Whole Child for the Whole World: For Each Child and for the Common Good


For the past decade, ASCD has unrelentingly advocated for a whole child approach to education, a more hopeful, humanistic vision of education that aims to develop each child holistically. In 2007, ASCD released The Learning Compact Redefined: A Call to Action, which summarized the findings of the Whole Child Commission, a group of leading thinkers, researchers, and practitioners from a wide variety of sectors charged with recasting the definition of a successful learner. The Compact redefined a successful learner not as one “whose achievement is measured solely by academic tests” but rather as one “who is knowledgeable, emotionally and physically healthy, civically inspired, engaged in the arts, prepared for work and economic self‑sufficiency, and ready for the world beyond formal schooling.” (pg. 4).

We call on communities—educators, parents, businesses, health and social service providers, arts professionals, recreation leaders, and policymakers at all levels—to forge a new compact with our young people to ensure their whole and healthy development. We ask communities to redefine learning to focus on the whole person. (The Learning Compact, 2007, pg.8)

The Compact also introduced educators to the framework of a Whole Child approach, five tenets that all schools should strive for based on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow arranged his needs into a hierarchy to illustrate the foundational requirement of one need in order to successfully strive and obtain the next.

 Human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of pre-potency. That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more pre-potent need.

[A Theory of Human Motivation, A. H. Maslow (1943), Originally Published in Psychological Review, 50, 370-396. Accessed via  http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm]

Physiological needs such as food and shelter are more of a fundamental need than Safety. And Safety is more of a fundamental need than Love and Belonging, and Esteem. Yet all are required before one can develop and grow Self-Actualization. One is predisposed upon the formation of the other.

Reflecting Maslow’s hierarchy, ASCD’s Whole Child tenets are arranged in a hierarchy: Healthy, Safe, Engaged, Supported, and Challenged. If the child is not healthy, then how can that child be expected to be engaged or challenged in classroom activities? If the child does not feel physically or emotionally safe, then how can that child truly be expected to think freely, collaborate with others, and explore their boundaries? While one tenet does not need to be perfected before working on the others, there is still an underlying understanding that an imperfect previous tenet will hamper further growth and progress. 

When students’ basic physiological and psychological needs (safety, belonging, autonomy, and competence) are satisfied, 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.

(ASCD, The Learning Compact Redefined, pg. 12)

For the past decade ASCD has been changing the conversation about what a successful student, school, and education really is. We have been moving public opinion away from a one-size-fits-all, test-based approach to education and towards a whole child approach that addresses each student’s physical, social-emotional, and cognitive growth and well-being. We have seen a rise in the need to focus on the child holistically, a reaction from the public and educators against high-stakes testing, and changes in educational policy to support the Whole Child.  We have led the development of national and state resolutions supporting the Whole Child; successfully lobbied Congress on changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that helped move national policy towards a more well-rounded approach to education; garnered the support of over 75 national and international partner organizations; and advocated for a global push supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4.7 on a Quality Education that serves the whole child. In short, we have begun a movement. It’s been a decade of growth and change.

But there is more we can do.

The communities in which children live today are increasingly more interconnected with the rest of the world. Global economic production and consumption chains, human migration, and the ease of Internet connectivity and proliferation of social media have broken down geographic and cultural boundaries. Our local actions – what we purchase or sell, who we vote for, how to get to work – can have a ripple effect around the world. Likewise, an action that takes place halfway around the globe can affect our lives. As our world becomes smaller, local communities face similar challenges, such as famine, violent conflicts, climate change, economic inequality, and human rights, that threaten the health and safety of children and that require complex global solutions.  Therefore, to ensure that each child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged, education systems must teach students the competencies they will need to thrive in a global society. These global competencies include social emotional attributes such as empathy, an appreciation of diversity, and valuing multiple perspectives; an understanding of global conditions, events, cultures, and interdependence; and cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving.

Teaching students how to engage in the world will not only help them individually in their careers and in life pursuits. It will also improve the common good. Twenty-six years after Abraham Maslow’s introduced his Hierarchy of Needs), he added a sixth stage (1969): self-transcendence. As Maslow defined it, “Self-transcendence seeks to further a cause beyond the self… This may involve service to others, devotion to an ideal (e.g., truth, art) or a cause (e.g., social justice, environmentalism, the pursuit of science, a religious faith), and/or a desire to be united with what is perceived as transcendent or divine.

(Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification, Mark E. Koltko-Rivera, Review of General Psychology, 2006, Vol. 10, No. 4, 302–317).

In Maslow’s full hierarchy, youth develop their potential to be the best they can be and to assist others – to serve fellow humanity. Improving oneself individually is admirable. Improving oneself for the betterment those around you is even more desirable.

To define this stage as a sixth whole child tenet, we may call it ‘Altruism’, or reaching beyond oneself to take action on issues of local and global significance. This focus makes global engagement an educational imperative and the development of global competencies a must.

In 2007, ASCD declared that that our education system should serve the Whole Child. In this second decade of the Whole Child, we declare that a fundamental part of educating the whole child asks education systems and communities to ensure that each child sees itself as an active maker and shaper of the world they will inherit.  It is about helping each and every child recognize that they are part of, and inextricably connected with, the rest of the world, and empowering them to make our world a better place for themselves, humanity, and the planet.  To do anything less is to shortchange our youth and their futures.

Sean Slade is the Senior Director of Global Outreach at ASCD, a global mission-driven education association. During his more than two decades in education, spanning 5 countries and four continents, he has spoken and written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being, and he has been at the forefront of promoting and using school climate, connectedness, resilience, and a youth development focus for school improvement. He has written for the Washington Post, Huffington Post, published with ASCD, Routledge and Human Kinetics.

Ariel Tichnor-Wagner, Ph.D., is the Senior Fellow of Global Competence at ASCD. In her role, she advocates for, develops, and implements innovative ways to support educators and education systems prepare students to thrive in a diverse, interconnected world. Ariel began her career teaching elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona, and received her doctoral degree in Education Policy, Leadership, and School Improvement from the School of Education at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.  Her research on global competence and school improvement has appeared in a variety of scholarly journals.