Addressing the Whole Child

By Adrienne Diercks, Executive Director, Project SUCCESS 


In this column last October, I expressed the importance of listening to youth and empowering them with the tools, guidance and support to enable them to envision and create their own futures. At Project SUCCESS, we have always talked about this work as “serving the whole child over time.” Recently I have noticed the phrase “whole child” appearing in a variety of conversations about youth development, and I have been asked exactly what we mean when we use that term.

To me, serving the whole child means working to ensure that each child experiences academic success, yes, but also makes good choices, feels connected to their peers and to caring adults, and is physically, socially and emotionally healthy. Often the conversation around youth development and the achievement gap focuses too narrowly on specific data points, sometimes to the detriment of the whole child. And data points such as standardized test results, GPAs, attendance, graduation rates, and college enrollment are frequently described as desired outcomes. Rather, these data are important markers on the road to the true outcome we all desire – engaged, connected, healthy young people with a plan for the future and the skills, opportunities and confidence to get there.

We know academic preparation is critical for future success for all students. Yet years of narrowly targeted interventions, high-stakes testing, and numbers-based teacher evaluations have not moved the needle on the significant academic and skills gaps many of our students face. We need to broaden our perspective to look at the whole child and provide what kids really need to succeed. We need to put data in context and use it to help us understand where we as a community need to focus in order to ensure all students are given the opportunity to succeed. For example, research clearly demonstrates that skills such as grit, perseverance, self-reflection, academic mindsets, goal-setting and planning are as important as academic skills, if not more so, to readiness for the future and success in school and the workplace. Significant investment is needed to help students develop these critical skills and behaviors.

We also know that arts access and education can reduce achievement gaps. Low-income students with high levels of arts involvement (“high-arts students”) are nearly six times more likely than their “low-arts” peers to graduate from high school. They are two and a half times more likely to obtain a two-year college degree and three times as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree. Arts access is also associated with increased civic engagement. Lamentably, access to arts experiences for low-income students has declined nationally by 20 percent over the past decade, meaning the students most likely to benefit from an arts-rich educational experience are less likely to get it. At Project SUCCESS, we’ve seen the impact of the arts firsthand over 20 years – when kids and families attend live theater, they see themselves in the stories, and they get to visit worlds they may never have seen. The Twin Cities is fortunate to have incredible theaters, from the Guthrie to Penumbra to Mu Performing Arts and dozens more, who are deeply committed to sharing the arts with new, young and diverse audiences and to strongly partnering with us to expand that impact.

Ultimately, it is up to each young person to define and find their own success. We, as a supportive community, must ensure equitable access to the opportunities available, eliminate disparities, and provide tools and skills to ensure all students can discover, explore and take advantage of those opportunities. We have high expectations for young people. We need to show them that we think they matter and believe they can succeed. By doing these things, we widen the lens with which they view the world and help them to see themselves in it. We nurture and empower the whole child.

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SIF 2015