What Is the Whole Child Approach?

Student in wheelchair participating in gardening

Think back to when you were a student. Did you prefer a certain class over another? Perhaps you LOVED math, but got a pit in your stomach when the bell rang and you had to make your way down the hall to PE.

Now focus on the present. Can you think of one of your students who may excel in playing a musical instrument, but groans every time you mention anything science-related?

We are all multi-faceted individuals with different strengths and interests that make up our whole-being.

As a special educator on the frontlines of student growth and development, you understand that academic progress is important, but you know it’s not the full picture. Adaptive, vocational, social, behavioral and cognitive skills, along with physical and emotional well-being, all play a critical role in supporting a whole child approach that helps your students reach their full potential.

In this blog, we’ll break down the ins and outs of the whole child approach, and how it impacts your students with moderate to severe disabilities.

The Concept

The whole child approach is not a new concept in special education, although the coined term seems to be growing in popularity. Just do a quick Google search and you’ll see the hundreds of recent articles that are out there!

Years ago, educators were expected to teach academics to their students for the sake of achievement and test scores. If students performed well on their standardized tests, the educator was in good standing, as was the student, right?

Today, more and more individuals in the education world (and beyond!), are raising their voices. There is nothing wrong with good test scores – in fact, they’re great, but what we must also acknowledge is that academic achievement is only one facet that can foster individual success.

Having the ability to count is essential, but so is the ability to engage in conversation with friends and family. Letter recognition is a key piece of a student’s learning journey, but so is the opportunity to pursue physical fitness. Can you see what we’re getting at?

The whole child approach to learning accounts for the fact that the whole child’s being needs to be encouraged as they work to become an active participant in their community.

The 5 Tenets of the Whole Child Approach

The ASCD, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering educators to achieve excellence in learning, teaching and leading, has identified 5 tenets of the whole child approach.

Here’s what the widely adopted 5 tenets look like:

  • Healthy: Students’ health should be encouraged and supported to promote their physical, mental, emotional and social well-being
    • Supporting healthy habits can ultimately lead to improved attendance, concentration and test scores, alongside a decrease in interfering behaviors
  • Safe: Supporting students’ physical and emotional safety is key to building trust
    • Once safety and trust are established, curiosity, creativity and the ability to respect differences can follow
  • Engaged: Ensuring students are actively engaged in learning through implementation of thought-provoking lessons
    • Real engagement vs. forced work can help guide students to develop and foster their own self-interests
  • Supported: Having supportive adults, in both school- and community-based settings, deliver individualized learning that promotes growth and development is critical
    • Feeling supported can translate into students feeling less afraid to take risks with their education
  • Challenged: Implementing challenging curriculum across domains will help ensure both personal and academic success
    • Providing challenging, yet appropriate, instruction will help prepare students for their educational journey and beyond as active members in their communities.
Supporting the Whole Child Approach

Students with moderate to severe disabilities are complex learners with distinct needs across dimensions. While a neurotypical student may recognize and gravitate toward self-interests more naturally, our student population generally needs additional guidance and support.

We recognize that no one teacher can single-handedly foster all of the needs of all of their students – it takes a village. Supporting the whole child is done most effectively when collaboration occurs between a multidisciplinary team of colleagues, family and community members.

Here’s an example:

Ms. Jones, a special educator, collaborates with the school-based occupational therapist to teach her student, Bobby, how to use a paintbrush and a canvas to make art. They work on sustaining attention to a task, improving fine motor skills, and identifying and naming colors. Throughout this process, Bobby recognizes his love and appreciation to create. Bobby’s family encourages this creativity at home and sets up an art station, and also enrolls Bobby in an art class in his community. After a few months of classes, Bobby’s art instructor invites Bobby to paint a mural in his town with a few other members of the community. All of these small but collaborative steps work together to boost Bobby’s artistic ability, improve his fine motor skills and ability to sustain attention to task, key vocabulary, along with his self-confidence.

You can see how the whole child approach is built on the idea that students thrive when fully supported. To that point, educators across the U.S. have been collaborating with TeachTown to help accomplish just that!

While just one piece of the puzzle, TeachTown’s whole child approach works to measurably (and comprehensively!) improve academic skills, alongside functional, adaptive, vocational, social and behavioral needs of students with:

  •         Autism spectrum disorder
  •         Intellectual and developmental disabilities
  •         And, emotional and behavior disorders.

Interested in learning more? Schedule a consultation with a member of our team and we can show you first-hand how our whole child approach can holistically support your students.

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