, they can support all students to understand it, become curious to learn more, and be able to apply it to other problems.”

—Dr. Pamela Cantor, Founder and Senior Science Adviser of Turnaround for Children

How To Foster An Adult Culture of Whole Child Learning

Investing in whole child learning begins with educators and other adults in the school and district. This means investing in the wellness and social-emotional learning of adults, offering ongoing professional learning opportunities to increase the capacity of staff to meet the needs of learners, and ensuring staff reflect the diversity of the student body. Equipping staff with the knowledge and skillset to help cater to the development of the whole child, sets the foundation needed to build relationships that are foundational for teaching and learning to occur. 

Since ESSER funds must be spent within three years, the focus should not be simply on adding staff but rather on building professional practices so adults have the knowledge and tools to anchor their work on the whole child and personalize instruction.

Create professional learning opportunities for teachers to reflect on and develop their own social-emotional learning. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a nonprofit that supports educators and policy leaders to advance social and emotional learning (SEL) for PreK–12 students, a focus on adult SEL, is needed to “create conditions for students to effectively engage in SEL” and for adults to “feel empowered, supported, and valued.” 

When adults know and trust each other—and when they’ve done their own work to reflect on their own childhoods—they are more effective at translating those feelings of trust, belonging, and other social and emotional attributes to their students. Melissa Schlinger, CASEL’s vice president of practice and programs, emphasizes that “adults need supportive, collaborative spaces to continuously grow their own social and emotional capacity and prevent burnout.” This requires adults to be vulnerable and reflective on past experiences. One approach to achieve this can look similar to advisory for students, where the same small group of adults meets periodically over the course of a school year to deepen connections, solve challenges, and reflect on learning over time.

The pandemic has taken a significant toll on educator wellness, and levels of stress and anxiety are higher than ever. Schools and districts need to put measures in place to address stress and burnout among educators directly. 

Embed ongoing, quality professional development opportunities into teachers’ everyday work. Schlinger recommended schools use technology to provide short and meaningful segments throughout the school year. For example, larger credit-bearing courses on social-emotional learning can be broken into smaller modules that educators engage with on an ongoing basis.

Diversify the talent pipeline. Develop long-term programs to attract more Black teachers to the profession so that Black students see teachers that look like them leading their learning experiences. Lisa Thomas, associate director at the American Federation of Teachers, recommends providing more pathways to paraprofessionals of color by “leveraging partnerships with community colleges to support paraprofessionals to transition into higher education.” Learn more from Travis Bristol and Teach Plus Fellows in Diversity Starts with Teachers: Creating a Community to Keep Educators of Color in the Classroom and Why Representation Matters to BIPOC Teachers and Their Students

“In order to meet the needs of all students, staff and administrators need to bring their present selves. Be present in the space. That is really hard to do, especially when anxiety is high due to the pandemic, but it makes a positive impact on students’ lives when we are present. If we can recognize where students are in a particular moment and be there for them, we can level up our expectations for students and grow them as human beings.”

—Shatoya Ward, founding principal of Purdue Polytechnic High School

How To Include Families and Communities To Support Whole Child Learning

The fifth element of the Whole Child Design, integrative support systems, cannot be successfully achieved without recognizing and understanding the influence of family and community. Schools can tap into the rich culture, perspectives, and relationships of families and the broader community to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of learners. Just as each child is unique, so are their families and communities and the impact that they have on students. Importantly, families and the wider school community, who best understand the needs of learners, should be at the center of conversations about ideas and solutions for their students. Families and communities should be identified as a primary resource to provide clarity and support to best meet the needs of the whole child.

Create a school hub that links students and families to community resources. Monica Martinez, director of strategic initiatives at the Learning Policy Institute, pointed out that community schools provide a strong model by integrating services, facilities, and community-based learning. The Learning Policy Institute has engaged in extensive research to identify four pillars of community schools: integrated student supports, expanded learning time and opportunities, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership and practice. Amanda Morin of Understood amplifies the importance of “providing wraparound support for students and families to create a community of care,” which helps build the sense of belonging required for meaningful teaching and learning to occur.

The pandemic increased the need for integrated student supports and family engagement, and community schools like New York City’s Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School and Baltimore’s Harem Park Elementary and Middle Schools show a way forward by intensifying these supports. 

Community partnerships can also support learning directly by creating authentic connections between the classroom and the world. Community partnerships that engage students in quality project-based learning, service-learning, and extended learning are strategic investments for funding. Martinez recommends pairing these investments with professional development experiences so educators can design and implement rich, integrated learning experiences.

Engage parents and caregivers to redesign schools for whole-child teaching and learning. According to the philanthropic organization the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), school leaders can help build a sense of belonging for students—particularly those who have been marginalized—by setting up conversations with families to form meaningful and effective partnerships. This should happen early in the process, and schools should aim to engage parents in multiple ways, meeting them where they are and offering accessible opportunities to communicate and feed into the redesign process. Learn more about Belonging and its critical impact on student mental health

Ensure all students are connected to a safe and supportive adult. Positive relationships, a core element of whole child design, are more essential now than ever given the stress and isolation many young people have experienced during the pandemic, and schools can enlist support for students from trusted adults in their community. Americorps members, for example, work full-time as student success coaches, states City Year. City Year trains success coaches in research-backed practices like the Check In, Check Out method where success coaches connect with students for 10 to 20 minutes at the beginning and end of each school day, working to set and reflect on goals to encourage positive engagement in learning. Brooklyn LAB employs a tailored success coaching program — training educators to provide academic, social, and wellness supports through relationship building and family communication. Schools could adapt this program by training parents, community leaders, and other adult volunteers to serve as success coaches to help students navigate changes in their lives, in school, and in the world, during the pandemic and beyond.

How To Spotlight Equity in Whole Child Teaching and Learning 

The pandemic had a disproportionate impact on people who faced unjust disparities long before COVID-19: students with disabilities; students who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC); English language learners; and students living in poverty. To repair the damage wrought by the pandemic and to bring about the transformative change needed for historically marginalized students, families, and teachers, equity work must be honest and deep. It takes reflection and intention to recognize and eliminate implicit and explicit biases, to understand and eliminate stereotype threat, and to provide tailored social supports for the student, the school, and the community. 

It also takes financial investment in new tools and resources, and this, in fact, is part of the stated purpose of ESSER funds: 20 percent of the $121.9 billion available must be used for evidence-based interventions to address student learning loss. In their applications to access funding, school leaders must outline how districts hope to use funds to support the needs of BIPOC students, students living in poverty, students with disabilities, those learning English, students without stable housing or food security, and youth in foster care. 

Here are some ways to spotlight equity in whole child teaching and learning:

  • Ground the IEP Process in the science of learning and development.
    In partnership with the Digital Promise Learner Variability Project, Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools is working to use a “whole-child” and strength-based approach to rethinking IEPs, and incorporating the latest research on learning and brain development to create and share resources, reflection tools, and guidance to support the work of teachers as they strive to update their approach to IEPs.
  • Apply a data-driven approach to tailor instruction and learning experiences.
    The ASBO International resource from School Business Affairs magazine, “Social Injustice and Equity in Schools,” addresses how school finance leaders can address equity issues in schools, especially during COVID-19, by making data-driven budgetary decisions, collaborative engagement with education and community stakeholders, and forming partnerships to assist communities of people that have been marginalized. To invest in lasting change, former National Center for Learning Disabilities CEO, now CEO of CAST, Lindsay Jones recommends thinking deeply about how to make high-quality instruction accessible to every student. “It is the time to revisit and improve ways to monitor student progress and provide personalized instruction to students with and without identified disabilities,” she explains. “And it is the perfect time to commit to practices that are inclusive, culturally responsive, and are grounded in social-emotional learning.”

  • Use whole child tools that account for nuance and context when it comes to race, ability, and other factors.
    CZI suggested reviewing the tools to make sure they are not “colorblind” and do not only exist for disciplinary or behavior compliance. Context matters and programs we use for social and emotional learning should be sensitive to the particular contexts—racial or otherwise—in which children develop. These tools need to be culturally affirming and not force kids to assimilate into other standards.

  • Ensure that all planning and spending centers those closest to the challenges and opportunities.
    The most vulnerable students “have always been disproportionately impacted in an educational process,” explains Kathleen Airhart, program director for special education outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers. An Education Department survey found that of nearly 1,600 parents, parents of children with individualized education programs (IEPs) were more than twice as likely as parents of children without IEPs to say that their child was doing little to no remote learning during the pandemic and that distance learning was not going well. “I hope we don’t snap back just because it’s comfortable and convenient,” says AFT’s Lisa Thomas, reflecting on the systems and practices that underserved our most vulnerable students.

  • Use evidence-based design and assessment.
    Learning sciences and developmental research is robust and paves a clear path for how to design schools and classrooms so each student has an opportunity to learn. This evidence base should anchor a local education agency’s discussion on how to supplement whole child design with ESSER funds. One option is Digital Promise’s Learner Variability Navigator, a free and open-source web app that provides a framework of research-based factors of learning and complementary strategies to address the whole child. If you supplement this with a rigorous and high-quality, culturally affirming curriculum, it’s possible to create personalized learning experiences and support a sense of belonging for historically marginalized students. It’s also critical to gather evidence on which interventions are working and which aren’t. Cantor suggested trimming down programs that fail to demonstrate a positive impact on student learning outcomes.

Plan for Sustainability

When unprecedented funds are forthcoming, it’s tempting to hire up to fill gaps and initiate short-term solutions. Federal Relief funds are not a long-term fix and state funds could easily decline in the future. But it is possible to plan for sustainability by investing in proven, high-impact strategies. 

The sustainability of a whole-child approach to education must lean heavily on what learning sciences and developmental psychology research suggest as having a long-term impact. 

It’s also important to identify, early on, which investments need to continue into perpetuity and which are necessary for capacity-building. With ESSER funds, “we have the opportunity to think not just about now, but also about what we can put into place now” for the future,” explains Understood’s Morin.

With this in mind, education leaders must consider developing a plan that incorporates multi-year strategies that build on each other and can include moving toward a whole-child approach. This plan should increasingly build capacity across schools and districts; prioritize whole child teaching and learning, recognize learner variability in order to customize teaching;; and develop long-term, partnerships with students, families, communities, and schools.

As a nation, we have a responsibility to the next generation to get this RIGHT. And because of the terms of the legislation, we have to get it right … right now. Over the next three years, ARP ESSER funding offers America a chance to examine what’s working in education, develop individualized pathways that accelerate student learning, and create coalitions to build a more just and effective education system.

Ali Brown, Academic Committee, Brooklyn LAB
Barbara Pape, Senior Director, Learner Variability Project, Digital Promise
Melissa Poux, Deputy School Director, Brooklyn LAB
Eric Tucker, Executive Director, Brooklyn LAB