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10 Classroom Strategies to Implement Whole Child Instruction

10 Classroom Strategies to Implement Whole Child Instruction

Whole Child instruction is an approach to education that aims to ensure each child, in each school, in each community is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. My bet is that you do much of this already—but extra intentionality never hurts.

Connecting education to the social and emotional development of a child creates an environment where the student can flourish academically because their emotional needs are being met. Whole child instruction approaches teaching with a focus on supporting and nurturing all areas of students’ development and learning. It understands that a child must have their social, emotional, and personal health needs met before cognitive skills, like critical thinking, can be developed. It encourages learning by making lessons approachable and capitalizing on students’ existing understandings, interests, and abilities. It leverages curiosity and every child’s natural eagerness to discover. It takes advantage of the intrinsic “need to know” mindset we’re all born with. 

In order to direct Whole Child education, understanding Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and its connection to classroom instruction is key. SEL is the educational process that focuses on development of social-emotional competencies. As the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) describes, these include managing emotions, setting and achieving positive goals, feeling and showing empathy for others, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, and making responsible decisions. Whole Child instruction envelopes SEL and takes it a step further by addressing each child’s holistic lived experience. By taking care of students’ emotional and physical needs first, creativity and curiosity can take over. 

Adopting a Whole Child approach makes sense. If a child is hungry, fractions are of little interest. If a child is afraid, how are you going to make prepositions matter? Understanding and meeting the needs of students does not discard fractions or prepositions; it addresses the critical need as a priority by reframing the approach to instruction.

Making the shift to a Whole Child approach cannot be done in isolation. Educators need access to tools, supports, and resources that will enable this kind of instruction and fit within existing teacher evaluation models. They need the professional development to implement these expectations. They also need the right kind of school culture to foster positive classroom environments. This quote from the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders and Teaching the Whole Child study sums it up:

“When students develop relationship skills, they engage with peers and teachers in a productive way. In addition, when all students develop positive social and emotional skills, they interact more positively with each other. This positive interaction makes students feel more emotionally and physically safe in their schools.”

Common sense, right? But, what are some concrete ways to do this?  How do we manage Whole Child instruction while still supporting the standards and the assessments students and teachers need to prepare for? How do we add one more thing into the classroom day?

Here are ten simple (and some not so simple) ways to adjust the lens of instruction and to incorporate Whole Child practices. I imagine that many of these have made it into your routine already, but look for ways to develop new strategies, to enhance what you are doing, and capture the successes you and your students are already achieving.

1. Emphasize learning by doing and provide hands-on projects and opportunities

Project-based learning provides students with the chance to put into practice what they are discovering. It does not mean a re-do of the entire curriculum—it just means providing built-in opportunities to let students apply what they are learning. Think about incorporating projects that will let the students drive. If your teaching style tends towards ‘stand and preach’, you may miss openings to highlight unique talents in the classroom and risk losing students’ excitement to explore learning. Adjusting even a small piece of your lesson plan to a hands-on project will amaze you.                 

2. Utilize integrated curriculum and shift the focus to thematic units

Working with other content area teachers or addressing standards in a thematic way can provide opportunities for students to engage in their strengths. Yes, making the effort to take a more cross-curricular approach may mean a little extra time spent lesson planning. But, when you can connect ambiguous concepts like fractions to everyday activities like cooking, draw parallels between math and art, or introduce the science behind Fibonacci's sequence you’ll see young faces light up.  

3. Provide regular opportunities for group work and the development of social skills

Use activities that help model and promote healthy interactions and teamwork within the classroom. Developing social skills with your students prepares them for a lifetime of healthier interactions in all aspects of life, and collaborative learning starts that conversation. When implementing, teachers should have an element that requires collective accountability as well as individual accountability to ensure that everyone participates in the learning task. Additionally, it’s important to emphasize collaboration and cooperation rather than competition. This may take some practice, but it’s well worth it.

4. Build a classroom where problem-solving and critical-thinking skills are part of the culture

Problem solving and critical thinking touch every aspect of life—so the opportunities to incorporate these skills in the classroom are nearly endless. This can happen within groups or class discussions by simply adjusting the nature of your questions.  You can also build capacity for critical thinking by creating an environment where failure is a learning opportunity

5. Facilitate understanding as the goal of learning rather than rote knowledge

By engaging students in the learning process, they are better able to apply the knowledge they gain. So, design instruction where students are actively thinking about their own work. Utilize assessments that are centered around student projects, and target self-reflection and self-assessment as part of the process. Teaching students how to assess their work against performance standards and how to improve their own work starts with setting goals together. This does not need to work against the school or district expectation of success, it simply creates a path to that success in the student’s language. 

6. Focus on responsibility and choice

There is an emotional element to success, and it’s important to keep that in mind as you facilitate instruction.  Creating an environment where success and failure are both learning opportunities enables students to make their own choices and take responsibility for their work. A child’s understanding or imagining of their own strengths and weaknesses will drive the educational choices they make, and how long they try.

7. Think about the language around classroom expectations

Encourage students and their efforts—don’t just praise outcomes. Be specific and authentic. Tell students why they are doing a good job. Simple rephrasing can go a long way. For instance, consider the implications of telling a child “I like how hard you are trying” as compared to “Good job”.  The former celebrates effort and is related to concrete action, while the latter is a bit ambiguous, and while nice to hear, isn’t tied to any specific behavior.

8. De-emphasize the use of textbooks in favor of varied learning resources including discussion

Leverage multiple learning sources, not just textbooks, to speak to students’ different skills, learning styles, and talents. Of course, there is value to a book. However, using multiple resources—including art, digital media, and conversation—is reflective of life. During classroom discussions, try asking open-ended questions, and have students elaborate on their own thinking as well as the thinking of their peers. As the Teaching the Whole Child study points out, “When classroom discussions are done well, students and teachers are constantly building upon each other’s thoughts and most of the dialogue is student driven.“

9. Use balanced instruction to help students understand and respect different learning styles

Use a balance of active instruction and direct instruction, and build in opportunities for both individual and collaborative learning. Support students in engaging with all methods of expression and learning to find their own approach that personally works best for them. 

10. Connect to the community

Integrating community service and service-learning projects in the daily curriculum is an outstanding way to focus on the Whole Child. Explore opportunities to partner with other organizations in your community to engage students in meaningful work beyond the classroom and help them make connections to their own lives. If those kind of outside activities aren’t an option, try simply partnering your students up as reading buddies, building projects or art shows for school exhibitions, or just discussing the concept of social responsibility.

My father, who is also in education, talks about creating a sense of ‘need to know’ in students.  Fostering curiosity in a child will create curious adults, and curious adults cure cancer (or become presidents, or found companies, or volunteer, or just lead happy and fulfilling lives). Build a safe and supportive classroom, and it will meet social-emotional competencies and academic learning. Make a whole child focused classroom and you will intrinsically create curious and engaged students!

Want to learn more about the need for a Whole Child instructional approach? Check out this blog post on Student Trauma and the Effects on Executive Functioning and Social and Emotional Learning.

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Winnie O'Leary

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently the Educator Initiatives Manager. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she learns something new and exciting every day.