When teaching children, it’s easy to think of them as made of a bunch of different pieces. “He needs to work on his math skills.” “She’s so smart in school, but she has a hard time with friendships.” “We wish we could get him to be more active!” Lots of assessment tools play into this, by listing out all the skills children should be learning at certain ages and organizing those skills into categories. Often the categories are called “developmental domains,” and we’re encouraged to look at children’s physical development, cognitive development, and socio-emotional development (some models include separate categories for language development and creative development, and some might separate social and emotional development). Those domains can be further subdivided—cognitive development can be split into problem-solving, memory, attention, communication, etc. The academic areas of learning, too, are split into familiar “content areas”: literacy, math, science, social studies, and so on.
This taxonomy of children’s learning and development is quite useful: it allows you to clearly understand a child’s strengths and needs, to plan curriculum that is appropriate to each child, to have a consistent way to evaluate children. But splitting the child up into these theoretical parts also presents a problem. Specifically: that’s it’s not true.
Enter the whole child perspective, which says that a child cannot be split into distinct pieces, but instead is a whole, unified being, and effective teaching will behave accordingly. Anyone who has ever taught children knows that they are never learning just one thing. When a two year old is working on a shapes puzzle, she’s developing her spacial reasoning and math skills, but also her fine motor skills (that is, using your fingers effectively). Moreover, she’s probably sitting next to another child who’s doing puzzles, which means she’s working on all sorts of crucial socio-emotional skills, like self-regulation (how do I keep from freaking out when someone wants my puzzle?), sharing (when I’m done with this puzzle, maybe I can trade with my neighbor), and communication (let’s talk about puzzles!).
If you tried to teach all of those skills in isolation, you’d have a pretty hard time of it. Young children are hands-on learners, so if you tried to work on the math stuff without the motor skills, it wouldn’t work nearly as well. Young children aren’t very good a peer communication, so having a similar interest (puzzles) to talk about allows better interactions. Most young children are socially-oriented, so being around other people motivates them to work harder at a frustrating fine-motor task. All the developmental domains and academic content areas are mixed together in the child’s one brain, and it’s most effective to teach them together. In fact, when good teachers notice that a child needs specific work in one area, they combine it with another area the child is good at to get the most bang for their buck. Is the kids a whiz at imagination creative problem solving but reluctant to play active physical games? Challenge him to help you build a castle out of milk crates, and his interest in the process will help motivate him to use his body to participate.
When I teach early childhood curriculum, one of the biggest challenges for my college students is to plan activities that use the whole child perspective. “Yes, this is a very clever shapes and patterns activity, that is great for teaching math,” I’ll say, “but it will only engage the kids who are already excited about math. How do you engage the children who strengths are in reading and writing? How about the kids who just want to use their bodies? How do you also make this a lesson about social skills?” My students whine that this is much harder—and it is much harder!—but later they come back and say, “The kids LOVED that activity! And they learned so much!” Children respond when teachers plan for the whole child, because that’s how their brains work.
There’s another part of the idea of the whole child, that takes it a step further. Uri Bronfenbrenner was a Russian-American psychologist who’s most famous for having co-founded Head Start. He did a lot of work on the relationship between research and public policy and child development. He also created what’s sometimes known as the bioecological model, which says that you can never really understand a child in isolation. The child is always a part of a social context, which fundamentally changes who the child is and how the child develops. The child is surrounded by “microsystems”—other people who he interacts with directly and frequently, like his family, his class at school, his church group, his friends and neighbors. Those people change who he is, so if you want to understand the child you’ve got to understand those people, and if you want to influence the child, you’ve got to influence those people. But to understand and influence those people, you’ve got to understand their social contexts too—where the parents work, for instance, or the social context at the school where the teachers work—and these “exosystems” then indirectly influence the child. And all these people exist in the context of “macrosystems,” like government and religion and language and culture, which influence everyone and thereby influence the child. There are several more layers and intricacies to the bioecological model, but the essence is that the child is an intrinsic part of an immense social network, from which he cannot be separated.
This extends the idea of “the whole child” quite a bit. It calls on caregivers to go far beyond attending to the connections between different pieces of the child’s learning, and focus too on the child extending beyond himself and into the world. Parents and teachers need to work together in the child’s interest, and involve themselves in the community around them, and advocate in the government, and work to build relationships with everyone. It’s a lot more complicated, and asks a lot more, than the usual piecemeal approach to a child’s learning. But it helps children, and it helps families, and it helps teachers.
What does this look like at school? Good teachers plan curriculum that works on more than one thing at a time—perhaps reading and counting and creating art and collaborating with peers. It often looks a lot like play—it often IS play—because play is a natural vehicle for using all the different parts of your brain at once. Good teachers plan curriculum around topics with “multiple points of entry”: if you’re learning about trees, don’t just ask the kids to draw one; go outside and look at them, and climb them, and touch them, and sculpt them in clay, and collect leaves, and read books about them, and write stories about them… (hat tip to Keith Johnstone). Good teachers also attend to children’s social and emotional needs, as a part of working towards any other learning goal.
What does this look like at home? In general, try to attend to all the many parts of your child. Give him opportunities for problem solving and deep thinking, for creativity and silliness, for seriousness and quiet thought, for active physical play, for social interactions, for alone time, for field trips, for staying at home… And, as much as you can, try to respond when your child tells you (directly or not) that they need those things. When she’s getting a little “crazy,” maybe she’s telling you, the only way she knows how, “my body needs to move, and I won’t be able to sit and read a book until my body is taken care of!” When things are going wrong, ask yourself which part of the child may need attention—are their physical needs met? How about their social and emotional needs? Above all, help your child build relationships with different kinds of people, who understand and support different parts of her.
Attending to the whole child is harder, yes—but in almost every way, it’s also better.