A whole-child approach to education can empower children for success at school and beyond. When teachers are invested in all areas of students’ development and create strong connections to help them achieve individual goals — children thrive. But what does it mean to educate the whole child, and how does it positively impact academic growth?
In early childhood education, an emphasis on the whole child ensures a student will develop a positive attitude toward learning, says Polly Smith, kindergarten teacher at Pilgrim Lutheran School, a private PreK-8 school on Chicago’s North Side.
“A young child’s first introduction to school should be fun. I want students to love coming to my classroom each day and for that to grow into a love of learning that they carry through the rest of their school years,” Smith explains. “An environment that emphasizes the whole child brings fun and nurturing together in a play-based environment to best meet a child’s needs.”
When all aspects of a child’s development are recognized and met, they feel nurtured and understood. If they have the ability to pursue their own interests – and learn on their own timeline – during preschool and kindergarten, that sets them up for continued success year after year, she says.
“When a child’s needs are not met or they are held to arbitrary testing standards at an early age not only will school not be seen as enjoyable, but it can harm their self-confidence,” she adds. “A child who sees themselves as not succeeding in the first years of school may struggle to overcome this mindset later on.”
At Pilgrim Lutheran School, teachers appreciate that each child is unique — and expect them to learn individually. “All children are different, and we know that children biologically develop at different rates. That’s certainly the same when it comes to learning styles and timelines,” Smith says. “We do have basic literacy and numerical skills we look out for, but recognizing that all children progress differently is an important part of our philosophy to teach to the individual child at Pilgrim.”
A peek into Pilgrim’s kindergarten classroom reveals the many opportunities students have to explore and apply learning through play.
“You might see students surveying their friends on their favorite colors, modeling a math lesson we did the day before. Or children building with magnetic tiles, trying to make their creation taller than the adults in the room, using problem-solving skills, math and engineering,” says Smith. “Students have lots of opportunities for movement in their learning, including multisensory experiences, and this helps to solidify the concepts we’re introducing in various ways.”
When children can apply what they’re learning individually and through play — a language they all understand — they’re building social-emotional, collaborative, critical thinking, listening and relationship skills that serve them as they move through kindergarten and into their elementary years.
Fostering academic and personal growth beyond early childhood
The focus on whole-child development isn’t just for the early years at Pilgrim Lutheran School, but it’s an integral part of each classroom through the elementary and middle school years.
“Attention to the whole child allows us to meet students where they are academically and prepare them for growth,” explains Paula Raabe, who teaches math to upper-grade students at Pilgrim. “Through challenge and encouragement, students can move to their next level with confidence and with the tools they need to succeed. This approach can even prepare a student for future success in school and in life because it helps children build the skills of collaboration, problem solving and stress management.”
Parents who can remember learning math through rote memorization might be surprised to learn how a whole-child approach focuses on the maturity and cognitive growth of each child by teaching concepts, not memorization and numeric manipulation, says Raabe, who’s been called the “best math teacher ever” by students and parents.
“When math is taught from a concept approach, allowing students to explore and discover, I can meet them where they are and help them grow to reach a new level of understanding,” she says. “When math teaching focuses on the whole child, you will see diagrams and hands-on manipulatives used regularly to develop concepts and to assist students in their thinking and solving.”
Beyond the individualized approach to academics, students at Pilgrim Lutheran thrive in an environment that supports their social, emotional, and spiritual growth. Children attend weekly chapel services and are encouraged to develop their personal faith and participate in community service projects to find positive places for themselves in society. Students also benefit from an on-site social worker, who teaches weekly social-emotional learning (SEL) classes in each grade — and helps students to manage big feelings, improve their communication skills, and navigate friendship conflicts.
Ultimately, children who learn in a holistic environment among teachers who care deeply about all aspects of their individual growth will build skills they can use universally.
“Every grade level, every curricular area, utilizes group work and collaboration,” Raabe says. “Whether they are brainstorming a STEM project or listening and sharing knowledge during a literature discussion — even taking part in clubs and sports — when students have had their needs recognized and met, they’re perfectly positioned for success in school, college, career and life.”
Learn more about Pilgrim Lutheran School at pilgrimchicago.org.