It’s gratifying to see Secretary of Education, John King, assert that a well-rounded curriculum contributes to educating the Whole Child. Recalling the support he received at school after losing both his parents, King makes the point that studying the arts and social sciences nurtures the heart and spirit as well as the mind.
With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a welcome replacement for No Child Left Behind, states finally have the latitude to pursue Whole Child education in earnest. Those of us who have long believed that education is more than test scores and double blocks of math have reason to be optimistic. But let’s not kid ourselves. American education is full of fads and pendulum swings, and it is up to us to make sure this momentum lasts.
To prevent the Whole Child approach from ending up in the lost & found bin of temporary trends, our first challenge is to define it. Whole Child is not a menu or checklist. It’s not just about more libraries, art classes, school nurses, and after school and summer programs, though it certainly includes these things. First and foremost, it’s about values.
Whole Child advocates believe every child is unique, gifted, and deserving of the opportunity to reach his or her fullest potential. We are committed to education that excites students and teachers alike, because both must be engaged for real learning to take place. We question whether multiple choice tests can measure how our children are progressing both as students and as human beings. We envision every child equally encouraged to create, write, speak publically, think, organize, draw, and paint. Yes, as Secretary King emphasizes, arts and creativity are integral to learning and teaching.
The Whole Child approach is about educating the heart and the hands as well as the head, enabling children to believe in themselves, to know and say out loud what excites them, challenges them, and scares them. It means championing empathy and compassion; feeding our kids food that is nutritious; and offering dental and medical care to kids whose families can’t. Our children come to school with so many needs. We must meet them where they are, give them a say, and listen to their voices. We must encourage flexible thinking and emotional intelligence, like these classroom goals:
I have seen first-hand the positive impact of home visits and teacher-parent partner teams. I have seen how critically important it is to support and understand our most vulnerable young men of color. Educating the Whole Child requires funding for our educators to advance their craft through continuous development; it requires empowering parents and families to create a network of support for children. In short, attending to the Whole Child means that every component of the public education system must, with great intention, place at its center the interests of children. I say “in short” knowing full well how long and necessary the road really is.
The good news is that Whole Child education isn’t just words on a page. It’s alive and well in public classrooms throughout our country. In California, where I work and have served as a superintendent, Waldorf public schools and art integration academies provide rich, stimulating environments with relationships at the center. In Massachusetts, the Birch Meadow School uses meditation to relax and focus its students. In South Carolina, Joseph Keels Elementary teaches students to collaborate, communicate, demonstrate creativity, and think critically.
Wherever it thrives, Whole Child education shows the skeptics that in addition to meeting the needs of children, this movement reaps its own rewards, bringing forth all the assets children offer their communities and families when they’re nurtured, supported, and educated holistically. The moment to move from No Child to Whole Child is now, an unprecedented opportunity to realize the public education we’d want for ourselves and our own children. Educating and developing the Whole Child is, as we say at the Stuart Foundation, education’s North Star.