As I travel the country helping states, districts, and programs meet the needs of children and families, I’ve noticed a common problem that everyone is struggling with: the real estate problem.
What is the “real estate problem?” Simply stated, there’s only so much space, or “real estate,” in a school schedule, so finding the space to fit everything in is problematic. The image above contains just a brief sample of topics I’ve encountered in the last week.
However, as educators, legislators, and even family members strive to invest time and effort into each of these topics, remaining entrenched in our ways and adhering to traditionally-held views does little to serve the children and families in our care.
For instance, at a recent conference on reading development, I heard a professor focused on scientifically-based reading strategies present this view: “Teaching children to read is the most important work of kindergarten through third grade teachers.” Yet, moments later in the same room, an early learning professor expressed the following: “Kindergarten through third grade reading efforts are essential but not sufficient.”
The struggle to do what’s most important for children is at the heart of the real estate problem. These seemingly competing, though not incompatible, ideas—the importance of learning to read and the insufficiency of focusing exclusively on reading skills—create confusion for teachers, especially when they are presented in stark contrast to each other. While teaching children to read is important, if this is all we’ve done as educators, we have failed to address our commitment to the whole child. Yet, we do not have to place these goals in opposition to each other.
Whole-Child Education is the First Step
Teaching and educational approaches that address, nurture, and engage the whole child are essential to ensuring quality care and education for all children. A whole-child approach not only fosters all areas of children’s development and learning, but also lays the foundation for lifelong learning, ensuring that children become excited and engaged learners with positive approaches to learning.
However, if you have enough conversations with educators and family members about the whole-child approach, you realize that we lack a common understanding of what it means to address the needs of the whole child. A recent study of 122 educators in 22 cities throughout the country conducted by EdSurge drives this point home. The study shows that some educators emphasize the contextual factors needed to support the whole child, while others are thinking more individually. While I’ve written about the need to build bridges between these views previously, there’s clearly work to be done in developing a common understanding of whole-child education, because developing this understanding is an essential first step to solving the real estate problem.
Here’s the concern:
If we don’t take this first step to finding a coherent solution for fitting the pieces of the whole-child approach together and solving the real estate problem, then something is going to give.
The space for supporting social-emotional learning in the context of rigorous instruction and content will get overly cluttered with a renewed focus on teaching children reading and counting skills.
Without question, we must ensure that all children get the experiences they need to be successful now and in life. Countless states and districts throughout the country try to do this work of supporting the whole child by focusing on comprehensive skills that children will need their entire lives. Here’s an example from my home district in Robbinsville, NJ.
The Roadmap to Progress
The difficulty for districts doing this work lies in integrating these skills in the context of the real estate problem. This is precisely where good curriculum provides a roadmap that is coherent, is philosophically aligned with usable teacher resources, and brings clarity on how to meet learning objectives that are representative of the whole child, such as these research-based objectives that detail the breadth of child development for children from birth through third grade. The learning outcomes provide the goal, the curriculum provides the coherent path, and the assessment system allows the teacher to know whether and how children are making progress toward learning goals.
Collaborating, working in teams, conducting research, and cognitive flexibility—we know children need these skills. These skills must be developed in conjunction with reading and math skills because we simply don’t have the real estate to do them separately.
There’s some simple blocking and tackling, driven by self-examination, that needs to happen here. Do teachers and administrators in your building or program have a common understanding of whole-child learning and development? How is that understanding articulated through curricular and assessment experiences? Are there gaps between grades or areas?
Children do not turn off social-emotional development when they’re interacting with peers during a shared reading experience because they’re working on reading. They don’t turn on cognitive flexibility simply because they’re doing math. Solving the real estate problem starts with the acknowledgement that isolated content looks odd to children and adults, precisely because it runs counter to our goal of supporting the whole child.