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A Whole Child Approach to Learning & Equity

Written by
March 25th, 2021

This post has been adapted from a recent webinar presented by Sean Slade and Dr. Amy Jackson. Watch the recording on demand to learn more.


In 2006, ASCD set out to tackle two key questions:

  1. What is a “whole child approach” to supporting student success?
  2. Why is it important in striving for equitable outcomes in education?

The goal was to examine how resources—time, space, and human—would be arrayed to ensure each child’s success, if decisions about education policy and practice started by asking what works for the child.

Through this work, the team wanted to develop a way to provide enough support for students, teachers, and schools at a time when resources seemed misaligned or inconsistent, while moving away from a singular focus on academics.

Today, the need to provide “enough of the right support” for students and teachers alike has never been greater. And similarly, the need to support the whole child in this work has never been more crucial. 

ASCD Whole Child Tenets

ASCD based the whole child tenets—healthy, safe, engaged, supported, challenged—on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This model provided an order through which both schools and communities can consider their policies and practices.

In order to support the whole child, students’ basic needs of safety and security must first be met. When students’ basic physiological and psychological needs (safety, belonging, autonomy, and competence) are attained, they are more likely to:

  • Become engaged in school
  • Act in accord with school goals and values
  • Develop social skills and understanding
  • Contribute to the school and community
  • Achieve academically

If those needs are not met, students are less likely to be motivated to learn or engage with their peers. Thus, it’s important to ensure we address not only students’ academic needs, but also their most foundational levels of safety and belonging. 

In many ways this has never been more apparent. Yet, it’s still a worthy sentiment to keep in mind as the educational community embarks on the work of equitably accelerating learning and recovering learning gaps that developed due to the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. For some students, academic struggles will be best addressed by supports that address a non-academic need. A whole child approach expands the resources and lenses by which we can unpack the causes around why a student struggles, so that true barriers to learning can be cleared.

However, taking a whole child approach requires whole child data.

Using Whole Child Data to Protect Against Inequities

There is a quote from Edward Deming that reads: “Without data, all you have is an opinion.” Without evidence, we’re just left with opinions—or worse, assumptions.

Data protects us from making false assumptions or unsubstantiated and incorrect judgments about student performance. Moreover, data helps us monitor whether our decisions and behaviors stem from an issue of equity and whether we are perpetuating what might be well-intentioned but harmful practices based upon biases and stereotypes.

Fortunately, we've made tremendous progress in our awareness of these issues and the development of resources to address them. And today, we’re able to leverage whole child data within a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) to understand and support whole child needs.

A Framework for Your Whole Child Approach

Throughout that work, there are essentially four main steps that build a blueprint for data-based decisions that support a whole child approach.

  1. Assess - We must first assess to know where a student is—without getting caught up in a narrow definition of assessment. Beyond academic score, this assessment could also relate to social-emotional behavior (SEB), or any sort of student survey data that may inform another whole-child indicator. When we assess, it provides a baseline to determine where students are and whether goals are being met.
  2. Analyze - We need to discover meaning from the data and truly comprehend what they’re telling us. With a focus on equity in particular, what do the data tell us about groups of students? For example, what might we learn about female students or students with accommodations? Being able to do this at all three levels (class, school, and district) will allow us to think meaningfully about the patterns we’re seeing and build a common understanding before looking to make any major decisions.
  3. Act - We have to take action based upon what we learn and understand from our data. We must identify an evidence-based approach to target the needs and capitalize on the strengths observed in the data for each student. This could mean, generally speaking, making some changes to Tier 1 instruction, or it could mean intentional and targeted differentiation with Tier 2 or Tier 3 interventions.
  4. Assimilate - We need to learn from and adapt practices on a systemic level as we go through each of the first three parts. What have we learned about our students, instruction, school, and community? What trends can we observe across student groups at a district-level? What we learn about our students and systems should be integrated or assimilated into our practices, otherwise we will miss the opportunity to make the types of systemic changes that can attack our assumptions.

To learn more, watch ASCD & Illuminate Education’s “A Whole Child Approach to Accelerating Learning & Achieving Equity” webinar on-demand, presented by Sean Slade, Sr. Director of Global Outreach at ASCD, and Dr. Amy Jackson, Vice President of Applied Research & Strategy at Illuminate Education.


Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. Our solution combines comprehensive assessment, MTSS management and collaboration, and real-time dashboard tools, and puts them in the hands of educators. As a result, educators can monitor learning and growth, identify academic and social-emotional behavioral needs, and align targeted supports in order to accelerate learning for each student. 

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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