When a student enters a classroom, the teacher may see only what is on the surface. But everything that happened to the child before walking in the door that day has an impact on learning. A teenager who seems inattentive may be running a sleep deficit from having to help out at home. A child who has difficulty sounding out words may feel anxious about reading aloud in class. Students of color may seem disengaged in learning, but they may be affected by subtle and frequent microaggressions that make them feel like outsiders.

“Everything that happened to the child before walking in the door that day has an impact on learning.”

While educators often recognize the complexities of their students, they can still benefit from a more profound understanding of the factors at play beneath the surface to understand the whole child. To help them gain that understanding, researchers from different specialties should collaborate to find out more about how and why children differ from one another. This whole child approach to research and policy considers many aspects of development including children’s physical and mental health and safety, academic and identity development, and support they need to thrive.

Discovering hidden factors

Bringing together our knowledge from psychology, education, sociology, neuroscience, health, and other disciplines can help inform educators’ practice. For example, years of research have shown that sleep quantity and quality can impact children’s moods and cognitive functioning. These findings provide insight into how to support children who may be struggling in their schoolwork because of sleep issues. Teachers can use evidence-based approaches that support working memory and attention, such as clear, chunked instructions. They could also use activities that support emotion and self-regulation, such as mindfulness breaks, to intentionally compensate for the impacts of limited sleep.

But these connections among factors and strategies that impact learning are only as robust as the existing research. Reviewing the literature on the constellation of factors that impact the whole child, I find that much remains to be discovered, for example, about the relationships between cognition and social emotional learning. We don’t yet fully know how various factors are related. How, for example, do children’s interactions with their siblings or parents in the days before a test affect their ability to focus? How does the child’s neighborhood or cultural context impact learning?

“Breaking down barriers between disciplines is one way to enable researchers to take important contextual factors into account.”

In order to fulfill the promise of applying whole child approaches that integrate many aspects of children’s development, we need to extend the research. Breaking down barriers between disciplines is one way to enable researchers to take important contextual factors into account when conducting studies and interpreting their findings. Sociologist Patrick Sharkey showed that children’s reading and vocabulary scores were significantly worse when they had been exposed to violence within the past week in their Chicago neighborhood. The impact of safety on children’s ability to concentrate on their work is critical to interpreting findings from many education studies conducted in similar contexts – and yet this factor is not currently considered by most researchers. Without that context, researchers looking at outcomes in urban areas may misinterpret their findings as truly reflective of children’s abilities, rather than as merely a snapshot in time.

Closing knowledge gaps with new approaches to research

Even within areas such as psychology, few studies employ cognitive measures in conjunction with social-emotional measures such as motivation and mindset. But examining these factors together, rather than separately, offers greater insight into how to support students. For example, educational psychologist Jamaal Matthews found that urban adolescents who were more cognitively flexible took greater advantage of instruction that highlights how math concepts relate to the real world. When students recognized how math applies to their lives, their perception of its value – an aspect of mindset – increased.

Illuminating interconnections such as these could allow educators to better understand their students and cultivate a sense of belonging in them. This is critical for those from lower-income families or historically marginalized backgrounds, whose achievements are often viewed from a deficit perspective.

“Every child has different strengths and challenges that should be considered in the classroom, and these can change, depending on the context.”

Neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and education leader Douglas R. Knecht have noted that “each of the brain’s networks contributes to social, emotional, and cognitive functioning—there is no one network or region that processes only one of these.” This suggests that whole child approaches to research and education have the potential to support all children’s complex needs as they develop. 

To support this whole child approach, my colleagues and I at the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise have developed open-source tools to elucidate the myriad factors that can impact children’s learning. These factors include the learner’s background, social-emotional skills, cognitive abilities, and content area knowledge. Every child has different strengths and challenges that should be considered in the classroom, and these can change, depending on the context. Our research-based models of learning are designed to help build an understanding of how these various factors are interconnected. Unconnected factors that have not been studied together represent possible avenues of future inquiry, potentially leading to a new understanding of how to support individual learners.

While no single researcher can study the full matrix of variables, innovative approaches are being developed, such as the component research framework. In this framework, research teams collaborate and honor the complexity of their populations by uncovering what part of an intervention works, for which students, and under what conditions. In order to positively impact educational policies, researchers must be bold and step out of their silos to capture as much of the whole child as possible. 

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