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Whole Student Education for Social Emotional Learning

A teacher leans in to communicate with three students building with blocks at a table

The traditional approach to education measures a student’s success by academic ability alone. Whole student education offers a different educational philosophy, focusing on how a school’s culture and curriculum address a student’s academic, social, emotional and physical needs.

It’s a holistic approach that considers all areas of a student’s development. From the outset, it recognizes that students have unique cultural backgrounds, interests and learning styles. By taking these differences into account, a whole student approach allows teachers to better engage students. That approach can lead to a more positive impact on each child’s long-term social, emotional, physical and cognitive wellbeing.

The goal of a whole student approach is to support students as whole individuals, rather than just academic learners. It’s a key part of social emotional learning, which focuses on helping students develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed not just as students, but in every aspect of their lives.

Whole Student Approach Considers Students’ Developmental Needs

The whole student philosophy seeks to create educational policies and adopt teaching methods that go beyond just short-term academic success. The idea draws on concepts that led to the creation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, according to the National Education Association.

Abraham Maslov, a psychologist, theorized that motivation is driven by physiological and psychological needs. He developed a hierarchy of needs people move through over the course of their lives: basic physiological needs (food and water); security and safety (such as financial security and safety from accidents and injury); social needs (friendships, family, romantic relations, etc.); esteem (appreciation and respect); and self-actualization (people becoming the best version of themselves).

Maslow believed people cannot move “up” the hierarchy without first addressing the needs at their current level. A person who lacks access to food and water is not concerned about social needs, while someone without esteem likely cannot move on to self-actualization.

The whole student theory takes a similar approach, considering every aspect of a student’s life. “In order for students to succeed, we must meet their developmental needs and consider all the different factors that impact their experiences both inside and outside of the classroom,” the NEA stated on its website.

Social Emotional Learning

The whole student approach is closely connected with social emotional learning, which involves teaching students how to better understand and manage their emotions, have empathy for others, build positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

By identifying and addressing the needs of students, educators can help students better navigate social and emotional challenges. That includes teaching them some of the main skills involved in social emotional learning, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making and finding peaceful ways to resolve conflicts.

Key Components and Goals of the Whole Student Approach

Educators can choose from a variety of methods to incorporate a whole student approach in their classrooms. They typically start by fostering an environment of safe and inclusive learning, as well as helping students form positive relationships with classmates. Both are key elements in social emotional learning.

Teachers also encourage students to become active participants in their learning, not just passively receiving information. They may provide opportunities for community service and civic engagement.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) has developed tenets related to the application of a whole student education.

  • Healthy. Students come to school healthy and learn about and practice a healthy lifestyle.
  • Safe. Teachers create an environment that is emotionally and physically safe for both students and adults.
  • Engaged. Students actively engage in learning and connect to the school and the broader community.
  • Supported. Teachers provide students personalized learning and support.
  • Challenged. Students develop the critical thinking skills needed in a global environment.

The Fresno Pacific University Whole Student Education Course 

As part of its extensive list of online professional development courses for teachers, Fresno Pacific University offers a Whole Student Education for Social Emotional Learning course. It provides educators with the knowledge and skills to better meet the needs of all their students, including learning about practical tools that help get every student more engaged. 

Educators in the course develop a stronger understanding of the educational, behavioral and social needs of a diverse student population. They sharpen their own professional skills and tools while developing practical strategies to address those needs.

The course is taught by Connie Enns-Rempel, who holds a master’s degree and has years of experience in preschool and early childhood teaching positions. She also has worked as a school counselor and run her own private counseling practice.  

Educators who complete the course earn professional development credit they can apply toward maintaining their teaching license. They also can apply the credits toward earning a Social Emotional Learning Certificate from Fresno Pacific University.