The Whole Child

What Does it Mean to Educate the Whole Child?

What are the needs of my child? I can sum them up in William Glasser’s 5 words: survival, love, power, freedom, and fun. Here’s the tricky part though; each individual not only needs different amounts of these things but different ideas, people, and places actually meet each need. Reading nonfiction articles and books about education meets my need for fun, but not all nonfiction meets that need. We need to be asking questions when an organization claims to meet the needs of the whole child. We need to understand what they think those needs are and how they go about meeting them.

William Glasser’s Ideas Confirmed by Research

I reference William Glasser a lot in my conversations and my writing because I think his ideas are profound and neuroscience literature seems to be confirming what he suspected 20 years ago. When I talk about needs, I mean just that. Each individual does not have a desire for freedom, but a biological need for it. Not a desire for love, power, and fun…their body needs these things. If you’re skeptical of that then I encourage you to read Glasser’s Choice Theory. Or, keep reading and maybe my perspective will help.

Neurologists are finding that the body is more connected than they thought possible. There is evidence to support the theory that some of our brain activity actually resides in our lymph nodes. But, and my understanding is extremely rudimentary, the signals in our brain are simply electrical signals. Everything in our body is run by electricity; how do we tell the difference between brain electricity and non-brain electricity? Is inflammation kept there by the brain? Where do headaches come from? What are autoimmune diseases? Glasser saw the brain as a sort of thermostat for your body. It takes in information about the environment the body is living in and makes adjustments based on instructions found in the DNA. What Glasser implied is that our need for love, power, freedom, and fun are written in our DNA as well. So, when the body perceives less power than the instructions call for, it attempts to adjust the environment to meet its needs. The brain generates a behavior in order to meet this need. Maybe the easiest way to understand it is by relating it to a newborn. The brain senses that the body is going to need more energy soon. It generates crying or discomfort, I’m not sure which, and the baby cries until this need is somehow satisfied.

Many Classrooms Fall Short of Meeting Students’ Needs

Let us try and grow this up a bit since this is about education. A child walks into her 3rd-grade classroom and tosses her bag near the cubbies and walks toward her seat. Her teacher stops what he is doing, raises his voice, and says, “I think you better put that in the correct place young lady.” This girl has a high need for love. The brain senses that not enough love is coming from this person and generates a behavior in order to attempt to fix the environment. The girl rolls her eyes, fixes the backpack, and plops in her chair. Now, just imagine if the teacher, the presumably more mature and developed person comes to her side, lowers himself to a knee, and says, “I’m sorry that I snapped at you. I appreciate you fixing the backpack and putting it where it goes. I have no right to talk to you that way and I will try to make sure I maintain a friendly tone when I talk to you.” What behavior do you think the girl’s brain might generate? Depending on the history of the relationship, she may crack a smile and say, “It’s okay.”

If the needs of children are such then what practices impede our attempts to meet them? Are there any needs that children have that are in direct opposition to what adults want for them? Let’s take mandatory homework for example. I’ll plug it into a fancy chart.

A Case Against Mandatory Reading

Now, there are many teachers who recognize the shortfalls of homework and try make accommodations. And, some students who have a lower than average need for freedom and belonging might like homework. But students with a high need for freedom and belonging will dread it. A student with a high need for power who is not good at the homework will dread it as well. Just like the examples above, their brains will generate behaviors to attempt to change their environment; some will become anxious, angry, callous, etc. Let’s try another one! How about Shakespeare!

You may argue that Shakespeare and homework do meet some of these needs but, the teenage brain is not interested in what you think its needs are. It has its directions and it generates those behaviors based solely on the directions it has. You may be wondering how we can change a teenager’s behavior. It does happen. Teenagers do learn to prioritize some of the things that adults want them to do. The only way it can happen is by getting the person, place, thing, or idea into what Glasser referred to as the Quality World. The quality world is a metaphor for explaining how the brain determines if what’s coming in meets a need or not. It’s made up of pictures of the people, places, things, and ideas that we desire in life. A student who sees himself as an intellectual who enjoys a good challenge will likely find Shakespeare to be need-satisfying. A student who sees herself as attractive and hip, probably not. The same information from the teacher is coming into both students, “Shakespeare will help you understand deeper truths about culture and love! It may take hours to work through it but you’ll feel pride in completing and understanding it!” See what I mean? This is why many schools use grades. Grades bypass the work and tie motivation directly to the students’ relationships with their teachers, parents, and future jobs. The school looks to the students and says, “Surely you don’t want to disappoint xyz!” As the saying goes, “Hold my beer.”

Video Games Help Me Meet My Needs

Let’s look at something that can be very need satisfying for some students: Video games.

If this table is correct it would explain why video games can become so addictive. They are actually designed very well to meet the most basic needs of our children. If teachers want students to engage in discussion, assignments and learning the way they engage in video games, you’ve got to meet these five basic needs. That doesn’t mean turning your classroom into a game zone. Here’s one more table that might help.

Here’s How You Get Started Educating the Whole Child

What do you see when you walk into your child’s school? Do you observe children who are loved, empowered, joyful, and free? If you don’t, then what structures do you currently have in place that might be creating these behaviors. We’re talking about school culture here. If you’d like to discuss your school’s culture more, I’d love for you to comment or reach out and contact me. If you disagree and want to argue, I’m good with that too. If I’m wrong I’d like to know. I hope you have some good evidence for me!

Or, you could do what we’re doing and let students and children decide how to educate themselves! That’s how Self Directed Academy was born!

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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