Nurturing the Whole Child

How and Why Using a Holistic Approach Benefits Children’s Development

    1) What is the whole-child approach?

The whole-child approach supports and fosters all areas of children’s learning and development including:

  • Academic skills
  • Social-emotional learning
  • Speech, language, and social skills
  • Communication
  • Cognitive capacities 
  • Gross and fine motor skills
  • Creativity
  • Spirituality
  • Wellness

Research such as the Aspen Institute’s report, The Brain Basis for Integrated Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, shows that these areas of a child’s development are linked. Practicing the whole-child approach can:
          • Deepen curiosity
         â€˘  Develop empathy
         â€˘  Promote creativity and self expression 
         â€˘  Expand problem solving and critical thinking skills
         â€˘ Teach self-control and emotional skills
         â€˘ Lead to positive life and learning outcomes

Each of these skills are critical for achieving academic success, positive mental and physical health, and raising engaged global citizens.

But how do I support children’s development from a holistic lens?

  • Pay attention to and address children’s social-emotional cues.
  • Foster and encourage children’s unique abilities and interests.
  • Encourage their personal strengths.

The Takeaway:
          • A child's development is highly individualized.
          • Fostering their learning, education, and growth in a way that embraces that child’s individuality benefits their development. 
          • The whole-child approach embraces a wider perspective of children’s capacities. This yields long-term success, which can look different for each child.

2) Applying the whole-child approach to education & why it’s important

Did you know:
American education was established long before the study of human development surfaced. It was not until recent decades that research began exploring connections between children’s academic, social-emotional, and cognitive development as well as physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing.

Shifting towards an educational practice that fosters wellbeing and academic, social-emotional, and cognitive development means taking a whole-child approach to learning.

What this looks like:

  • Considering children’s individual differences
  • Considering the many different ways that children can learn and grow.

Research by the Learning Policy Institute can provide a helpful framework for learning about child development:

  • Development is malleable
  • Variability in human development is the norm, not the exception.
  • Human relationships are the essential ingredient that catalyzes healthy development and learning.
  • Adversity affects learning and the ways in which educators respond matters.
  • Learning is social and emotional, as well as academic.
  • Children actively construct knowledge based on their experiences, relationships, and social contexts.

Caregivers and educators can feature specific elements in their children’s educational environments that:

  • Enhance the development of the brain
  • Support children’s ability to develop open-mindedness, curiosity, self-awareness, persistence, empathy, and ethical reasoning. 

What are some of these elements?
-Multilingual environments
-Playing musical instruments
-Visual and performing arts
-Physical activities

How can adding these elements to children’s environments benefit their development?

  • Improves reasoning capacities for mathematics 
  • Expands visual/spatial fields for more holistic learning 
  • Enhances verbal expression for communication 

Question: What is the foundation for the social process of learning?
Answer: Safe and meaningful relationships

Examples of interactions with caregivers that can support children’s language development and learning capacities: 

  • Caregivers being attuned to the emotions of children
  • Caregivers helping children to understand and become attuned to their own emotions
  • Caregivers providing children with a sense of safety, consent, and autonomy with any physical affection

Research by the Aspen Institute shows that these same types of interactions can help children to formulate in-depth learning, perseverance, and a growth mindset, as well as providing them with the opportunity to:

  • Explain and demonstrate their thinking process
  • Gain feedback and input from other children and adults
  • Edit and improve their thinking processes

But how do I practice whole-child education?

- Develop and assess positive learning climates for the children in your care.

- Embrace broader definitions and measurements of children’s skills.

- Create more expansive educational and learning opportunities.

-  Increase and utilize the professional support available to you.

- Approach disciplinary policies from a supportive, growth-mindset, creating a safe space.

- Consistently expand assessment and accountability practices.

The Takeaway:

 â€˘  The whole-child approach to learning is rooted in child development and offers a holistic approach to learning and wellbeing.

 â€˘  It is normal for children’s development and learning to be highly individualized, which should be accounted for in their education.

 â€˘  Caregivers can provide important features in educational environments.

 â€˘ Safe relationships set the foundation for positive impacts on children’s growth and learning.

 â€˘  Positive social climate, productive instructional strategies, social emotional development, and individualized support are key components of whole-child education.

3 Unique ways caregivers can nurture the whole child:

1. Create a sense of safety and security: When children feel regulated and calm they are better able to take in their surroundings. When children can recognize moments of stress and adapt to them their brain sends signals of safety and reassurance to the nervous system. This provides an opening for connectedness and learning.

2. Practice being present in the moment: When caretakers consciously spend time in the moment they can pick up on children's needs. Making the effort to slow down and stay present can provide opportunities for shared joy and deep connection.

3. Prioritize Social-Emotional development: Caregivers can model and teach healthy SEL skills such as self awareness, self management, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and social awareness.


          Social-emotional, physical, creative, and cognitive capacities are woven together in development to nurture a child's wellbeing, learning, and growth. The whole-child approach to learning and development is linked to academic achievement, positive health outcomes, and active participation in society. Research shows that variability in human development is the norm. Accounting for these differences is critical in education. Developing skills such as curiosity, empathy, creativity, self expression, problem solving, and critical thinking skills ensures that every child reaches their full potential.