The Whole Child Approach: A Chat with ASCD’s Sean Slade

December 23, 2020
Student writing on a white board

Sean Slade is an education leader, speaker, author and policy maker with over 25 years of experience, spanning five countries and four continents. Currently, he serves as the senior director of global outreach at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), focusing on promoting and expanding the whole child approach across the United States and globally.


We recently spoke with Sean about the ASCD whole child initiative to move from a focus of academic achievement to one that promotes the long-term development and success of all children.


What is the whole child?

The whole child approach means that we are preparing our students for life beyond school. We are preparing them to enter society—socially, emotionally, mentally, physically, civically, and cognitively—ready for the future.

The tenants of the whole child were based on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, or five things that every person needs, not only to survive, but to thrive. When ASCD created their whole child approach, they strategically included healthy on the bottom of that pyramid, followed by safe, followed by engaged, supported and challenged.


How is the pandemic impacting the whole child?

Clearly this past year has been challenging, and underserved students who were struggling prior to the pandemic are doing even worse. Whether it's access to the health services, community services, or their peers and social networks, the pandemic has revealed that these gaps in societies are actually chasms.

This has opened up the eyes of policymakers and educational leaders to the need for us to focus on the well-being, safety and security of our students and teachers.

Sean believes that until we get that right, it will be very difficult for us to focus on our student’ cognitive and academic needs. The good news is that as a result of this challenge, we are all reassessing education, and there has been a general community and societal appreciation that well-being is central to everything that we do.


How do we support our students?

Sean shares a few ways that districts can successfully implement the whole child approach with their students:

1) Make time in your schedule to allow students to talk about how they're feeling, or even just to connect on a social level with their peers. Most schools began doing this after the pandemic to make sure they were focusing on safety and connectedness. Sean thinks this needs to continue, even as we get back to what is close to normal schooling because it's good pedagogy.

2) Allow students more agency in what they're learning, how they're learning it, and how they're actually providing examples that they have learned. If students have more agency and ownership with project-based learning, they will feel more connected and engaged.

3) Understand that learning does not take place only inside the classroom between nine and three. It should be taking place inside a learning ecosystem, within the home, the community, and using online curriculum – anywhere students can access information.


Finding Our Purpose Amidst Disruption

According to Sean, COVID-19 is the disruptive change that we've been waiting for, not from the tragedy of the situation, but from the opportunity it presents us to significantly leapfrog what we've been doing in the classroom. And he encourages educators to ask themselves why they became educators in the first place.

If it’s to support students in reaching their potential or to change their lot in life or to help society, think about what that means in a school or a classroom setting. Then think about how you are actually living that vision every day. He believes if we regularly ask ourselves these questions, we will all be better educators, supporters and leaders for our children moving forward.


Interested in hearing more?

Listen to the full episode of this Opportunity Thrives podcast, or others on this topic at

We regularly share conversations with thought leaders on what’s working in our schools today, what’s not and how we can impact positive, lasting change. Have ideas on topics you would like to hear or read about? Let us know at

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