Today we have a tremendous opportunity to reimagine our education system by using what we know from the science of learning and development. Infusing school environments and practice with this knowledge can ensure far better learning experiences and opportunity for students— experiences that are transformative, empowering, personalized, and culturally affirming. In addition, it can support practitioners in identifying and stopping practices that inhibit students’ learning, especially students from marginalized groups who—because of their race, ethnicity, income, language background, dis/ability status, sexual orientation, or other social identity—have often been exposed to ineffective and discriminatory practices that inhibit their full development.
Developmental and learning science provides us with optimism about what all young people are capable of. The contexts and relationships they are exposed to influence what they learn and who they become. Today, we can use the Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole Child Design and its associated design principles to build environments in all of our classrooms, schools, and community learning settings that enable children to develop and thrive. (See Figure 7.1.) By designing schools that integrate the five elements—Positive Developmental Relationships; Environments Filled With Safety and Belonging; Rich Learning Experiences and Knowledge Development; Development of Skills, Habits, and Mindsets; and Integrated Support Systems—we can help youth build resilience and knowledge; develop their full selves; and grow skills, habits, and mindsets they need to live lives of fulfillment. While the Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole Child Design are each critical to supporting youth learning and development, their impact is deeply felt and effective when practitioners integrate all five into a coherent, continuously reinforcing set of practices.
What the Science Says
The human brain is a dynamic, integrated living system that operates in coordination with other systems. The tissue it is made up of is the most susceptible to change from experience than any other tissue in the human body. Complex skills, whether riding a bike, developing resilience, or learning to read, reflect the integrating properties of our continually developing brains and bodies. Emotional well-being and social competence provide a strong foundation for emerging cognitive abilities, and together they form the bricks and mortar of healthy brain architecture. The human brain grows by integrating all other systems—including those that govern feeling, thinking, acting, cognition, and processing—in ways that are highly sensitive to the physical and sociocultural context of a person’s life.
The three core principles of human development are: (1) the astounding malleability of the human brain and body, (2) the fact that growth depends on experience, and (3) the importance of contexts in shaping development. Throughout life experiences, relationships and environments activate neural pathways, generating electrical activity that continuously strengthens the connections between brain structures and creates new ones. This is what is meant by the “wiring” of the brain, or the integration of the brain. Beginning early in life, more than 1 million connections form between brain structures per second.1 And the way these connections form matters for what the brain can do. As Hebb’s Law states, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”2 It is these developing circuits that enable the emergence of increasingly complex thoughts, skills, knowledge, learning, and behavior; the expression of our identities, our interests, and our passions; and ultimately the expression of our potential. This is what is meant by the integration of the brain.
Once we understand that environments, experiences, and relationships drive the wiring of our brains, the task and responsibility before us becomes clear: to design settings and experiences for optimal development and learning. This is the purpose and the foundation for the Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole Child Design presented in this playbook. The development of a whole child emerges when we combine the five elements into experiences that connect to one another.
The driving force in development is the movement from simple to complex—through the agency of the child who plays an active role in developing skills. Skills and knowledge do not emerge fully formed but are built through practice—something we see every time we learn a new skill, such as reading, playing a musical instrument, and learning a sport. This process also means that the young person’s agency in building new skills will be based on what they are encouraged to do and the resources and supports available to them. Like a web with many strands, there are different possible pathways in the development of complex skills, and these skills are interdependent, with more complex capabilities emerging as earlier ones are internalized and specific supports become available.
Supporting the learning of a complex skill means that even the most discrete skill, like solving an algebra word problem, needs to take into account the whole person learning that skill: their prior experience, culture, history, foundational skill development (in reading and math), identity (and identity threat), agency, and motivation. Young people are the sum of all these dimensions. If educators teach only to the discrete math skills, some children may learn the skills or content. But if they teach to the whole child, they can support all students in understanding the content and skills being taught, becoming curious to learn more, and being able to apply them to other problems.
What Does an Integrated Whole Child Approach Look Like in Schools?
Given what we know about the interconnectedness of the brain and development, it is important for practitioners to design learning settings that enable young people to develop their whole selves in the learning process. There is not just one way to integrate whole child practices and structures in a school or community learning setting. Rather, there are a number of ways that educators can nurture students’ assets and address their needs and challenges to create equitable and impactful school settings. The case of the Springfield Renaissance School, a school that serves students in grades 6 through 12 in Springfield, MA, is one illustration of integrated practice, and the San Francisco Community School, serving students in grades kindergarten through 8, is another.
Practitioners at San Francisco (S.F.) Community School have also designed their school in line with the science of learning and development, implementing a unique set of whole child structures and practices that meet the needs of their learners and communities. S.F. Community School is a public k–8 school in San Francisco, CA, that seeks to include English learners and students with disabilities, and the majority of students served by the school are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Educators at the site engage youth in hands-on, student-centered learning experiences with ample scaffolds. This learning, which builds students’ knowledge and develops valued skills, habits, and mindsets, is bolstered by structures that allow relationships to flourish, collaboration to ensue, and supports to be identified.
Barriers and Solutions to Taking Whole Child Design to Scale
Science and research provide us with guidance on how to create more powerful school communities that provide better learning experiences and opportunities for all students, which are transformative, empowering, and culturally affirming. Despite this growing knowledge around how to create powerful learning environments, it remains challenging for districts and schools to create and sustain learning settings that integrate elements of equitable whole child design.
Progress has been impeded by both historical traditions and current policy built on dated assumptions about school design, accountability, assessment, and the nature of teaching and learning. While most industries look very different from how they looked a century ago—think medicine, aviation, and publishing, for example—our education system remains seemingly stuck in another time, reflecting the designs created in the early 20th century to accommodate mass education using assembly-line technologies. Our youth are entering a totally new world—one in which knowledge is rapidly expanding; technology will take over most low-skilled work; and most jobs will require high levels of knowledge, skill, and capacity to constantly learn and apply new ideas to uncharted problems. Yet our education system is still structured to prepare a small minority of students for college and creative careers, and the rest—particularly students of color and students from low-income families—for factory jobs that no longer exist.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a disruption of the status quo and presents an opportunity to seize this moment for change. District and school leaders can harness this unprecedented time—as school is necessarily being reconceptualized to educate stakeholders on the science summarized here—and begin phasing in structures and practices to create supportive and powerful learning environments, both virtual and in person.
What can we do to create more schools that teach all students the complex skills they actually need for academic and life success while affirming their identities and potential, developing their character, and fostering equity? Evidence suggests that we must:
- redesign schools to support high-quality teaching and strong relationships;
- rethink curriculum, assessment, and accountability structures so that they focus on powerful learning with associated supports;
- improve professional learning opportunities;
- build unified integrated support systems; and
- take a systemic approach that enables change in all schools.
Redesign schools for quality teaching and strong relationships
The organization of schools has been based on a factory model that assumed students’ learning could be assembled through standardized transmission of information at different stops along the assembly line (grade levels and separate class periods)—and that, by creating different tracks along the assembly line for students with different “potential,” students could be efficiently prepared for their very different roles in life.3 Not only was the model rooted in the eugenics of the time, which proffered that race- and ethnicity-based differences in intelligence should guide tracking decisions, but it also minimized the importance of relationships among people and connections among ideas.
The harms caused by outdated structures that sort and segregate learners and, at the secondary level, leave them without access to caring adults who know them well, are exacerbated by policies that implicitly encourage teacher-centered, transmission pedagogy; curricula that neglect the cultures of most groups; and punitive school discipline practices that exclude students from school rather than drawing them into the school community. The designs that have made it difficult for schools to consistently create space for positive connection and relationship-building with students and families have also made it difficult to create connections between and among practitioners to support their collaboration. Because these designs are the way many school leaders, educators, and parents have experienced school themselves, it is easy to assume that this is the way schools need to be.
To remove these obstacles, states and districts can encourage school redesign by rethinking staffing patterns and master schedules to create consistent time for teacher collaboration and to put in place structures that support the development of long-term, positive relationships between educators, students, and families (e.g., looping, advisories, block scheduling). This can also involve rethinking facilities policies to enable smaller schools or small learning communities within larger buildings. Additionally, state and local policies can provide flexibility and incentives for leaders, with their teacher labor union partners, to adopt new approaches to staffing that favor personalization across grade levels, departments, and other traditional organizing features that have sometimes fragmented schools.
The elimination of academic tracking may require additional professional development coupled with curriculum strategies that support heterogeneous learning and purposeful use of expanded learning time and support—during the school day, after school, and during summer and intersessions—to accelerate learning for students who have specific needs. In addition, universal preschool will reduce the gaps that exist before students begin kindergarten.
Rethink curriculum, assessment, and accountability structures
Assessment and accountability systems have also posed barriers to the implementation of equitable whole child designs. To enable school transformation at scale, assessment systems need to incentivize and support structures and practices that further meaningful learning and development and the process of continuous improvement.
In order for current statewide assessment systems to support deeper learning that can inform and improve instruction in schools, the instruments they use would have to move beyond largely multiple-choice items measuring lower-level skills to more open-ended performance tasks that are integrated into a coherent system of curriculum and instruction for students, as well as professional learning for teachers, intentionally supporting a rich vision for student learning. This system would also offer formative information on rich tasks throughout the school year and would be structured to inform the teaching and learning process, not to deny access to educational opportunities or to administer sanctions to students, teachers, or schools.
Such assessments should be part of accountability systems that explicitly evaluate and support student access and success. Current accountability frameworks do not typically include factors beyond test scores that influence or reflect student success, such as indicators of opportunities to learn (financial, curriculum, and teaching resources), the quality of teaching and learning experiences, and preparation for postsecondary success. Indicators like student suspension rates and survey data from students, educators, and families about school climate can focus the attention of systems on how to create positive, inclusive contexts that offer restorative practices and social and emotional learning and supports.
Improved accountability systems would provide information that leads to a more informed focus on school improvement for whole child education; more equitable access to learning opportunities; and greater student success, broadly conceived. This could include a wide range of academic learning indicators, such as access to and completion of a high-quality career-technical and/or college preparatory curriculum, among others. For example, California includes a Seal of Biliteracy and a Seal of Civic Engagement among the indicators of accomplishment.
Having more balanced accountability systems that incorporate multiple measures can help practitioners and leaders see what is working and what needs to be fixed in educating young people to become productive, engaged citizens who have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to participate fully in society.4 With more comprehensive measures in place, accountability systems could animate the process of continuous improvement and provide important guidance to practitioners around the areas of strength and struggle in their practice.
In addition to creating a more holistic school quality review process, states and districts can also adopt standards that communicate the importance of whole child teaching and learning practices and incentivize the improvement of capacity-building structures that would enable their integration into learning settings. Districts can work with their communities to create graduate profiles that specify the valued skills, habits, and mindsets that students should have when they graduate. This clear visualization can support strategic planning and innovative efforts toward these outcomes. States and districts can adopt standards for academic, social, and emotional learning that can guide practitioners in developing school policies framing everything from curricula and programs to student discipline and family engagement.
Improve professional learning
Putting into place the structures and practices that support equitable whole child design requires robust and embedded systems of professional learning for both teachers and school and district leaders. Historically, most preparation programs and ongoing professional development opportunities have neither effectively built practitioners’ knowledge of the elements of equitable whole child design nor built their capacity to integrate them into school practice. Fortunately, we have learned a great deal about how preservice and in-service professional learning opportunities can be restructured to build practitioner knowledge, skill, and investment in these schooling approaches.5
The work of the EdPrepLab shows how preservice preparation programs for both teachers and administrators can be aligned around a coherent vision of teaching and learning that builds on the knowledge base regarding child and adolescent development in all of the domains (cognitive, social, emotional, moral, ethical, physical, and academic, as well as identity development) and learning sciences as they inform curriculum and instruction in and across the content areas. Educators can learn how these ideas comprise the Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole Child Design and how their implementation and integration advances learning, development, and well-being.
Pre- and in-service learning programs are most effective when they understand that what educators and leaders need in order to learn to do their jobs well is tightly aligned to the capacities they are being asked to develop in their students: opportunities to learn experientially, to see and experience equitable and supportive pedagogies in action, and to solve problems of practice collaboratively with others as they apply knowledge to novel situations. Thus, learning about pedagogy derived from the science of learning and development also means learning with and through such pedagogy. Practitioners can acquire a deep, flexible, firsthand understanding of learning and development through extended and well-supported residency placements as well as through the use of student-centered pedagogies that provide opportunities for reflection and feedback in the courses they take. In so doing, programs can take a developmental approach to preparing leaders and educators, consciously supporting them through the stages that help them become increasingly expert.
District and school leaders can help build their own capacity and that of school staff by prioritizing resources, time, and space for professional development focused on how to implement all elements of whole child design. This includes opportunities for educators to learn about the science of learning and development as well as opportunities to help practitioners build positive relationships with students; implement student-centered learning opportunities; and cultivate students’ skills, habits, and mindsets to support their academic growth and well-being. In-service learning for leaders must continue to support their work as instructional leaders who are knowledgeable about whole child educational practices as well as support them in thinking structurally to create and sustain schools that integrate the essential elements of whole child design.
Professional development also needs to support practitioners in developing the kinds of caring, inclusive, and empowering communities that children need to support their development and learning. This includes nurturing assets-based mindsets among educators and leaders. The messages students ultimately receive in learning environments depend greatly upon the attitudes, beliefs, skills, and capacity of staff. Beliefs that certain practices are more successful than they in fact are, and implicit biases that impact expectations and perceptions of students’ behavior and performance, can undermine the success of efforts to create a positive learning environment. In turn, professional development for leaders and educators must address stereotype threat and implicit bias and center proactive approaches to anti-racist practice, cultural pluralism, and culturally responsive pedagogies.
Districts and schools that have successfully built capacity in adults for these practices take the long view and a sustained year-over-year approach, consistent with features of effective professional development for teachers and for leaders, which include providing opportunities for collaboration, modeling, coaching and expert support, and feedback and reflection (see “Where to Go for More Resources” sections throughout the playbook for low- or no-cost professional learning resources).
Build unified integrated support systems
Practitioners committed to whole child school redesign may encounter barriers to creating and sustaining integrated support systems. Bringing different systems together to support children’s health, welfare, and education across bureaucratic boundaries can be challenging at every level. Some states, counties, and cities have created a Children’s Cabinet or other cross-agency council to coordinate and begin to streamline programs across agencies so that they can work together in local communities. Many have begun to fund community schools that are designed and staffed in ways that enable them to integrate services for children more effectively.
Whatever the approach, it is important that the construction of integrated support systems be purposeful and involve training for all stakeholders. Too often, ad hoc mechanisms are set in motion with personnel who have too little training related to systemic change or too little support for formative evaluation. It is common to find individuals and teams operating without clear understanding of functions and major tasks. In addition, other site stakeholders are often underinformed about support systems and the opportunities they provide to enhance learning and well-being. Fortunately, we have research that provides many lessons about how access to integrated systems of support can become a reality. One key lesson relates to ensuring a strong infrastructure for change, including high-level administrative support and well-trained change agents.6
This includes establishing a support systems team, designating clear roles and responsibilities for personnel, and institutionalizing procedures so that integrated support systems can be maintained in the face of personnel or leadership transitions. Creating—and sustaining—readiness to implement integrated support systems also requires capacity-building, which can include a specific focus on developing a unified system of support. Professional development must provide on-the-job opportunities and additional time to enhance the capability of those directly involved and support them in their particular roles and responsibilities. Professional development of teachers, administrators, other staff and volunteers, and community partners must also include a shared developmental perspective so that there are common understandings about how best to enhance student learning across the spectrum and how to address barriers to progress.7
Sustained system changes involve working with a critical mass of stakeholders—community members, educators, and policymakers—to deepen their understanding of and commitment to integrated support systems. Of particular importance is ensuring that all stakeholders understand the essential elements that must be implemented and sustained if there is to be substantive, rather than cosmetic, change. This collaboration involves the ongoing development of productive working relationships with external and school-based partners as well as others who may be more resistant or skeptical of the importance of integrated support systems and their impact on learning. Cultivating a steering group of influential advocates and champions for change may be valuable in removing barriers to the work and in creating sustainability.8
Take a systemic approach that enables change in all schools
With the historic and current barriers to sustaining whole child school design, many believe this work is only possible in niche or independent school settings. Yet research and practice tell us that this work is possible in all settings, particularly when states and districts transform policies to create productive incentives and reduce barriers for the system as a whole. Examples of such approaches are being developed and supported through the Whole Child Policy Table, which brings together a wide range of policymakers and community-focused organizations to design and share policy strategies that:
- create a vision for whole child policy and practice;
- transform learning settings to support students;
- enable productive instruction;
- ensure adult learning; and
- organize and leverage resources.
Among those strategies, for example, is a whole child approach to school improvement that can be supported with funding from the Every Student Succeeds Act. A range of resources for supporting high-leverage policy transformations can be found here.
Learning to design and manage schools in new ways requires opportunities to imagine, build, and support new approaches. To accomplish this, districts and schools can partner with each other for learning and with practitioner-led organizations and networks who can support them in developing new structures and practices that enable stronger relationships, student-centered learning, and equity. (See “Where to Go for More Resources,” below, for some of these.)
Recent studies document how networks can partner with districts to redesign schools for student-centered learning models and help them rethink the structures that govern how educators are organized to work with students and with each other to support learning.9 This includes creating schools that allow for advisory systems, teacher teaming, and teacher looping, along with schedules that provide ample time for teachers and students to engage in collaborative and applied learning. In addition, these networks help facilitate important professional learning that is fundamental to equipping leaders and educators with the skills and mindsets necessary to teach for deeper understanding; engage in motivating performance assessments; and support equitable learning through academic scaffolds, restorative practices, and integrated support systems. While there is still significant work to be done to extend whole child school design to all schools, districts, and states, turning to schools and networks that have sustained these changes in the face of obstacles can provide insights into how these barriers are faced and overcome.
Education has long been central to the promise of the United States and its democracy. However, our current education system has not been designed to promote the equitable opportunities or outcomes that today’s children and families deserve and that our democracy and society need. Our system was designed for a different world—to support mass education preparing students for their presumed places in life. That world believed that talent and skills were scarce; it trusted averages as a measure of individuals; and it was a world in which racist beliefs and stereotypes shaped the system so that only some children were deemed worthy of opportunity.
To achieve the transformation we need today, education systems must be willing to embrace what we know about how children learn and develop. The core message from science is clear: The range of students’ academic skills and knowledge—and, ultimately, students’ potential as human beings—can be significantly influenced through exposure to learning environments that use whole child design. To create this transformation, the science, structures, and practices highlighted in this playbook can become the foundation for a new approach to learning when integrated and implemented—one that supports equity for all students and the development of the full set of skills, competencies, and mindsets that young people need to live and thrive in their diverse communities.
Where to Go for More Resources
The BELE Network works with educators, policymakers, school support organizations, and other stakeholders to create equitable learning environments that are grounded in the science of learning and development. Guided by its transformation framework, the network aims to create resources and tools that support practitioners and decision-makers in transformational change. In addition, the BELE Network supports and convenes partners to share learnings from this equity-oriented change process and to elevate the ways that the field can make equitable learning environments a sustainable reality.
The Coalition for Community Schools is an alliance of national, state, and local organizations in k–12 education, youth development, community planning and development, family support, health and human services, government, and philanthropy. It offers a range of tools and resources that can help educational leaders to build and sustain community school models and initiatives in their area, including opportunities to connect with technical assistance providers that can help communities improve their planning and management.
Marshall Street at Summit Public Schools is a coalition of educators working to systematically improve opportunities for students across the country. As part of their efforts, Marshall Street has curated a resource library, which contains papers, toolkits, and frameworks for educators and school leaders to increase opportunities for students. These include “Clearing the Path: How Schools Can Improve College Access and Persistence for Every Student” and “Designing Aligned School Models: A Framework for School Improvement,” which outline concrete steps for designing school models that support student success.
Turnaround for Children works to support practitioners in advancing and implementing whole child educational practices. To this end, the organization produces research-based tools for educators, such as a toolkit on how to use a whole child vision to assess and plan for tiered systems of support and resources to accelerate healthy student development and achievement. In addition, Turnaround for Children works with schools, districts, and networks across the country, which, to date, includes training, coaching, and support to over 220 school leaders in 76 schools to help create healthy learning environments that catalyze success and well-being.
- Center on the Developing Child. (2007). InBrief: The science of early childhood development. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-science-of-ecd/.
- Hebb, D. (1949). The Organization of Behavior. A Neuropsychological Theory. Wiley.
- Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the Cult of Efficiency. University of Chicago Press; Tyack, D. B. (1974). The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Harvard University Press.
- Darling-Hammond, L., Bae, S., Cook-Harvey, C. M., Lam, L., Mercer, C., Podolsky, A., & Leisy Stosich, E. (2016). Pathways to new accountability through the Every Student Succeeds Act. Learning Policy Institute. http://learningpolicyinstitute.org/our-work/publications-resources/pathways-new-accountability-every-student-succeeds-act.
- Darling-Hammond, L., Oakes, J., Wojcikiewicz, S., Hyler, M. E., Guha, R., Podolsky, A., Kini, T., Cook-Harvey, C., Mercer, C., & Harrell A. (2019). Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning. Harvard Education Press.
- Adelman, H. S., & Taylor, L. (2018). Transforming Student and Learning Supports: Developing a Unified, Comprehensive, and Equitable System. Cognella.
- Adelman, H. S., & Taylor, L. (2018). Improving school improvement. Center for MH in Schools & Student/ Learning Supports at UCLA. http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/improve.pdf; Adelman, H. S., & Taylor, L. (2017). Addressing barriers to learning: In the classroom and schoolwide. Center for MH in Schools & Student/Learning Supports at UCLA. http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/barriersbook.pdf.
- Adelman, H. S., & Taylor, L. (2018). Transforming Student and Learning Supports: Developing a Unified, Comprehensive, and Equitable System. Cognella.
- Ancess, J., Rogers, B., Duncan Grand, D., & Darling- Hammond, L. (2019). Teaching the way students learn best: Lessons from Bronxdale High School. Learning Policy Institute; Hernández, L. E., Darling-Hammond, L., Adams, J., & Bradley, K. (with Duncan Grand, D., Roc, M., & Ross, P.). (2019). Deeper learning networks: Taking student-centered learning and equity to scale. Learning Policy Institute.
For more information on the research supporting the science and pedagogical practices discussed in this section, please see these foundational articles and reports:
- Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context. Applied Developmental Science, 23(4), 307–337. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2017.1398649(link is external).
- Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B. J., & Osher, D. (2019). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 97–140. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2018.1537791(link is external).
- Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(1), 6–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2017.1398650(link is external).