Applying the whole-child approach in early years education

Applying the whole-child approach in early years education

The early years of a child’s schooling can have a huge impact on their success in later years. If we want to help children develop into competent, well-rounded citizens who are prepared for whatever the future may hold, we need to get their education off...

Woman reading a book to early years children

The early years of a child’s schooling can have a huge impact on their success in later years. If we want to help children develop into competent, well-rounded citizens who are prepared for whatever the future may hold, we need to get their education off to the best start.

To do this, we should recognise that the child is an individual with a distinct set of desires and needs but is also part of a community. We need an approach which builds the foundations for learning and nurtures a child’s innate desire to learn and explore the world around them.

The whole-child approach, developed by ASCD, focuses on the long-term development of a child, in contrast to the high-stakes short-term testing in place in many education systems which strive for academic excellence.

What is the whole-child approach?

For decades, most education systems around the world have been based solely around academic achievement. Students are assessed on their academic progress in different subject areas and this is measured using standardised criteria.

However, a child’s academic progress is strongly linked to their overall well-being and personal and social skills, among others. The whole-child approach lays the foundations for lifelong learning and encompasses all areas of a child’s learning, including language and literacy, maths, science, social and emotional competence and cognitive skills.

The whole-child is a holistic approach which views children as individuals with the potential to develop into lifelong learners and socially-responsible members of society.

The five tenets of a whole-child approach

The whole-child approach is based around five tenets or principles, which are based around Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

These principles assert that in order to learn, children must be:

Healthy: Students have a healthy lifestyle and are aware of how to maintain it.

Safe: The learning environment is a physically and emotionally safe place for students.

Engaged: Students are engaged and play an active role in their learning and the school community.

Supported: Each student has personalised support to help them realise their full potential.

Challenged: Students are prepared for the next stage in their educational development and are able to participate in society as a whole..

Why follow a whole-child approach?

There is a growing body of research which suggests that a child’s long-term development and success is directly related to the education they receive in the first five years of their lives.

A whole-child approach leads to engaged and active learners who will become successful adults in both their academic and personal lives.


In a whole-child learning environment, students develop a wide range of skills they will need in the future, including problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, autonomy and social and emotional skills. Children educated with this approach will learn how to set and work towards goals and develop a growth mindset. They also develop a sense of connection to the world around them and an awareness of how they can make a positive impact.

It is these ‘soft’ skills which will help children be future-ready, rather than simply acquiring knowledge and passing exams.

That is not to say we should forget about academic objectives completely. Children in Early Years education still need to work on the basic skills that will allow them to be ready for primary school. But a whole-child approach is based on the belief that it is the social and emotional development of a child that will enable them to thrive academically.

Once their physical and emotional needs are met, children are ready to learn.

Three ways to introduce a whole-child approach in your classroom

1. Build and nurture relationships

Personal relationships play an essential part in a child’s well-being. Helping students develop social and emotional skills can have a positive effect on interpersonal relationships between learners and in developing a classroom community.

As well as contributing to students’ mental health and emotional safety, a positive, supportive learning environment enables students to take risks and experiment with their learning. This allows them to follow their curiosity, be creative and learn through exploration and discovery.

2. Foster curiosity and provide opportunities for hands-on learning

Engagement is one of the key tenets of the whole-child approach. But how can we make sure students are really engaged in their learning?

First, we need to spark their curiosity and provide them with a desire to learn. Children are naturally curious and eager to discover, so this isn’t hard to achieve if we choose suitable topics for inquiry. Use your curriculum to identify topic areas that will interest students and design questions to prompt them in their learning. Hands-on approaches such as project-based learning allow students to take an active role and apply what they are learning, using problem-solving and creative thinking skills.

A whole-child approach could also become a whole-school approach. Consider setting up cross-curricular projects that encourage students to make connections between school subjects and their everyday lives.

3. Promote learner autonomy and collaboration

Children love to be given responsibility and we can allow them to learn and discover independently if we provide them with the right tools and support. The children in any given classroom will have a diverse range of interests, skills and needs, so it makes sense to give them opportunities to learn in a way that works for them.

One of the benefits of independent learning is that it helps children develop grit and persistence. We need to encourage them to keep trying until they get something right, and this is best achieved by creating an environment where failure is treated as an opportunity to try a new approach. Including self-reflection and assessment activities will help each student set and work towards appropriate goals.

To ensure that students are adequately supported and challenged, try to have a balance of independent and collaborative work and teacher-guided instruction. Co-operative group work requires important social skills that all children need to develop.

Learn more

Read more about the importance of early childhood education. If you’re looking for other approaches for the early years classroom, read this article on play-based learning.

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