This post was originally published on April 23, 2019 by Greater Good magazine. It is part of LPI’s Educating the Whole Child blog series.
Our education system often focuses on a narrow sliver of children’s cognitive development with an emphasis on transmitting content knowledge, often to be memorized and repeated in the same form it was received. Lessons in math, science, and reading—and tests in those skills—dominate the curriculum.
While those subjects are fundamental, learning involves far more than merely acquiring inert knowledge in algebra or chemistry. Such a narrow focus gives short shrift to the ways that children need to grow and learn in their relationships, identity, emotional understanding, and overall well-being. After all, children are multi-dimensional “whole” beings whose development is complex and rich.
Recent research in neuroscience, developmental and learning sciences, education, sociology, and many other ﬁelds conﬁrms that a “whole child” approach is not only desirable but necessary to ensure that children learn well. According to two comprehensivereviews of the science on children’s development and learning:
- Brain development is shaped by consistent, supportive relationships; responsive communications; and modeling of productive behaviors. The brain’s capacity develops most fully when children and youth feel emotionally and physically safe; and when they feel connected, engaged, and challenged.
- Learning is social, emotional, and academic. Positive relationships, including trust in the teacher, and positive emotions, such as interest and excitement, open up the mind to learning. Negative emotions, such as fear of failure, anxiety, and self-doubt, reduce the capacity of the brain to process information and learn. Children can build skills and awareness to work with emotions in themselves and their relationships.
- Adversity—poverty, housing and food insecurity, abuse, or neglect—produces toxic stress that affects learning and behavior, but how schools respond matters. Positive, stable relationships—when adults have the awareness, empathy, and cultural competence to understand and listen to children—can buffer the effects of even serious adversity.
At the Learning Policy Institute, as part of a new initiative on the Science of Learning and Development, we synthesized these scientiﬁc ﬁndings to identify how schools can best promote child development. We identiﬁed four main ingredients of school success that allow us to care for and nurture the potential in all children: a positive school climate, productive instructional strategies, social-emotional development, and individualized supports. Here’s what we’ve learned so far about why these ingredients are meaningful and how to put them into action.