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Teaching the Whole Child Requires Whole Communities

By Sarah Moore on August 12th, 2015

“If I had had to nominate a student ‘most likely to be incarcerated,’ John* would have gotten my vote. So when I see him around town now, it still gives me chills.” My mother, an 8th grade science teacher at a middle school in a rural, low-income region of South Carolina, is still inspired by this story because it was an outlier from so many others she’s seen unfold. “If things aren’t good at home, then students aren’t sleeping well, aren’t eating well. The last thing on their minds is how to solve an equation.” As it turns out, John was not incarcerated. Instead, he earned a scholarship at a local college and is now a teacher.

Just as students’ lives outside of school affect their performance in school, their experiences in school can profoundly affect—and even predict—their health and well-being later in life. For example, findings from a 20-year study show that kindergartners with better social competence skills may be more likely to live healthier, more successful lives as adults through the education and jobs they attain. Research has also shown that physically active children tend to have better grades and fewer disciplinary problems.

Ironically, in an effort to bolster test scores, my mom’s district (like many) reduced physical education (P.E.) in order to introduce supplemental language and math courses. Now, “the students are begging for more P.E.,” my mom said. Recess, too, has been taken away (as it has in many other schools since the No Child Left Behind Act was implemented). Compounding this decrease in physical activity is the summer nutrition gap. Many children eat at least half of their meals at school, and for some, school meals may be the only food they eat—making summer an uncertain time. Research has shown that, during summer break, low-income students also fall the furthest behind in academic performance.

Despite these hurdles, test scores in my mom’s district have been improving. But she doesn’t give credit only to the extra language and math hours; she cites a supportive principal and community as the main reasons that she and other teachers feel they’ve been better equipped to improve students’ grades and lives. They regularly stay after school to tutor students, often for emotional, rather than academic, reasons. It’s also not uncommon for the principal to drive to students’ homes if they’ve been absent for a while just to check on them. And my mom has clothed and fed students whose families are struggling financially.

During her 15 years of teaching, she has seen cohorts of students come, go and grow up. When I asked what she thinks is the biggest barrier to students’ well-being as adults, she didn’t hesitate: “Poverty. Their parents didn’t get a great education, and so can’t help with homework. Or they’re constantly moving out of—then back in to—the district because of unstable housing situations. Or they’re under-fed or under-slept or dealing with emotional trauma. Every year, these things put them even more behind.”

Across the country, organizations like ASCD, CASEL, Playworks, local libraries and countless others are addressing non-academic features of our school system. They recognize that students’ academic, social, emotional and health outcomes are linked not only to each other, but also to students’ broader communities. What’s clear from the data and from my mom’s own backyard is that it takes more than extra class time to teach the “whole child”—it takes a whole village.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Image: My mom’s students on a field trip to Washington, D.C.

Sarah Moore


Artist and advocate for natural places.