Molly McCloskey

What Does Whole Child Education Mean to Parents?

James P. Comer often describes his childhood by saying the adults of his community were "locked into a conspiracy to make certain that I grew up to be a responsible, contributing citizen." As founder of the acclaimed Comer School Development Program and an ASCD Whole Child Commissioner, Comer understands the importance of such a "conspiracy." Although schools, families, and communities almost always have similar goals for young people, they too often work in isolation and even at odds with one another. In contrast, how powerful it is when children are surrounded by adults united in commitment, purpose, and action!

With just such an alignment in mind, ASCD wanted to learn more about how parents understand the whole child approach to education. We commissioned KRC Research to conduct a study that included parent focus groups in Richmond, Virginia, and Columbus, Ohio, as well as a survey of 800 parents across the United States to identify their perceptions of what a whole child education is, how it is currently implemented in schools, and what barriers stand in the way of its implementation.

On Preparing Students for the Global Economy

"America is a melting pot. If you can't adapt, you hurt yourself." —Richmond Dad

"(Kids must be) resilient, adaptable, and creative. We are living in a tough economy and there is a bigger world out there." —Columbus Mom

It probably doesn't surprise anyone that our participants generally agree that each child, in each school, in each community must be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Of course they do—that's what all parents want for their children. However, as educators seek these same goals, we need to emphasize that supporting the whole child is a shared responsibility. Many focus group members were opposed to anything that they viewed as the school dictating to families what they should want for their kids. Focus group parents were further confused by what educators mean when we talk about community involvement. Parents want to know more about how we define community and what exactly we expect community members to do.

On Schools' Role in Ensuring Children are "Ready to Learn"

"When a parent isn't there, hopefully the school system will look to the community to find someone to help that kid who might need an extra boost." —Columbus Dad

"Medical care ... with schools, I'm not sure if that is their responsibility." —Columbus Mom

Parents strongly agree that although the school curriculum should continue to emphasize the fundamentals of reading and math, it should also provide more varied classes (such as economics, arts, and languages) so that each student becomes academically, socially, and emotionally well-rounded. Make no mistake—parents want their young people challenged deeply by rich academic content. They are concerned about international comparisons that suggest U.S. students lag behind students in some other countries. But they also want schools to help prepare students to be resilient, adaptable, and creative so that they may become independent thinkers and collaborative problem solvers.

On a Well-Rounded Curriculum

"You have to have testing standards, but you can have a variety of ways of getting at competence." —Richmond Dad

"Diverse ability can't be measured by standardized tests. Whole child education around personalized learning—social, emotional, well-rounded—what's not to like?" —Richmond Mom

"When you say academically, socially, and emotionally well-rounded, it's not just the academics, it's the whole package." —Columbus Mom

Perhaps most interesting among our survey results were the translations of educator language into more family-friendly terms. For instance, educators often talk about authentic tasks, whereas parents talk about real-world tasks; we use the term personalized, whereas parents felt more comfortable talking about meeting each child's unique needs; we say 21st century skills, whereas parents discuss being prepared for the future.

As educators engage parents in conversations about supporting the whole child, we may need to do less talking and more listening to make sure that we’re speaking the same language. (For information about the Whole Child Community Conversations Project, which allows local communities to explore how to work together to support the whole child, go to

On the Need for Partnerships

"If people are working together, there's going to be a lot less wasted money." —Columbus Mom

In the end, as we seek to strengthen our partnership to ensure each child's success, parents and educators appear to have broad agreement on what we want. Instead of basing student success only on academic achievement or test scores, a whole child education provides additional skills to help students succeed in life and the workforce. It moves away from the expectation that schools are solely responsible for student achievement, to one in which schools, communities, and families work in partnership.

For more information on how both educators and parents can join the conspiracy, please visit

This article was reprinted with permission from ASCD's Educational Leadership, May 2011, an issue that explores how schools, families, and communities can work together to help students grow and succeed.

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