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Cultivating Healthy Learning Environments Through ‘Whole Child’ Education

Recent state legislation aims to foster safe, positive school climates where all students can thrive and achieve academic success.

By Autumn Rivera  |  May 24, 2023

The “whole child” approach to education uses policies that foster safe, healthy learning environments where all students can thrive and achieve academic success.

Encompassing all areas of student development and learning, the whole child approach includes school climate, student mental health, social-emotional learning, workforce skill-building, out-of-school learning opportunities and adult capacity building.

Building Social-Emotional Skills

Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is designed to support student well-being and academic performance in five key areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. With the use of SEL tools, whole child education offers ways of approaching education to support students’ unique learning and development.

In Delaware, a resolution encourages the General Assembly to prioritize funding for social-emotional learning in schools. It also encourages collaborative among the state education department and other stakeholders to promote the use of SEL in school districts and charter schools and identify additional opportunities where the integration of SEL and academic instruction could be beneficial.

Supporting a Positive School Climate

Successful school climates often use relationship-centered learning to create space for academic achievement and student growth. Because research has shown students who do not feel safe or engaged struggle to learn, policymakers have enacted multifaceted legislation to create school climates where high-quality learning and effective teaching can take place. A positive school climate has been associated with improved academic performance, in addition to overall positive health and well-being.

Alternatives to exclusionary school discipline policies are one way that schools have sought to transform school climate. Traditional disciplinary measures typically focus on deterrence by establishing expectations for student behavior early on and punishing those who misbehave. An alternative approach uses restorative justice practices, which aim to repair the harm caused by a student’s behavior through conversation and reparation with the affected parties, rather than through traditional disciplinary measures or referral to the criminal justice system.

California enacted legislation in 2022 requiring its department of education to develop best practices for school districts to improve campus culture and climate through restorative justice practices. The department has until June 1, 2024, to develop evidence-based best practices and make them available on the department’s website for use by the local education agencies.

Colorado’s Supportive Learning Environment for K-12 Students, enacted in 2022, updates the state’s policies, practices and data frameworks to better measure and support positive school climates. It requires the state education department to gather data and create accessible, annually updated reports with consistent data concerning chronic absenteeism, suspensions, expulsions and the number of students handcuffed or restrained, among other indicators of school climate. The act also requires department to make its findings easily accessible on its website, while ensuring all student-level data is kept confidential.

Investing in Adult Capacity and Expertise

To create safe learning environments to support the whole child, policymakers have considered investing in adult capacity—that is, building strong teacher preparation programs, providing high-quality mentoring and professional development and supporting staff well-being.

Educator preparation systems grounded in whole child learning and development can help to build strong relationships and supportive learning environments. States have approached this in various ways, including by providing professional development around trauma-informed instruction, mental health and other related topics. 

Rhode Island’s Trauma Informed Schools Act, for example, directs the state education commissioner to establish trauma-informed practices in all elementary, middle and high schools. The bill also creates a Trauma Informed Schools Act Commission to assist the education department with the implementation of the act and with ongoing review of trauma-informed initiatives in schools across the state. Additionally, the law promotes a shared understanding among school staff that traumatic experiences are common among students, can impact a student’s learning, behavior and relationships in school, and that traumatic experiences do not inherently undermine the capabilities of students to succeed in school and life.

In Washington, enacted legislation used a formula concerning physical, social and emotional support staff in schools to increases the minimum allocations for nurses, social workers, psychologists and counselors in school funding models over three school years. The measure also designates certain staff positions as physical, social and emotional support, or PSES, staff and provides funding based on ratios of these staffers. This also requires the office of the superintendent of public instruction to report on implementation to the Legislature.

Addressing Student Mental Health

Research has shown that student health and academic achievement are closely linked and that fostering well-being in school can benefit all students. For that reason, policymakers continue to enact legislation addressing mental health and wellness curricula, suicide prevention programs and services, mental health-related absenteeism, work groups, pilot programs and commissions, professional development, and staffing ratios for mental health professionals in schools. NCSL covered many of these trends in this State Legislatures News article.

Looking at 2023 Legislative Sessions

New Jersey has pending legislation that would establish a one-year pilot program in its department of education to address school climate issues such as harassment, intimidation and bullying. The program will collect data from anonymous voluntary student surveys, and all completed surveys will be used in preparing the commissioner’s report.

Pending legislation in New Mexico would create pilot public school wellness rooms. Participating schools would give students access to wellness rooms when they needed a calming environment. The legislation states that students were to use these rooms to self-regulate their emotional, mental and behavioral stress. The project aimed to prove that access to these rooms could have a positive effect on student resiliency, student outcomes and student behavioral health.

Washington has pending legislation that would promote and facilitate the use of professional learning communities. The bill would create regular, dedicated times for educators to meet during the school week to benefit from professional learning opportunities and create an environment of continuous improvement for their students and themselves. The legislation recognizes the positive impact that effective professional development has on student learning.

North Dakota legislation requires each school district to provide a minimum of eight hours of professional development in youth behavioral health to elementary, middle and high school teachers and administrators every two years. Topic areas for instruction may include trauma, social and emotional learning, suicide prevention and bullying.

Autumn Rivera is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.

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