Research and Reflections, Tools and Resources

Designing a Holistic Learning Experience

Why school communities must integrate social, emotional, and academic considerations into instructional planning

My son is in a new math class this year and it’s been quite challenging for him academically—a different degree of challenge than he’s used to. I went in to speak with his teacher and we discussed a number of things. Naturally, we talked about the math content itself, but in thinking about how my son could be successful in the class, we talked about a lot more than academics. We talked about monitoring my son’s experience in the classroom to balance productive struggle with frustration. We talked about how to ensure my son doesn’t lose his love of math. And we talked about what kind of support he’s receiving.

Next year my son will be in a new school, with a new teacher, and with a lot of new experiences (plus new math content!). I worry about what his experience will be. Will he have a teacher willing to think about more than right and wrong answers? As a mother of a black boy, I don’t have the option of separating my concerns related to academic success from the reality that bias and stereotypes based on race and gender are always at play for my child. Will my son’s teachers next year be ready to own and challenge their bias? Or will his education be lessened because of fear of discussing things that are uncomfortable to us as educators?

When my son was in kindergarten, he participated in Ride Your Bike to School Day.  The school implemented a tag system for each bike so kids could easily find them later to go home.  As we waited in line,  a kindergarten staff member asked the girl in front of us for her name, teacher’s name, and a phone number.  As the child responded, the staff member wrote the information on the tag, and off the little girl went for the rest of her day at school.

When my son stepped forward in line, the staff member turned her gaze from him to me. Looking at me with a smile, she asked for his name.  I looked at my son and gestured for him to answer as the other little girl had just done before him. He answered and she wrote it down.  She then looked at me a second time to ask his teacher’s name.  I asked my son to answer the question and again, she recorded the information.  She looked at me for a third time and asked for a phone number.  Before I could respond, my daughter who was standing by and only 7 years old at the time asked, “Doesn’t she think he knows this information?”  “Apparently not,” I replied while never breaking her friendly gaze.  My son provided the information and off he went for the rest of his day at school.

Children experience education holistically, so it’s critically important that, as educators and educational leaders, we plan holistically. The first step in doing that is to name the components of the education experience and then recognize that, while naming them to yourself is a start, discussing them as a school or district community is even better.

Picture a student. Now envision their interactions with other students and adults; consider how the student feels before, during, and after school; outline what the student learns (academic content), and then acknowledge how students learn—these are all parts of the education experience. And there are others! To compartmentalize any of these doesn’t honor the experience and identities of students and ignores the bias that is present and real in all of us.

Some people may read the story of my son’s experience at Ride Your Bike to School Day and think, “That wasn’t a big deal,” or “She’s overreacting. The staff member didn’t mean anything by it.” I’ll be the first to admit that many students deal with more overt acts of bias on a daily basis, but I raised the memory to call attention to the subtle, daily, and deeply impactful moves we make as educators that shape how our students think about themselves in the education space.

That staff member at the bike rack wasn’t teaching my son math or reading, but she still signaled that she had higher expectations for my son’s classmate than she did for him, even if it was just about his ability to share his name and phone number. Later that day, sitting in math class beside his classmate, would my son remember that the staff member believed his classmate was more capable? Would he start to believe she actually was more capable?  It’s important that we take a critical look at how we interact with students throughout the day, so we can catch these unintentional moves that may form the foundation of achievement gaps for our students.

Are you feeling a little intimidated considering how you’ll integrate all these factors into your planning? That’s natural, and a sign that you understand both the importance and the challenge of this work. There is a lot to consider, and the muscles it takes to consider them haven’t been worked in a lot of us (myself included) for a long time—maybe our entire careers.

For a long time, ideas about holistic learning experiences were kept separate from discussions about academic content. Proponents of social emotional learning (SEL) were placed in one camp, and those focusing on academics in another. And they didn’t talk much.

Those of you who know the focus of my work at Student Achievement Partners know that I often talk about a “both and” when it comes to literacy instruction. The “both and” concept tries to help people reenvision how we think about learning to read in a way that doesn’t focus on trade-offs. You don’t have to choose between close reading complex text, building knowledge through high-volume reading, learning foundational skills, or building fluency. While yes, there are practical limits on our instructional time, we can’t afford to skimp on any component in literacy instuction—and they all mutually reinforce one another. You’re never building knowledge at the expense of building fluency.

The same is true for social emotional skills and academics. They both demand and deserve our attention, and focusing on one doesn’t detract from the other. Students can learn how to respond to frustration while working on challenging math. (Like my son is doing right now!) Teachers can elevate considerations about students’ lived experiences into planning a discussion around a complex text. The possibilities are endless.

Is the idea of endless possibilities making you feel initimidated again? Don’t worry; I have a resource that will help you get started. Integrating Social, Emotional and Academic Development: An Action Guide for School Leadership Teams is a resource I co-authored along with my colleague Astrid Fossum (you can read her blog post about the resource here) and a diverse group of education experts. The resource focuses on defining and making actionable the concept of social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD). SEAD names what is often taken for granted, considerations which are present in some schools and not in others. The Action Guide names explicitly what cannot be taken for granted for students facing barriers of racism or poverty, and provides practical, concrete actions school leaders can take to start planning powerful holistic instruction for all students.

As I reflect on my conversations with my son’s math teacher, I am grateful that she was willing to engage with me at all on topics beyond grade-level math. That’s a win that not all parents can count on. But I’ve also reflected on how much more productive our conversation could have been if we’d been working toward a shared articulation of our vision for his school experience socially, emotionally, and academically. The Action Guide can be that shared foundation for robust conversations about how we can serve students better. And those conversations should always include grade-level academic content. We must rewire our brains, however, and stop fearing a “take-over” of one set of considerations or another. We must deepen our understanding of how they actually work together.

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About the Author: Rachel Etienne is the Executive Vice President of Professional Learning at Student Achievement Partners. As an ELA/literacy specialist, Rachel created and curated online curriculum and professional learning resources and facilitated large-scale training and communities of practice for instructional leaders and teachers across the country. Prior to joining the team, Rachel had a range of experience in literacy education as an elementary classroom teacher and literacy coach in a large K-12 school district, parochial and charter school networks, and adult education programs. Rachel holds a bachelor's degree in Education from Eastern Michigan University.