Teaching the Whole Child: Strategies for Holistic Education

A smiling teacher looks on as a little girl turns the page of a picture book.

Test-centric education policies aimed at standardizing learning to close the achievement gap for marginalized students actually do the opposite, recent student outcomes indicate.

Over the last 15 years, American teenagers’ performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows the top quartile of U.S. students are scoring higher, while the bottom 10 percent of students are falling even farther behind. America’s PISA results further reveal Hispanic and black students are performing significantly below white and Asian students.

Data from the Economic Policy Institute demonstrates income segregation falls along racial lines. Nearly 82 percent of poor black teenagers attend high-poverty schools versus 53.5 percent of poor white teens. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) suggests test-centric policies may favor high-income schools, but teaching the whole child offers a way for any school, regardless of socioeconomic standing, to create positive learning environments.

Teaching the whole child aims to ensure each student is safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. This stands in stark contrast to policies focused on testing to the detriment of student development. When educators focus on teaching the whole child, they offer a path forward for all U.S. students, especially those who have been underserved by an overemphasis on testing.

Five Strategies to Implement Whole Child Teaching

Whole child education rejects the kind of narrow education that accompanies testing-centric curricula. Instead, teaching the whole child looks to support all aspects of a student’s development by fostering positive relationships between students, families, teachers, schools, and communities.

To bring holistic teaching practices into the classroom, teachers can implement five key strategies designed to support students’ emotional needs so they can engage with learning.

1. Encourage Relationships Across All Dimensions of Students’ Lives

Involving parents in their children’s education forges a connection between home and school life, while establishing connections between teachers and families provides multi-tiered levels of support for students. However, challenges such as language barriers or inflexible work schedules may make it more difficult for the parents of marginalized students to communicate with teachers.

When schools actively reach out to parents and encourage parental involvement, parents respond positively. Teachers can assist parents by scheduling remote conferences or tasking multilingual colleagues to translate. New York City has recently launched a pilot program that provides translators for any parent who needs one. This program offers one example of a systems-level response at the local level. At the institutional level, school leaders can prioritize hiring multilingual teachers, which is a key leadership practice for equity.

To further deepen the relationship between home and school, teachers can also encourage students to involve their parents and guardians. For example, rather than sending home a permission slip without context, teachers might ask their students to write the top three reasons they’re excited for a field trip and give those, along with the permission slip, to their guardians. Bilingual students can write their top reasons in their parents’ native language.

To further bridge the gap between home and school, a teacher can then have bilingual students teach their classmates a few new words related to their field trip experience. If a class is going to the zoo, a student who speaks Mandarin might share the Mandarin names of their favorite animals and even teach the class to write the characters.

Connecting the classroom with students’ families offers one way to embrace students’ cultural heritage while strengthening student-teacher relationships.

2. Make Learning Relevant to Students’ Experiences

According to The Global Achievement Gap, many students drop out of high school because they are bored. To cope with poor relationships with teachers, particularly in schools lacking diverse curricula, marginalized students may shut down in school to help maintain their self-esteem. Students want to learn about things that are relevant to their lives, a tenet of teaching the whole child.

Inquiry-based learning makes traditional lessons in math, history, reading, and science personal. A lesson about civil rights might be used to examine current acts of police brutality against people of color. Or a biology lesson about RNA might be used to understand how RNA vaccines work. Teachers can ask students what current events they’re interested in, and then encourage students to see the ways in which classroom lessons relate to their lives.

Teachers can also encourage self-directed learning. For example, teachers might ask their students to complete a capstone project. Each student would pick a topic, and over the year, they would focus on deep learning rather than superficial mastery. Empowering students to guide their own learning also offers another way to support school-family relationships. With capstone projects, for example, teachers can hold parent-student-teacher conferences. In these conferences, students take ownership of their education and show their parents or guardians the work they’ve been doing.

3. Act as a Bridge Between Home and School

Diverse students from historically marginalized backgrounds experience increased anxiety in classrooms that erase, rather than work to sustain, their cultures, according to the National Association of School Psychiatrists. Teachers have an opportunity, though, to act as a bridge between home and school.

“Funds of knowledge,” a term coined in 1992, refers to the way culture informs an individual or family’s skills, abilities, and ways of interacting. Teachers and school leaders can partner with diverse students and families across race, ethnicity, culture, and class to validate the funds of knowledge each student brings to the classroom.

This promotes culturally sustaining learning and a sense of belonging for marginalized students. And culturally sustaining learning models empathy for all students, a skill less than half of all U.S. students reported that school helped them develop under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal legislation that was in effect until 2015.

4. Engage the Whole Community

Over the last several decades, high-income parents have increased spending on supplementary activities such as tutoring and extracurriculars by 151 percent. To help close the gap for students from low-income households, school-community models engage the community to create enrichment activities such as travel, summer camps, and film and art workshops.

For example, in 2019, Trinity Church in New York City sponsored Keep It Reel: Teens Facing Race Through Film. The months-long project paired teens in the city’s most segregated districts with expert filmmakers to write, act in, film, and produce short films exploring race.

5. Decolonize the Classroom

Colonization, which happens when one system of power exerts dominion, has left a legacy of pain and inequity. To decolonize the classroom, teachers must understand models of leadership that emphasize social justice. For example, to address the impact of race and whiteness on the relationships between the teacher-student, student-school, and school-community, master’s candidates in Mills College’s educational leadership program learn to effect change across the systems that support students. It is not possible to decolonize the classroom without addressing these systems—institutional, local, state, and national—in which the classroom is embedded.

By teaching the whole child with a focus on social justice, educators can begin to shift traditional post-colonial power structures. The National Council for Teachers has endorsed several ways to decolonize the classroom including:

  • Diversifying lessons and addressing social justice learning with inquiry-based teaching
  • Embracing multilingual learning
  • Practicing self-reflection
  • Allowing the classroom to become a political space, and encouraging teachers to advocate for equality at the institutional, local, state, and national level

Educating Teachers About Teaching the Whole Child

Schools and their students need educational leaders who will develop and implement policies that reflect holistic education. Teaching the whole child benefits all students, and, critically, it redresses the inequalities marginalized students face—inequalities that have only worsened under performance-focused policies. Education experts, like those at Mills College, agree that teaching the whole child offers the best path to improve student outcomes.

At Mills College, the online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership prepares graduates to lead with social justice principles and teach the whole child. If you are interested in learning more about how Mills is readying the next generation of educational leaders, visit Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership.

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ASCD, “A Whole Child Approach to Education and the Common Core State Standards Initiative”

American Educational Research Association, “Comprehensive Research Review Confirms Positive School Climates Can Narrow Achievement Gaps”

Child Trends, Parental Involvement in Schools

Economy Policy Institute, “Poor Black Children Are Much More Likely to Attend High-Poverty Schools Than Poor White Children”

Education Dive, “‘De-colonizing the Curriculum’ Critical to Improving Outcomes for Students of Color”

Education Week, “Why Teacher-Student Relationships Matter”

Journal of Teacher Education, “Empathy, Teacher Dispositions, and Preparation for Culturally Responsive Pedagogy”

Mills College, Online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership

National Association of School Psychologists, “Supporting Marginalized Students in Stressful Times: Tips for Educators”

National Center for Educational Statistics, Fast Facts: Back to School Statistics

National Center for Educational Statistics, “PISA 2018 U.S. Results”

National Center for Educational Statistics, Program for International Student Assessment

The New York Times, “‘It Just Isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts”

NYC Department of Education, NYC Public Schools Speak Your Language!

Public School Review, “White Students Are Now the Minority in U.S. Public Schools”

Trinity Church Wall Street, “Keep It Reel: Teens Facing Race Through Film”

U.S. News & World Report, “Demographic Breakdown of the 2020 Best High Schools”

Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, “Funds of Knowledge”