As the country continues its efforts to bring the pandemic under control, the well-being and education of children and youth have been areas of focus for policymakers. While COVID-19 has revealed many struggles, it has also led to opportunities to redefine these aspects for students. Conversations around social and emotional learning (SEL), the role of school-community partnerships, such as afterschool and summer learning programs, student mental health, and the overall public education response to the pandemic have increasingly become vital in planning for recovery and beyond.
Earlier this year, NCSL established the Whole Child Policy Advisory Group to guide the organization in its efforts to support legislators and staff as they formulate education policies that foster safe, healthy learning environments where all students can thrive and achieve academic success. The whole child approach encompasses all areas of student learning and development. The policy, research and practices studied and discussed by the group will include school climate, student mental health, SEL, workforce skill-building, afterschool programs, community schools and adult capacity building.
The advisory group consists of eight legislators and six legislative staff members from 12 states. Those states include Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Vermont. The legislators are members of health and welfare, children and youth, and various education committees.
Prior to the group’s first meeting, two of its members participated in NCSL’s December Virtual Youth Forum, during which three student leaders shared their experiences through the pandemic and offered advice to policymakers moving forward. Following the students’ remarks, two legislators were able to respond and acknowledge their experiences. A recording of this virtual meeting and a follow-up blog post can be found here.
The group has met five times this year. In the first session, members discussed the areas of whole child education they are most interested in, the policy areas they see as a priority in their states, and what they hope to gain from participation. The session highlighted social and emotional supports that can help students catch up and keep up, deeper dives into community school education models, trauma-informed professional development and supports, and ways to allocate funding.
The University of South Carolina’s Barnett Berry, founding director of Accelerating Learning and Leadership for South Carolina (ALL4SC), joined the group’s second session. Berry shared a summary of his state’s piloting of a whole child policy analysis, which is currently underway and will be shared more widely in the fall. While looking at one state’s example of documenting policy opportunities and gaps, members reflected on the landscape of whole child education in their own states.
At another session, Jennifer DePaoli, a senior researcher from the Learning Policy Institute, gave an overview of elements of whole child education, shared the institute’s resources, and offered some state examples from different policy areas. The session provided the group with a grounding in whole child education and what that can look like transformed into policy.
Recently, the advisory group members attended the NCSL webinar Children’s Mental Health and Learning: Assessing COVID-19 Impacts and Looking Ahead. Experts provided an overview of how the pandemic may have affected children, highlighted the role that communities and schools can play to support recovery, and discussed state legislative trends. Following the overview, group members had the chance to share their takeaways from the virtual meeting and discuss the approaches their states have taken or may be considering.
The Whole Child Policy Advisory group meets monthly and will conclude in late 2021.
Autumn Rivera is a policy analyst with NCSL’s Education Program.