Differentiating For The Whole Child

Posted by Laura Ferrell
Nov. 23rd 2015 at 9:25 AM
Categories: ILASCD, Whole Child

Let’s play a game of word association.

When you hear the word differentiation, what do you immediately think of? With the help of social media, (thanks, PLN!) here are a few responses:

  • diversity
  • tiered
  • complexity
  • purposeful
  • flexible

All of these answers are spot on connections to what role differentiation can play in the academic success of your students. Let’s expand our perspective to apply these responses to include both the physical and emotional health of your students.

The ASCD Whole Child approach seeks to do just that. In 2007, ASCD recognized the need for shifting the conversation away from only the academic health of students to a more comprehensive approach. A strong body of recent research continues to support this idea.

So, how does a teacher go about differentiating for the whole child? Reflect upon your own classroom practice and consider the possibilities below.

Tenet 1: Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.

Reflection: “Do my students know what it means to be “healthy”?

  • Assess your student’s understanding of personal health. Start a conversation during a morning meeting or an advisory period and use this quick quiz.
  • School parties are almost synonymous with cupcakes (which, frankly isn’t always a bad thing). Reinforce your school’s wellness policy and use the celebration as an opportunity to showcase healthier alternatives. Seek to engage the community and district in reviewing food service policies. What is the nutritional value of the foods students are eating?

Tenet 2: Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.

Reflection: “Do all my students have a voice in my classroom? How can I provide one for those in need?”

  • Make it simple for a student to privately seek help. A comment box or online form can help initiate conversation.
  • How effective are your students at listening and problem solving? How are conflicts resolved in your classroom? Like academic subjects, these skills are worthy of practice. Consider embedding current lessons with reminders of what good listening and problem solving look like. Here is an example.

Tenet 3: Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.

Reflection: ”Am I providing glimpses of “real life” to my students? Is the creating and checking of long- and short-term goals part of our procedures?”

  • Never underestimate the power of a big yellow bus. As a middle school administrator, I began traveling to local colleges with a small group of at-risk teens who our school community believed would benefit from a brief glance into the future. The conversations were invaluable, and I witnessed behavioral growth in each participant. Reach out to the community relations liaison at local schools of higher education.
  • Incorporate service learning into practice. Use Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote as a writing prompt, and explore ways in which your classroom can give back to the community.

Tenet 4: Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.

Reflection: “How can I improve my skill set to better attend to the social and emotional needs of my students?”

  • Take some “me” time. Lead by example and own your learning. Personalize your PD to address your learning, and talk about it with your students during lunch, at a basketball game, or via social media.
  • Know your resources and outsource. Look for connections in your school of people who could mentor, talk to, and otherwise support your students. Willing office staff, janitors, and lunch moms are a great way to draw the school community together to support students in an unexpected way.

Tenet 5: Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.

Reflection: “Is each child in my classroom truly challenged? Am I responsive to the opportunities for growth I see in formative assessments?”

  • Which students in your classroom could benefit from an extracurricular activity? Clubs and sports provide students the chance to build social skills and connect their learning from the classroom to a different environment.
  • We live in a data-driven culture, but do our students know what the all the numbers mean? A simple numeric notation on a student’s goal sheet can help establish an objective and make meaning of the assessment criteria.

Caught up in the day-to-day of school, it’s easy to forget that we educate people. Implementing even one or two of the above strategies could make for a more holistic, student-driven environment. For a PDF of all five ASCD Whole Child tenants, click here.


Laura Ferrell works as an assistant principal at Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School, in Oak Lawn, Ill. She is an active member of her local ASCD chapter, IL ASCD, and is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2014. She has previously served in multiple teaching roles and as an instructional technology coach. Follow Ferrell on Twitter @LFedtech.