Think Whole Child Development Not Just Academics For Special Education Kids

whole child development for special needs kids

What means more to you from your student or child: an A+ on a test or a child who can show empathy and creativity when needed?

Academics aren’t the all-end, be-all of childhood education. Soft skills or non-cognitive skills that include building abilities, such as independent living and creativity, are part of whole child development. In an educational climate that stresses standardized tests and routine learning, developing the child as a whole person is often passed-over in favor of test scores and percentile marks.

What does whole child development mean and why is it important? Not only does it benefit your child’s or student’s ability to learn, but it also empowers children as they grow into contributing members of our society.

So what can we do to empower our kids with “whole person” attributes?

Developing the Person as a Whole

Your child or student isn’t just a reader, math whiz or science enthusiast. Along with the academic aspects of your child’s education, a whole development approach calls for building social and emotional intelligence (SEL), problem solving skills and other non-academic skills. This type of all-encompassing idea fits every child, including special education kids and those on the Autism spectrum.

All children, including students who have special needs, can benefit from feeling in control of their learning process. In doing so, a child explores different creative abilities, critical-thinking skills and nonacademic areas that allow them to develop as a person, and not just as a test taker.

In doing so, a child explores different creative abilities, critical-thinking skills and nonacademic areas that allow them to develop as a person, and not just as a test taker.

What are the best ways to promote whole child development?

Allowing the child to express his or her self in creative ways contributes to whole child development. Additionally, deep discussion before, during or after a learning task provides children with opportunities to control the educational process and think about more than just the ‘right answer’. This doesn’t have to be super-serious all of the time. Using play and an exploration-based discovery allows children to experiment, come up with their own answers, build self-confidence/self-worth and take control.

A Community of Learners

Children don’t learn in isolation. Whole child development includes building social and emotional intelligence, meaning that children need a caring community around them as they grow. While it would seem that the traditional classroom is always a learning community, educators and parents can go a step beyond to ensure that social interactions are used to build and fortify cognitive growth. Schools that are most effective in doing this, usually take students on field trips to museums, art galleries, local parks and zoos. This allows members of the community to play active roles in their student’s experiences.

Likewise, collaboration contributes significantly to each learner’s development and the growth of the educational community as a whole. When educators use project-based techniques (including those based in technology or online platforms), students flourish. They have the opportunity to work together, support one another and create meaningful relationships in a safe, supportive environment. This same concept applies for special needs students. Thus, we strongly encourage special education teachers to use project-based techniques.

Society’s View

Accepting childhood learning as more than taking tests, building math and reading skills or getting a letter grade must also occur on a societal level. An overall societal support of ‘whole development’ means making the difference between churning out high-scorers and supporting contributing members of society.

Using a whole child approach requires educational leaders to use and promote techniques that develop soft skills, problem solving, creativity and social and emotional intelligence. This happens by encouraging children to explore, allowing creative self-expression and by maintaining a positive attitude towards appropriate educational risk-taking (academic risk-taking and not risky behaviors).

Educators and parents, including those who have children or students with special needs, can support lifelong society learning environments by:

• Modeling creative behavior

• Remaining open to new ideas & seeing things from the perspective of a child

• Having positive attitudes toward experimentation, risk- taking, & curiosity

• Providing opportunities for children to express themselves

Instead of favoring what the child should do, educators and parents alike can nurture unique abilities and allow children to develop as people and not just students.

Source: Edutopia, “Whole Child Development Is Undervalued”

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At James Stanfield, We Think You Should Know:

An important aspect of whole child development is directly related to emotional intelligence and social skills. Our series, Mind Your Manners, is a great social and life skills training resource for special education students. Your students will learn about kind behaviors and the right kinds of manners they should utilize in different settings such as in school, in the community, with classmates, and when conversing with others. In addition to learning specific “rules of the road” for interacting appropriately and politely with others, your students will also see that the essence of good manners is based on concern and thoughtfulness of others.

Here are a couple of our blog posts that stress the importance of SEL:

Why Emotional Intelligence Is As Important As Counting To 10

SEL: How Social & Emotional Learning Helps Special Needs Students


The Stanfield Way

The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.

Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.

Stanfield Special Education Curriculum

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