Opinion: The push to educate the whole child

The whole child dialogue is being revived in educational discussions. Whole child pedagogies have always held a degree of interest to educators, and simultaneously have been rather difficult to integrate within mainstream approach to education.

The current circumstance for both children and teachers nevertheless, requires that we all push for new ways of educating children, ways that attend to the whole. Children are still being pushed heavily to achieve high levels of academic success, which bypasses other important aspects of their whole growth.

Research studies consistently show that this neglect for the whole child by placing over a top-heavy focus on academic achievement research studies consistently show creates many significant imbalances in children, including such as anxiety and depression.  

Teachers too, are under a lot of strain as they are pushed to meet compliance measures, whilst also having to meet the varying and individual needs of the children in their class. Every day in schools, teachers are doing much more than their job descriptions require, and often without thinking twice. The aspiration for most teachers is to make a difference to their students; however this idea is actually coming at the cost of self-sacrifice. Energetically there is only so much one can give before they are burnt out.

Not only does the current education system seem to be neglecting the whole child’s needs, they also neglect the teacher’s needs as well. The problem facing both students and teachers can be identified as a structural one according to Dr Maxine Therese. 

Dr Therese has researched children’s needs and wellbeing, subsequently developing the Foundational Needs Model as a unified solution to myopic and limiting models of child growth. In her research she noticed that the frameworks that underpin current curricula are from a bygone era. Today, from science we know so much more about what children need, and we are not utilising this information in the service of children’s wellbeing.

Part of the challenge to educate the whole may be due to the fact that there has remained no theory that suggests what the unified child is.     Dr Therese says that ‘meeting the complex needs of children requires that we address the interplay of the emotional, mental, psychological, spiritual and physical dimensions of children’s lives and there has been some difficulty in synthesising these within the one model’. 

The soul theory, which forms part of the larger Foundational Needs Model, accounts for the unification of the child’s body (sensory and biological processes), mind (mental, neurological, cognitive and brain approaches) and spirit (actions in the form of the child’s behaviours and responses to the world).

The Foundational Needs Model, which is derived from Eastern philosophy of the Indian Chakra system, serves as a representational map of the whole child’s needs as it is growing and learning. Western science now validates this ancient wisdom and offers further support for cultivating the whole child with this model. The theory as well as the Foundational Needs Model validates educators’ experience, as teachers who are well aware that the child must have certain needs met before they are open and ready to learn.

It is a standard idea now an accepted fact that a child cannot learn on an empty stomach, that is, when their physical needs are not met. In fact many educators can discern which child has eaten breakfast and which has not. In the same way the child cannot learn if any of their other vital needs pertaining to the whole are not met.

If for example a child in the class experiences anxiety, separation issues, or unclear boundaries, it is likely that these arise in response to an unmet Need to be Safe and Secure  (the first of the seven Foundational Needs). The child who is anxious for example, is in essence proclaiming “soothe me”.
They may experience doubt, uncertainty, or fear of change when approaching tasks in the class. The degree to which this child’s need is met or not in the learning environment will affect the child’s ability to integrate new information. Each child feels, thinks and learns in different ways. Children can often stay stuck in a nervous system response to anxiety that can’t hinder growth and learning if these safety and security needs remain unmet.  When a child feels and thinks in the most optimal way about any task they have an increased capacity to learn

As an educator if the child displays the above you can support their whole growth by making the space for emotional expression and enquire as to how you might best support them by asking them what they need (this can be a 1 minute connection that will change the whole class time). Activities such as meditation and body-focused awareness connects children to a deeper understanding of why their body responds in certain ways.

These activities support the enhancement of the child’s need to be safe and secure and as a wonderful by-product t positive outcomes such as; when children learn more about their physiological responses and the functioning of their body  research shows it transpires to improved learning outcomes as well . 

The Foundational Needs Model provides educators with a conceptual framework for attuning with each child, reflecting on the child’s needs as they present as learning challenges and behaviours.  This article has only demonstrated one of the seven. The model also assists educators to know how they might better meet the needs of the range of learners in their classrooms.

This approach allows for consolidating an affirmative understanding of the whole within their curriculum assessment and pedagogical practices, which in effect leads to teachers feeling they are able to deal with whatever arises for the children in their class as well as for themselves.

Dr Maxine Therese will be presenting her work to educators, parents, caregivers and those working with children at three events in Melbourne on 25 and 26 November, please click here to learn more.

Dr Maxine Therese has a PhD in Philosophy and is a child wellbeing consultant, practitioner and author. Her book, The Push: Re-visiting Philosophies of Childhood will be released this year by Cambridge Scholars Press.