• On Target
  • Curriculum Corner
  • By Vincent Caputo, Chief Education Officer, Metuchen Public Schools; Matthew Mingle, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Madison Public Schools; and Dr. Thomas Tramaglini, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, CAO, Keansburg School District

    A Whole Child Approach


    The business of educating children continues to change right in front of our eyes. Perhaps one of the more prevalent shifts in our teaching and learning infrastructure has been a mass centralization and standardization of how we are educating our children. “While there was a time when few policymakers, educators, or members of the public presumed that all school children could reach the same levels of standards-based proficiency” (Oakes & Lipton in Burris & Garrity, 2008, p.vii), today schools are mandated to ensure that each student not only be provided access to curriculum, but they achieve high levels of achievement through systematic, uniform initiatives such as the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards, Common Core State Standards, PARCC, Model Curriculum and Assessments, Focus and Priority School Improvement Plans and ACHIEVE NJ. Given the punishments associated with not fulfilling these standardized and centralized policy mandates, school leaders and specifically all leaders must balance what policy requires with what is good for our children to be educated for success in the 21st century.

    A Whole Child Approach

    Really, as educators, we have not lost our way and we have well over a century of research of what we can do to achieve this balance based on evidence, which standardized and centralized policy often lacks (Tienken & Orlich, 2013; Zhao, 2009), from people with names such as Dewey, Taba, Tyler, Bloom, Tanner, Mazlow, Garner and Aiken. These researchers and many others have found a host of dynamic strategies for educating our students which ultimately lead to higher student achievement. However, these researchers also found that schools are not simple organizations, and science tells us that children are definitely not cogs within an industrial model, whereas standardization and centralization are based. Conversely, the main ideas of their research can be found in alignment of what we know as the Whole Child Approach, which presents one way to be mindful of what can be used to improve learning outcomes.

    The Five Tenets of the Whole Child

    The Whole Child Approach is based on five simple yet elusive tenets:

    • Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.
    • Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.
    • Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.
    • Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.
    • Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.

    Despite our knowledge that physically and emotionally healthy children are best prepared to learn, health and physical education continue to be diminished in public schools as accountability systems and political pressure drive educators to a hyper-focus on mathematics and literacy. In recent years, research has confirmed that adolescents are not getting enough exercise, symptoms of mental health illnesses are going untreated, and students continue to come to school hungry (ASCD, 2012). Students must be healthy in order to learn.

    When students feel safe in school, they are more likely to attend regularly and focus on their studies. However, 20% of students report being victims of bullying and 6% of students report skipping school due to safety concerns (Eaton et al. in ASCD, 2012). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual students continue to report harassment even as awareness and public support grows (ASCD, 2012). Students must be safe in order to learn.

    Engagement is a hot-button word in schools. Students who come to school motivated to learn feel valued by the adults in their schools and see the long-term value of their learning experiences. Yet two-thirds of students report being bored in school every day and 25% of public high school students fail to graduate on time (ASCD, 2012). Worst of all, the longer students stay in our schools, the less engaged and motivated they feel. Students must be engaged in order to learn.

    When a student feels like the center of a cocoon of supporting teachers, administrators, support staff, parents and community members, he or she is less likely to drop out or engage in risky behaviors. When we think about to our own experiences with inspiring teachers, we tend to remember those who took an interest in our social and emotional well-being in addition to our academic progress. Yet 16% of students who have considered dropping out of school report that one reason was because they perceived no adults in their schools caring about them (Yazzie-Mintz in ASCD, 2012). Students must be supported in order to learn.

    There is a lot of attention on high standards and academic rigor right now and for good reason. Students need to graduate from our high schools prepared for college and career. We continue to graduate students with successful academic records who require remediation at the post-secondary level. Only 50% of Americans believe our high school graduates are prepared (Bushaw & Lopez in ASCD, 2012) and 23% of graduates fail to achieve a qualifying score on the Armed Forces Qualification Teste (Theokas in ASCD, 2012). Students must be challenged in order to learn.

    Some ways you can promote and implement the Whole Child in your school or district

    • Learn more about the about the Whole Child Approach and each of the Whole Child Tenets as described above. You can click here to find further information from ASCD, who launched the Whole Child initiative in 2007.
    • Take the Whole Child Pledge and Participate in the Action by clicking here.
    • Identify the problems that you have in teaching and learning in your school district and explore what works in improving your school or district by effectively incorporating a host of research-based strategies associated with Whole Child Framework.
    • Attend workshops that focus on educating the Whole Child. 
    • See examples of how the Whole Child Approach comes to life in schools in the United States and beyond.
    • Use the free ASCD School Improvement Tool to check how your school performs in each of the indicators of a Whole Child Approach. This tool will not only help you analyze where you are in the process, the tool will serve as a way of identifying how your school or district might acquire the desired outcomes.



    ASCD. (2012). Making the case for educating the whole child. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

    Oakes, J. & Lipton, M. (2008). In Burris, C.C. & Garrity, D.T. (Eds). Detracking for Excellence and Equality. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

    Zhao, Y. (2009). Catching up or leading the way: American Education in the age of globalization. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.