Byrne Creek Community Secondary School, in Burnaby, British Columbia, is a working model of what a whole child approach to education looks like.

With a comprehensive school health program, student-developed character education, multiple pathways for student success, and more, this year’s Whole Child Vision in Action Award winner embodies healthy, safe, engaged, supportive, and challenging learning.

Schools are about learning, so it’s only natural that educators typically think of students in terms of content:

  • Are they acquiring skills in the 3Rs? 
  • Are they learning history and understanding chemistry? 

More and more, our effectiveness is determined by our success in teaching content, after all!

But that fairly narrow approach misses much of a child’s development and many of a child’s needs.

In contrast, the whole child approach movement contains an appreciation of the many crucial aspects of a child’s growth and development.

One way to view the whole child approach is to step back and consider children’s growth in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Simply put, our basic needs must be served before we can pursue higher levels of comfort and understanding. 

  • Whole Child Approach: Physiological Needs

For all of us, Maslow’s physiological needs come first. Unless we are fed, have enough sleep, and eat well, our capacity to learn will be impaired.

This means that what does and doesn’t happen outside the school comes into our classrooms whether or not we like it. We cannot ignore the fact that students who come to school tired or hungry will not learn as well as others.

Schools aren’t hotels or restaurants, but what can we do to ensure that our children’s most basic needs are met? What services can we provide? How we can lobby on behalf of our children for the resources that they need? 

  • Whole Child Approach: Safety Needs

A level up from physiological needs is what Maslow terms “safety needs.” Do our children feel safe in school, both physically and emotionally?

Are children’s egos and bodies protected by what we say and what we do? Do we provide both physical and emotional structures to protect our students, and are we willing to intervene when things don’t go as planned?

If our students are worried about their safety or the presence of a bully, of course their learning will be inhibited.

At New City School, we spend a great deal of time on the personal intelligences—intrapersonal and interpersonal; we directly teach students how to work with others, how to manage conflict, and how to give feedback.

  • Whole Child Approach: Love/Belonging Needs

Love and belonging are found in the next level of Maslow’s needs, and I see that as inherent in the idea of community.

Have we made our schools a place in which each child has connections? Does each student feel part of a larger group, and does each child feel connections with peers and adults in the building?

Does each child have an adult with whom he or she has a connection? If not, why not? At New City, we’ve been using an advisory system with our 5th and 6th grade students for a few years.

This helps students connect with an adult, and it provides a time to focus on the personal intelligences.

CONTINUE READING more about the whole child approach by Thomas R. Hoerr

Thomas R. Hoerr is head of school at the New City School, in St. Louis, Mo.

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