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More than a Grade: Teaching the Whole Child

Child with backpack

Social–emotional learning has taken the education world by storm in the last several years, and rightfully so: Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety among children have soared while their opportunities to socialize have plummeted. Young children do not come to class with the ability to compartmentalize their feelings about their home and social life and focus only on being a student. The whole-child approach seeks to break down this compartmentalization and focus on nurturing every aspect of children’s lives rather than just their academics.

Teaching the Whole Child: What Does It Mean?

The rigorous nature of standardized testing often focuses on one-dimensional, checkbox-based learning objectives. However, the whole-child approach seeks to humanize the process of teaching and learning. TeachingStrategies.com sums it up like this:

We want our children to become caring adults who are creative, resilient, curious, and empathetic. We want these future citizens of the world to have healthy, strong relationships and positive approaches to lifelong learning. Education lays the foundation for lifelong learning.

The whole-child approach to teaching supports and nurtures all areas of children’s development and learning—from social-emotional and cognitive skills to literacy, math, and science understanding…. It encourages children’s learning and thinking by being responsive to children’s understandings, interests, and abilities, allowing them to deepen their natural curiosity and their eagerness to want to discover and learn more.

The whole-child approach views teaching as an opportunity to address all areas of development and learning to ensure children become successful, well-rounded adults.

María del Carmen Salazar’s 4-Step Solution

Now that we’ve taken a big-picture view of what teaching the whole child means, let’s look at some strategies for integrating it in the classroom. In her journal article “A Humanizing Pedagogy,” María de Carmen Salazar offers these suggestions (as summarized on Edutopia).

Listen to students’ interests and concerns.

We know that we can increase students’ motivation by giving them choices in assignments and allowing them to spend time on their interests. The whole-child approach pushes this idea a bit further. In addition to incorporating students’ interests into the curriculum, make sure to check in frequently to see whether students are connecting and relating to the material. If students aren’t focusing or are getting frustrated, it might not be a curriculum or learning problem; it might simply be that you need to take a moment to show them how to connect personally with what they’re learning.

Take an interest in students’ lives outside of school.

As you well know, students’ home lives impact their learning, sometimes in dramatic ways. Rebecca Alber gives these helpful steps for checking in with students without overwhelming yourself:

  1. Give students an age-appropriate survey about their families, home lives, and interests.
  2. Based on what you learned in the survey, ask follow-up questions to get to know students better (e.g., “Did you play with your dog, Snuffles, this weekend?”).
  3. When you know students personally, you’ll be able to tell more quickly if something seems off. If you’re concerned about a student, ask gentle questions and check with the school counselor or front office to see if anything has changed recently. Alber says that by doing so, she’s found out important information such as one of her students being homeless and several students needing eyeglasses who didn’t have them.
  4. If you have ongoing concerns about a student, take five minutes to check in at lunch or before or after school. As you learn more about the challenges they’re facing, you’ll be able to set appropriate academic goals or refer them to necessary services.

Be gentle and respectful in your speech.

As teachers, we think a lot about what we’re going to say to students, but how often do you step back and think about how you’re speaking? Alber asks the poignant question: Do you speak to your students in the same way you speak to other humans in your life? Yes, you need to maintain authority, and yes, you need to correct students at times. But does your tone suggest you’re a military officer in the heat of battle, or a teacher who cares about your students’ dignity and feelings and wants them to feel welcomed, respected, and wanted? We all have bad days, but it’s essential to take moments to check your tone and always leave sarcasm at the door.

Nurture students’ emotional and social well-being as well as their academic well-being.

It’s a tall order to make sure students behave, cooperate, and take in our lessons the way we hope. Emphasizing SEL skills on top of that can sometimes feel overwhelming. However, the reality is that if you take time to address students’ emotional well-being, all your other goals will follow more easily. Alber gives the following tips for checking in with students:

  • Start the day by asking students to share how they’re feeling in one word.
  • Encourage students to stand and stretch if their energy seems to be dragging.
  • Before correcting a student, ask the student how he or she is feeling and if anything is wrong.
  • Add opportunities to socialize during lessons. For example, have circle time outside on a nice day, or have students chat with a partner to predict what will happen next in a story or share their favorite part of a science lesson.

Distance-Learning-Friendly Classroom Activities for Teaching the Whole Child

So what does teaching the whole child look like practically in the classroom? TeachersPayTeachers provides some ready-made activities that engage children’s emotional and social learning domains as well as academic ones. All of these activities cost less than five dollars and can be used in person or online.

The First 10 Minutes

Mornings are a crucial time to help your students center themselves and get ready to learn. This guide provides a three-part morning routine to start your class off on the right foot, every time. Part 1 involves a team-building activity, part 2 addresses motivation and character development, and part 3 gets kids energized with a physical activity. After just 10 minutes, your students will feel relaxed, confident, and ready to focus.

Aesop’s Fables: “The Tortoise & the Hare” Flip the Flap & Retell the Story Craft

Thanks to their strong story structure and focus on morals, fables are a great way to address both literacy and SEL skills. This fun, simple craft activity guides students through creating a flip book of the story “The Tortoise and the Hare”—in the shape of either a tortoise or a hare! The activity allows you to check students’ comprehension skills while also discussing how to find the moral of a story.

Classroom Community Morning Meeting: Teaching Kindness

An essential part of teaching the whole child is ensuring a strong classroom culture and strengthening your students’ relationships with one another. This TpT packet includes a weekly schedule for community morning meetings; videos for meditation, visualization, and mentor texts; affirmative banners to hang in your classroom; and writing prompts to help your students start their day right.

More Strategies for Reaching Your Students

As educators, we care about more than just our students’ academic achievements. We want to see them grow in all areas of life so they have a strong foundation for adulthood. For more strategies on connecting with your students and encouraging meaningful growth, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses:

  • The Importance of Play and the Developing Child: Play is a vital part of learning and development, yet children have fewer opportunities for play than ever before. Learn the benefits of play, how to incorporate play into classroom activities, and create play activities appropriate for your grade and subject.
  • Kindness: Can It Be Taught?: Though it’s rarely taught, researchers believe kindness can (and should) be actively nurtured in the classroom. Learn about the biological roots of kindness, the personal and social benefits it creates, and how to help students be empathetic, honest, and trustworthy.
  • Benefit Mindset and Altruism: The benefit mindset moves empathy, inclusion, and altruism to the forefront of education. Integrate this exciting new perspective into any curriculum to transform your students’ learning into a deeply meaningful experience that boosts their confidence, increases achievement, and truly makes a difference in the world.
  • Implementing Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies: Create an inclusive, culturally responsive classroom that serves all students. Re-examine familiar concepts like mindfulness and social–emotional learning through the lens of culture, and learn dynamic communication and leadership strategies to support diverse student populations.
  • Emotions and Learning: Emotional intelligence is a crucial part of a child’s education. Learn to recognize emotionally healthy and unhealthy students, identify where difficulties stem from, and develop techniques for strengthening students’ self-confidence, concentration, resilience, and empathy.

Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

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