Home Blog The Five Tenets of the Whole Child Approach

The Five Tenets of the Whole Child Approach

March 13, 2023
Five symbols connote the words, "Healthy, Safe, Engaged, Supported, Challenged"

Historically, most research and training regarding education has focused on the academic achievement of students. This focus became especially narrowed due to the emphasis on standardized testing and achievement in American schools over the last few decades.

However, recent years and global disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that a focus solely on students’ academic achievement fails to consider or address other issues in students’ lives. All students who come into school bring unique perspectives and circumstances that will affect their academic performance. Education professionals must consider all of them when designing and implementing learning strategies.

One way to do so is by implementing the Whole Child approach. According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the Whole Child approach “transitions from a focus on narrowly defined academic achievement to one that promotes the long-term development and success of all children.”1 It’s valuable to everyone invested in a child’s life, including educators, family members, community members and policymakers.

The ACSD’s Whole Child Action Plan Guide explains, “A school committed to the whole child, not only in words but in actions, is one where the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional needs of students are intentionally addressed throughout classroom curriculum, instruction, and assessment, staff development, school culture, and family and community engagement. What this looks like in practice, and how schools work toward attaining this whole child vision, will vary by context. Like every student, every school has unique histories, resources, interests, and needs that an effective whole child approach will reflect.”2

The Action Plan opens by saying, “We empower educators to achieve excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.”2 Below, we explore these five tenets of the Whole Child approach.

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“Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.”1

To reach this goal, schools must go beyond academic achievement to consider and reinforce the well-being of each student. This involves addressing the physical, mental, emotional and social dimensions of health to ensure that each child’s needs are met. It calls for evaluation of the environment and support that are provided at school. Do students have access to healthy lunch menus and regular recess? Are they provided with health and physical education? How easy is it for them to access mental health resources, such as school counseling, especially in light of the current shortage of social workers?

School communities adopting the Whole Child approach commit to supporting and reinforcing the health and well-being of each student through the school culture, facility and environment. This includes:

  • Providing health education curriculum and instruction
  • Delivering physical education schedule, curriculum and instruction that address lifetime fitness knowledge, attitudes, behaviors and skills
  • Addressing the health and wellbeing of each staff member
  • Collaborating with parents and the local community
  • Integrating health and wellbeing into the school’s ongoing activities, professional development, curriculum and assessment practices
  • Establishing realistic goals, built on accurate data and sound science, for student and staff health
  • Facilitating student and staff access to health, mental health and dental services
  • Supporting, promoting and reinforcing healthy eating patterns and food safety in routine food services and special programming and events for students and staff


“Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.”1

At any moment, students may be experiencing a variety of profound difficulties such as poverty, housing and food insecurity, abuse or neglect, none of which disappears when a student arrives at school. The toxic stress produced by adversity affects learning and behavior. However, each adult in a child’s life can make a positive and lasting impact. Nurturing, stable relationships with adults and school professionals can buffer the effects of hardship.3

To help keep children safe, education professionals can ensure that school provides a physically secure and comfortable environment. School communities enacting the Whole Child approach commit to maintaining buildings, grounds, playground equipment and vehicles that are secure and meet all established safety and environmental standards. They agree that each school’s physical plant will be attractive, structurally sound and free of defects, with good internal (hallways) and external (pedestrian, bicycle, and motor vehicle) traffic flow, including for people with special needs.

To create a physical, emotional, academic and social school climate that’s safe, friendly and student-centered, in which students feel valued, respected, cared for and motivated to learn, each school:

  • Provides students, staff, and family members with regular opportunities for learning and support in teaching students how to manage their own behavior and reinforcing expectations, rules and routines
  • Fosters a community in which staff, students and family members establish and maintain school and classroom behavioral expectations, rules and routines that teach students how to manage their behavior and help them improve problem behavior
  • Teaches, models and provides opportunities to practice social-emotional skills, including effective listening, conflict resolution, problem solving, personal reflection and responsibility, and ethical decision-making
  • Upholds social justice and equity concepts and practices mutual respect for individual differences at all levels of school interactions—student-to-student, adult-to-student and adult-to-adult
  • Maintains a climate, curriculum and instruction that reflect high expectations and an understanding of child and adolescent growth and development
  • Employs teachers and staff who develop and implement academic and behavioral interventions based on an understanding of child and adolescent development and learning theories


“Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.”1

School communities can build student engagement inside and outside the classroom. In the classroom, educators in Whole Child-centered schools implement active learning strategies, such as project-based learning and group work, to help students connect with their peers. They employ multiple inquiry-based, experiential learning tasks and activities. Curricula and instruction promote students’ understanding of the real world, global relevance and application of learned content.

These schools prioritize:

  • Offering a range of opportunities for students to contribute to and learn within the community at large, including service learning, internships, apprenticeships and volunteer projects
  • Creating policies and a climate that reinforce citizenship and civic behaviors by students, family members and staff, and include meaningful participation in decision-making
  • Using curriculum-related experiences such as field trips and outreach projects to complement and extend curriculum and instruction
  • Ensuring that each student has access to a wide array of extracurricular and cocurricular activities that reflect student interests, goals and learning profiles
  • Having staff work closely with students to help them monitor and direct their own progress
  • Expecting and preparing students to assume age-appropriate responsibility for learning through effective decision-making, goal-setting, and time management
  • Supporting, promoting and reinforcing responsible environmental habits through recycling, trash management, sustainable energy and other efforts


“Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.”1

To be effective, the support addressed in this tenet has to come from a network of caring adults in a student’s life. It requires analysis of all relationships present in a school environment. Education professionals can advance these efforts by creating a welcoming environment for families to be partners in their students’ education. Further, students must have access to school counselors and emotional support systems.

In a Whole Child-focused school community, the entire staff is well-qualified and properly credentialed. All adults who interact with students within the school and through extracurricular, cocurricular and community-based experiences teach and model prosocial behavior.

Whole Child-active school communities commit to:

  • Personalizing learning through the flexible use of time and scheduling
  • Using a range of diagnostic, formative and summative assessment tasks to monitor student progress, provide timely feedback and adjust teaching-learning activities to maximize student progress
  • Ensuring that adult-student relationships support and encourage each student’s academic and personal growth
  • Seeing to it that each student has access to school counselors and other structured academic, social and emotional support systems
  • Understanding and making curricular, instructional and school improvement decisions based on child and adolescent development and student performance information
  • Welcoming and including all families as partners in their children’s education and significant members of the school community
  • Using a variety of methods across languages and cultures to communicate with all families and community members about the school’s vision, mission, goals, activities and opportunities for students
  • Helping families understand available services, advocate for their children’s needs and support their learning


“Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.”1

The ultimate goal of K-12 education is to prepare students to succeed in their next steps in life. This requires equipping students with critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills that will help them navigate the world. To be successful, education professionals must consider the unique challenges that students will face when they leave school and work toward higher goals. Do they have opportunities to learn with appropriate technology? Does the curriculum help them develop a global awareness? What extracurricular and community opportunities are provided to help students grow academically and personally?

Whole Child-active school communities commit to:

  • Ensuring that each student has access to challenging, comprehensive curriculum in all content areas
  • Providing curriculum and instruction that:
    • Offer opportunities to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills, problem-solving competencies and technological proficiency
    • Include evidence-based strategies to prepare students for further education, career and citizenship
    • Develop global awareness and competencies, including understanding of language and culture
  • Utilizing curriculum, instruction and assessment that demonstrate high expectations for each student
  • Collecting and using qualitative and quantitative data to support student academic and personal growth
  • Working with families to help all students understand the connection between education and lifelong success
  • Offering and supporting extracurricular, cocurricular and community-based programs that provide experiences relevant to higher education, career and citizenship; monitoring and assessing them to ensure students’ academic and personal growth
  • Providing cross-curricular opportunities for learning with and through technology

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