The Whole Child

Children are full humans with physical, emotional, and academic needs. These are usually referred to as the needs of the whole child. Educators use this phrase to imply that there are things they do to the children to meet all of their needs. This implication is incomplete because it does not account for a child’s need for the child’s need for power and freedom.

The children who grace the halls of our institutions have five basic needs:

  • They must survive.
  • They must feel like they belong with others, not necessarily everyone.
  • They must feel powerful or capable to interact with their world.
  • They must satisfy their curiosity.
  • They must be free to pursue happiness.

You may not recognize these needs if you’re an educator. Abraham Maslow created the framework that most modern educators organize student motivation with. But his list is slightly different than this. The five needs here come from the work of Dr. William Glasser, a highly effective counselor, and psychiatrist, in his 1998 book Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom.

Total Behavior is a useful Glasserian concept for understanding why the whole child is so important.

A child’s total behavior is a combination of their thoughts, actions, feelings, and physiology. These behaviors are not compartmentalized, they are intertwined. Glasser liked to refer to a car when he talked about total behavior because it illustrates the way it might actually work.

The driver controls the front two wheels of the car and the back two wheels follow closely in their tracks. The front two wheels represent the behaviors we can control, our thoughts and actions. The back times represent the behaviors that we can only indirectly control.

Imagine yourself walking through the school. You’re observing quiet classrooms, working students, you’re thinking about how well you’ve constructed an efficient team. How do you feel? Great right! Happy, content, and proud maybe. Your body is likely relaxed or loose.

Now you’re walking through another hallway and you observe rowdy and disorganized classrooms where children are not working. You begin thinking about how the teachers in this hallway were not a good decision and that their scores might reflect poorly on you. Now, how do you feel? Anxious? Nervous? Angry?

When we create an environment in your school where students can reasonably meet their needs for belonging, power, learning, and freedom we will see kids who are relaxed, happy, and excited to be there. Because they’ll be thinking things like:

“I can.”

“I am learning something valuable.”

“I have a voice.”

“I am important.”

“I belong here.”

These are not the kinds of thoughts that turn into anxiety, depression, loneliness, or acting out. They are part of a total behavior that creates a powerful and productive school culture.

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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