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How Can Schools Meet the Developmental Needs of Children?

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Guest post by Zac Chase

Of the many poignant moments in Chapter 4 of A Year at Mission Hill, my favorite is of teacher Jada Brown sitting and rocking a student (1:50). The image, as well as the rest of this episode, helps to draw focus to the physical and socio-emotional needs of students in all schools. Sadly, these are the needs most often lost in the current conversation of how we can build the sorts of schools our students most sorely need.

As Mission Hill's teachers repeatedly point out (and as any teacher who works with children knows), students who step into our classrooms do not come into existence the moment they cross the threshold into the school building. They bring with them all of their experiences, all of their memories, and all of their needs as developed over the course of their lives up to that point.

And, they are children. While the majority of adults can filter these things as they move through their days socially and professionally, students often do not have such filters in place; they are at various stages of developing the tools needed to manage their interactions with others and intrapersonally.

While full-inclusion schools such as Mission Hill are also working with students with more pronounced needs around the management of their emotions and the filtering of stimuli, it's worth noting that this work is important for all children.

Learning is better when we attend to the needs of the whole child.

Such is the reasoning behind ASCD's Whole Child Initiative. Launched in 2007, the Initiative is designed to widen the narrowing thinking about what it means to educate children and prepare them for their futures based on the following tenets:

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

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

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

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

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

Recognizing that sending these tenets out into the world alone would only help a certain segment of the teaching population, ASCD and its partner organizations have compiled research and action plans to help teachers and school communities begin the process of setting their unique courses to better supporting the children in their care. These are the types of conversations we see embedded throughout the practice of the teachers at Mission Hill.

Returning to the image of Jada Brown comforting her student in the rocking chair, it is important to look more deeply at what is happening in the scene. Yes, there is socialized comfort at play. Brown is offering a safe mental and emotional space for the student and likely offering helpful verbal de-stressors.

Another key component often overlooked or never considered in most schools and classrooms is the balancing of the student's sensory diet Brown is offering through her positive touch and the rhythmic rocking of the chair. In short, she is helping to balance the chemistry of the student's brain toward the goal of greater control of behavioral outputs. It's the kind of work occupational therapists like the late Bonnie Hanschu do every day: considering how students' tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems can be brought into greater harmony. Sadly, it's also the kind of work many teachers never hear about in their pre-service or professional development work.

For more information on occupational therapy, try these resources compiled by the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Seeing the students in our care as their whole selves and building our understanding of how strong physical, sensory, and socioemotional supports work together to build clear pathways to academic success is work worth doing. More than that, it is work that must be done.

Zac Chase is an education consultant and doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes regularly at autodizactic.com.

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