Celina Brennan

Aspects of Whole Child Classrooms

We are in an intense time of change within education, from the Common Core State Standards Initiative to the rapid advancement of technology to new teacher and principal evaluation processes. Ordinarily, the changes we face in education are often just old practices with innovative twists. Today's challenging changes are different, requiring educators to dig deeply for a mind-set that will withstand and embrace the shifting paradigms of the educational landscape. After all, our students deserve educators who are well-informed and thoughtful about how their practices affect the whole child now and in the long run.

Change is demanding, but if we remain open-minded and rational throughout the adjustment process, we can intentionally shift our priorities to focus on meeting the needs of the whole child. Today's teaching and learning environments necessitate that teachers approach each decision with uncanny perception and strategic eloquence. Here are a few aspects to consider infusing into whole child learning environments as we embrace today’s change agents.

We must provide safe and healthy learning environments for students:

  • Character Development—Assisting students in developing a sense of self-worth and autonomy are key factors as we establish learning communities. Students must have opportunities to see the positive characteristics within themselves and the brilliance they have to offer others. It is essential to incorporate frequent activities that allow them the chance to strengthen their character and develop the habits of effective learners. We must build up each individual learner before expecting students to function as productive members of a cohesive learning community.
  • Collaborative Environment—An effective student learning community is necessary to maintain a fluid learning environment for all. Each individual should deeply feel as though they are a fundamental part of the whole. A healthy, safe atmosphere supports the effective domain of each individual and offers a compassionate network of collaboration. This, in turn, alludes to engagement in learning risks and provision of valuable feedback as constants for every learner. As adult learners within this environment, we should feel inspired to model valuable learning characteristics. When we facilitate the learning process by interacting as an authentic learner on the journey with students, we have an affirmative effect.

We must provide engaging learning environments for students:

  • Inquiry-Based Learning—With overarching concepts and essential questions sparking interest and engagement during the learning process, inquiry becomes a go-to method to guide the course of knowledge and allow strategies to unfold naturally. This instructional practice provides students with frequent opportunities to question, investigate, identify evidence, and experience information. These social occasions allow students to interact continuously and thoughtfully collaborate with their peers. Project-based exploration can be used to help students organize their information and develop physical methods for sharing their discoveries with larger audiences. Through these methods, the teacher takes on the role of facilitator, asking questions to get students to think more deeply, providing resources requested by the learner, and creating challenges that engage students in deeper thinking-processes.
  • Reflective PracticeEmpowering learners allows engagement in deep, reflective approaches and builds motivation toward establishing their own high expectations. Self-analysis of learning pushes students to make the necessary improvements and hold themselves accountable. When occupied in these mental methods, engagement increases and positively affects the learning avenue. Empowerment strategies lead to exponential growth in learners as knowledge and strategies become personally relevant.
  • Inspiration Focus—We must reach our students and engage them in the learning process throughout each and every school day. It is essential to discover ways to inspire them. Connecting them to learning moments through their own interests and inquiries motivates attention and encourages interaction. Often, we also forget that one of the most influential ways to inspire a child is through the modeling and sharing of our own passions, goals, and personal endeavors. Thus, we must be the learner we want our students to be.

We must provide challenging learning environments for students:

  • Emerging-Infused Curriculum—To connect learning throughout the day, the learning sequence can be designed with an overarching concept of growth in mind (e.g., structures, culture, bloom). The curriculum should then emerge based on the needs of students, infused with deliberate standards, skills, and strategies. Content interwoven throughout the day leads to natural, realistic connections. Essential questions drive the thinking, discovery, and communication, so evidence can be highlighted as a means for supporting knowledge and understanding. An emerging-infused curriculum is developed week by week and adjusted day by day, and it becomes a fluid system that is guided by genuine learning occurring as a part of the classroom culture.
  • Authentic Resources—An approach that allows curriculum to support learning goals, rather than being loyal to a publisher's suggested curriculum sequence, offers us the opportunity to meet students where they are and supply them with tools that support them on their learning journey. Many times, blending seemingly unconnected curriculum materials together offers knowledge and conceptual connections in a concrete way applicable to the future. Students must have many entry points during the learning process to grasp concepts; including text-based resources, technological tools, manipulatives, primary sources, artistic perspectives, argumentative platforms, and narrative viewpoints. Encouraging students to identify with the resources that affect their knowledge acquisition the most is also essential in this process. After all, it is their world with which to interact, so what resources will they find the most powerful in promoting their own personal growth?

We must provide supportive learning environments for students:

  • Personalized Instruction—Our mind-set must switch to putting students first, before the standards and curriculum. It is essential to discover students' individual learning styles, strengths, passions, and academic needs prior to designing lesson instruction and a curriculum path. The Common Core State Standards are strategically designed along continuums, allowing us the opportunity to place students at the appropriate entry points. Personalized goals can be established and fluidly modified throughout the course of the learning experience. Furthermore, students' understanding of their own individual learning needs allows them to connect in whole-group learning experiences with more intention and purpose.

Reflecting on our current practice allows us to consider the generation of students who inhabit our classrooms each day. Do we respect technology as a part of their culture? Do we believe they are capable of meeting the challenges of a rigorous curriculum? Are we offering them a deep understanding of the challenges inherent in their future? Do we celebrate the diversity this generation has brought us? Answers to these questions allow us to first judge whether our perspectives are aligned with understanding the students we teach each day, through their lens. Then we can consider if we are encompassing the mind-set that is required of us as we move forward with teaching this generation of learners.

As we are met with challenges put forth by the dynamic changes within education, those currently being required and those that will greet us in the future, our intention must be to bridge our current practices with the essentials of meeting the needs of the whole child within current society. In order to sustain this movement forward, we must continuously collaborate with one another to advance endeavors that ensure students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Developing a learning environment encompassing the aspects outlined here will allow educators to embrace the changes that will continue to come, in this century of innovation and transformation, and to assist us in developing the mind-set that is required.

Celina Brennan is a 3/4/5 multi-age teacher at Salnave Elementary School in the Cheney (Wash.) Public Schools district and recipient of Washington State ASCD's 2011 Outstanding Young Educator Award. She is a district leader in literacy and has opened her classroom to educators as a model of differentiated instruction that meets the social, emotional, and academic needs of all learners. Connect with Brennan on the ASCD EDge® social network and on her blog, written with her teaching partner Ann Ottmar.

Comments (3)

James Stearns

February 18, 2013

Wow.  I just joined Edutopia moments ago hoping to pin point my “teaching style”... I have been teaching Elementary and Secondary (middle school) for twenty-five years… I seemed to be an “odd duck” in a tiny pond.  I love my approach to teaching.  It seems to fit my personality and learning style “spot on”.

This is the VERY first article I opened!  I couldn’t believe it.  The story was about teaching to the whole child.  I found words to describe “who” I am in the classroom within this article… In fact… It seems to be written about me.  I know this isn’t the true natural intent of the article.  However, I did feel like you were speaking directly to what I was searching for… words.  I appreciate your insights as we, educators, continue to enlighten our students in these difficult times.  Thank you.


March 30, 2013

I mimic your statement as well! The statement about teaching the whole child truly helps me define my style of teaching. I have felt apprehensive at times to go beyond my curriculum, and focus on the needs of my students and what pulls their interests in my teaching and their learning. However, after reading this article I have been reaffirmed that I am on the right track. Thank you for posting. Please continue. Not only does this help define my teaching style, it also helps in some further research that I am conducting.


April 10, 2015

Please assist me with various aspects of the whole child approach

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