All Articles Education Voice of the Educator 4 key elements of a whole-child education framework

4 key elements of a whole-child education framework

Social, emotional and behavioral needs are inextricably linked with academic performance. A whole-child approach can help each child succeed.

6 min read

EducationVoice of the Educator

Zach Vessels/Unsplash

The reality facing K-12 leaders today looks very different than it did before the pandemic. While it has always been true that students’ school attendance, social, emotional and behavioral needs are inseparably linked with their academic performance, those needs are now so great that K-12 leaders can no longer afford to overlook them if they want to move the needle on achievement. A whole-child education framework is imperative.

Beth Shermoen headshot for whole-child article

Chronic absenteeism has surged during COVID-19, with rates doubling in some states. In a federal survey, 87% of school leaders said the pandemic negatively affected students’ socio-emotional development, and 83% said student behavior has gotten worse. CDC data suggests 37% of high-school students have experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% have persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.

These figures highlight the urgent need for a schoolwide, collaborative whole-child approach to education. Intentional navigation in how to support and intervene in areas of student absenteeism, social-emotional, mental health and behavioral needs, as much as their academic ones, must be at the forefront if we have any hope of helping them with barriers they may face that directly correlate to growth and success. Here are four key elements essential within a whole-child education framework that can achieve this goal.

1. Bring everyone to the table

School systems can often be very siloed with various departments working individually on behalf of students. Yet, a whole-child approach to education only works if everyone is seated at the same table, including the child’s teacher, principal, guidance counselor, therapist, special education teacher, cultural liaison, parents/guardians and others who may be working directly with the student.

The narrative of each child can only be developed when everyone is working together, because 9 out of 10 times, one person sitting across from you does not know something that you know about that child. Everyone needs to be on the same page for this approach to be effective. This includes the child’s family as well; family engagement is so critical.

2. Address the root cause of problems

If a student is struggling academically, there could be many possible reasons. At times, students could possibly be misdiagnosed as needing special education services when the actual cause of their struggles may be related to a chronic school attendance issue, mental health, trauma, vision, hearing or other factors that may contribute to a student’s significant struggle.  It could also include more than one area. 

Only by collaboratively working to identify the root cause of the problem can we begin to develop an action plan of support, interventions and solutions that will be effective in supporting the whole child in their school environment. 

For instance, if a student has missed two or three days of school and is underperforming academically, it is possible a learning disability is hindering their success. Yet, if a student has missed 20 or 30-plus days of school, the underperformance may be the result of chronic absenteeism, a lack of exposure to grade level content or standards rather than a learning disability. These are two very different scenarios, and they may call for very different intervention plans.

Collecting and analyzing data — such as academic achievement, attendance, behavior and social-emotional growth — means we can make more informed decisions about that child’s areas of strengths, areas of challenge and overall areas of need to engage in an action plan that will support their growth and positive school experiences within their academic journey. However, any system for evaluating a child’s needs and mastery is only as effective as the data on which it is based.

3. Develop a common language

School systems need accurate, reliable data in order to make sound decisions. To ensure the integrity of the data, schools must have clear and consistent policies and practices for data collection, entry and analysis. This is when we can begin to clearly define school trends, areas of strengths and weaknesses. These require immediate and long-term attention, planning, intervention and measurement of progress.  Again, this work should be inclusive of stakeholders working within the school community. 

At Northland Learning Center in Minnesota, which provides specialized programming and special education services for 10 Minnesota school districts, we identified a need to create systemwide processes and procedures that were aligned to state recommendations in how students are referred for a possible special education evaluation.  This work targeted greater conversation in how we all serve the needs of our students based on data-driven decision-making under a multitiered system of supports framework.  Though this is ever-evolving work, we have made great strides in our first-year goals.  This collective work happened through partnerships that included each district and their administrative teams, staff, the NLC MTSS leadership team, coordinators, school psychologists and the regional Check & Connect coordinator. 

4. Use data to achieve real insights

To develop effective plans for educating the whole child, districts need a platform that can help them aggregate data — including assessments, class grades, attendance, behavior, social-emotional learning and interventions. 

Analyzing this information to discover actionable insights for supporting student success — in addition to progress monitoring in the effectiveness of an intervention being conducted — is critical for making informed decisions.  These data can also support the work that needs to be done and/or highlight achievement and growth at a multitude of levels, for example at grades, subjects, schoolwide, districtwide, etc. 

A one-size-fits-all data solution does not work. Districts need flexible platforms that are customizable to their local needs.  We identified that a data-based whole-child system was missing from our action plan.  

One progressive solution we have implemented in the districts we serve is Proliftic from Sourcewell, which delivers essential whole-child data insights and guidance. With the help of such a data insights platform, staff, school and district leaders can spot trends and patterns that allow them to identify the cause of problems in order to develop more effective intervention plans for each child or group of students.

Everyone working in education wants to see students succeed. However, to achieve this, students must receive the support and enrichment they need. To connect struggling students with the right support at the right time, we must first figure out the why behind their challenges. A holistic approach that includes these four key elements can make whole-child education more effective for everyone.  

Serving every student everyday means looking through an equitable lens that supports student access, removing barriers and creating optimal opportunities where they can engage in learning and social experiences that meet them where they are at.  We all want what is best for our students, and they are the ultimate why that those in education serve. 

Beth Shermoen, director of coordinated early intervention supports and equity at Northland Learning Center in Minnesota. It uses Proliftic from Sourcewell.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


Subscribe to SmartBrief’s FREE email ASCD newsletter to see the latest hot topics in education. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.