The Ontario Ministry of Education regularly publishes, In Conversation, a newsletter which features current research from educators, researchers, and specialists in everything from behaviour to youth development. In the Spring 2014 (Vol. IV, No. 4), the following article provides an overview of thinking about the whole child: "Understanding the Whole Child and Youth – A Key to Learning, An interview with Dr. Lise Bisnaire, Dr. Jean Clinton and Dr. Bruce Ferguson".
In the beginning of the article it stated, "It comes as no surprise that the cognitive development of children and youth in combination with their social, emotional and physical development and their mental health, has a profound effect on their well-being and potential to succeed at school and in life". As the article points out, we have a wealth of research into brain development at this point; what’s surprising to me is that there are still many people who are unfamiliar with the research, especially since policies from the Ministry of Education are developed with this research in mind (e.g. play-based Kindergarten, Student Success initiatives, mental health and well-being initiatives). If we view education simply as a cognitive exercise (and I don’t think policies in Ontario have for some time), then we fail to recognize how important social, emotional, and physical development are to a person’s well-being.
We need to capitalize on the developmental stages of children and youth; as Dr. Jean Clinton states about adolescents: “emotional areas are being refined and pruned ahead of the executive functioning areas of the brain. That may explain why activities that are novel, exciting, low effort and full of thrills are preferred over mundane and tedious activities. Young people need to take risks to grow. They have huge potential for creativity.” For students struggling with any points of development, it’s increasingly important to know their strengths, challenges, and areas of need. As Dr. Lise Bisnaire points out, “as educators, we can support them in this period of transition by helping them to navigate this new path. They look to educators for structure, predictability and consistency in a world where they may feel unprepared or ill-equipped to cope.” Given the rise of mental health issues in adolescents and children, nurturing positive, supportive student-teacher relationships has become more important, at times superseding academic pursuits. Dr. Bruce Ferguson succinctly states, “that our number one developmental task is to learn and know who we are and to develop our sense of self and identity. We do that through our interactions with others – in particular, through having engaging and continuous relationships with adults”.
Ideally schools should be designed to meet the changing cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of our students. I’m not sure they are given that we continue to use practices that are not in the best interest of students (e.g. early start times for adolescents, grouping students - en masse - by age rather than stage of development, classroom design and building decisions are driven by old funding formulas, etc.).
If you could recommend one change in your school that you think would better serve the developing emotional, social, and physical needs of your students, what would it be and why?