All Articles Education Voice of the Educator The whole child, left behind?

The whole child, left behind?

Teacher leader considers how whole-child initiatives serve students who may be left behind.

5 min read

Voice of the Educator


Teacher leader considers how whole-child initiatives serve students who may be left behind.

While finishing some grading, an email notification pops up from one of my many education subscriptions. “What is it today?” I ask myself. Data driven instruction? Blended learning? I chew down the last bits of my bland sandwich. Today’s topic? An invitation to attend a professional development session on “The Whole Child.”

According to ASCD, “A whole child approach, which ensures that each student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged, sets the standard for comprehensive, sustainable school improvement and provides for long-term student success.”

I roam to their website, interested in learning more about the “whole child approach,” where students enter school from “healthy” lifestyles and continue to practice those styles at school, creating a great sense of “safety” where everyone feels included. With everyone’s emotional needs being met, children become highly “engaged” in their learning, enveloped in “support” enabling them to thrive in a “challenging” and fulfilling experience, where they prepare for college (and career) readiness. It reads a bit too fairy-tale-ish for my taste, and I think to myself, “and they all live happily ever after, earning full ride scholarships to the promised land, scoring the perfect high-paying job after four hard years of hitting the books.”

It’s Friday before spring break; the thought of another ride-off-into-the-sunset education fix after eating my dry sandwich flips my stomach a bit, and I’m ready to get outta here.

Are we educating the whole child?

If educating the whole child involves teachers, parents and community, then my question is, are we really educating the whole child, or is this idea really about a whole lot of factors necessary to teach children? According to ASCD, educating the whole child is not only about teaching math and literacy but also focusing on things like play, elective courses, cognitive learning and how children learn. I like that. Children are more than test scores, more than skill sets, and more than grade level “norms.” I believe play is important and can enhance children’s social-emotional needs.

If whole-child education involves a united commitment from community, parents and teachers (a novel concept), I ask, which children are we talking about? Those who are struggling in a flawed system? Those from parents working two jobs to feed their families, asking their older children to pitch in and add to the household income? Those facing gentrification, where they can no longer afford to keep their houses up due to rising property taxes? Children affected by school closures? Do they fit into the equation of safety plus challenges equals college graduate? When families are caught in the gap right along with their children, how is it possible to focus on the whole child, without focusing on the whole family and the needs that are not being met?

Does teaching the whole child mean a certain kind of child? One that fits the norm, the one that education was built for? What about the others?

Are we leaving the whole child behind?

Currently the sixth- through 12th-grade high school where I work has 22 seniors on track to graduate. There are 67 seniors total. So 45 were left behind. Nearly half of them failed ninth-grade biology (or did ninth-grade biology fail them?) Ninety-nine percent receive free lunch. Many have jobs, younger siblings to take care of, and little or no access to the internet outside of school. Most kids their age are gearing up for a car. They are thankful to get a free bus pass.

Some kids get pulled out of classes they enjoy in order to focus on classes they failed. They don’t get taught as a “whole child.” They get sent to a special room where they have to learn everything they flunked on a computer, learning how to guess the best question to pass the course. Where is their safety? Their health? Talk about “challenging.” How on earth can they be expected to be actively “engaged?”

I love the idea of teaching the whole child. It opens up ideas about how to create a more equitable educational opportunity involving things like play and cognitive thinking. But the question is always there:  What do we do about those who aren’t ready? How do we serve the underserved? Those caught in the gap?

The whole child philosophy needs to be part of a drastic shift in how we think about the marginalized, how we fix a flawed system, and what it’s going to take to change it. Otherwise, it’s just another term in the slew of edu-babble, that along with our kids, will also be left behind someday. I’m

thinking about taking the PD. It’s online. I’m always willing to learn something new, and perhaps sharing my perspective can help create more equity awareness about this topic.

Jozette Martinez is a teacher leader and social justice warrior advocating for children in grades 6-12 at her Denver, Colo., urban high school. This self professed “movementist” is a seeker of truths, and in her spare time she can be found co-facilitating webinars, writing for the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory, and most recently for Teaching Tolerance. Follow her on Twitter at @Jozi_is_awesome and Facebook under Jo Zi. This article is brought to you in collaboration with the Center for Teaching Quality.

SmartBlog on Education this month is covering topics related to educating the whole child. Join us for original content highlighting tools, trends and best practices. Interested in contributing, contact us with your idea.


Like this article? Sign up for ASCD SmartBrief to get news like this in your inbox, or check out all of SmartBrief’s education newsletters, covering career and technical education, educational leadership, math education and more.