George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Embracing the Whole Child

Fully engaging students can include using their interests in lessons, checking in on them emotionally, and being ourselves.


We teachers sometimes get caught up in academic objectives and assessments due to things like pacing plan mandates and state and district testing prep. We then set aside or minimize important humanistic practices in our classrooms. According to education researcher Maria del Carmen Salazar, an overuse of such things as scripted and mandated instructional curricula can hinder educators and students from developing meaningful relationships.

And that rigid, standardized approach to teaching contradicts so much of what we know from whole-child education research. It can sabotage the humanness of all those beings growing and exploring daily together in one room.

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Four Suggestions

In embracing a more whole-child, humanizing approach to teaching and learning, Salazar proposes specific ways educators can express care and engage students in a more humanizing pedagogy. Among her suggestions, I’d like to explore the following four, offering suggestions for each, as I have found them particularly useful to establishing a harmonious community of learners in the classroom.

1. Listen to students’ interests and concerns: How many of us stop a lesson or an interaction with a student or student group to check in on how they are connecting and relating to material? Are we developing enough learning experiences that center on their interests and concerns? Are we putting students before the curriculum, meaning that we frequently ask probing questions to find entry points to connect what is being taught with their lives?

Here are a few helpful activities to help you learn more about your students and to spotlight their lives:

2. Know students on a personal level and attempt to understand their home experiences: This can begin with giving them a questionnaire about their lives, adjusting the questions according to their age, at the beginning of the year (or any time of year, if you haven’t yet). You want to make your students as multidimensional to you as can be.

New teachers especially feel overwhelmed by this task, but it pays off. Once you gain information about each individual in the room, you can ask things like, “How is your grandma? Is she home from her hip surgery?” or, "How was the camping trip?" An important note: If you have a student living in foster care, you want to know this. We have to be mindful about avoiding saying “your parents” when addressing the whole class and instead use phrases like “the adults you live with” or “your parents or guardians.”

If there’s a child you’re worried about and you know something feels a bit off, inquire with the child in gentle ways, talk to the school counselor, or take a look at the student’s file in the office. I’ve learned vital information about students from doing this: A boy struggling to fit in had been recently diagnosed with schizophrenia, several children with eyeglass prescriptions weren’t in possession of glasses, and one girl was homeless and living with her family in their car.

Strive to routinely have five- or 10-minute conversations and check-ins at lunch or before or after school with the children you’re particularly concerned about. You can gain a deeper understanding of what is happing for them outside of school during those short talks.

You then have an opportunity to be empathetic, acknowledge their hardship, and set some goals together for them to improve academically. You can also refer them for further counseling services or advocate for additional support for them.

3. Model kindness, patience, and respect: The way we speak and the words we choose work to humanize the classroom space. How do we speak with students? Is it a way that we speak to other humans in our lives? Is the tone gentle and inviting when inquiring with a child about her progress? Are we mindful to only use selectively an authoritarian tone? And do we wait long enough, giving a child ample time to contemplate a question before he responds?

We have bad days, but we know as teachers that we have to bring our best selves every day. Sarcasm doesn’t work well with kids. It can be difficult in challenging moments to take a breath and make sure we’re speaking to the children we’re in charge of in a calm tone. Directives are necessary at times, and we must discipline, but we can still be fair, kind, and respectful while doing this. We’ve got to keep everyone’s dignity intact in the room, including our own. We want everyone child, no matter how challenging they may be, to feel welcomed, seen, necessary, and wanted.

4. Tend to students’ overall well-being and their emotional and social selves: Start the day with a one-word check in, where each child in the room gets to share how they’re feeling. Here’s a list of feeling words to put up on the wall or project on the screen. (You share yours, too!) This starts the day by acknowledging that you are all people first, learners next.

During a lesson or task, if energy levels in the room dip low, invite students to put down their pens and do a quick stand and stretch.

Before disciplining a student or having an after-class one-on-one with a challenging student, pause and say, “How are you? Is there anything I can help with?” Kids have bad days too, and we want be responsive to this rather than reactive.

Socializing with others can be uplifting and add to our well-being, so go big and take students outside on occasion to sit in circles on the grass and discuss a question, quote, or prompt. We know that learning is a social act (thank you, Lev Vygotsky), so turn-and-talks should be a routine in all of our classrooms. With a partner or two, kids can do things like share a prediction about a story they’re reading or reflect on what was hardest part of the science projects they just completed.

It Begins With Us

Show yourself and be yourself. (You are human, too!) Our kids are much more open to sharing who they are when we take the lead. Be vulnerable when the opportunity permits, sharing a bit about yourself by bringing in an artifact from your life or telling a story about a time you struggled as a child.

Showing our humanness is key to developing those relationships with our students. And relationships matter. They are foundational to learning.