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Teaching children skills to help them succeed in life

Learning Differences Programme / Partner story

(c) Transcend

Going to school might seem like it’s all about academics, but in reality, we graduate with a whole host of additional skills that help us navigate the complex adult world. Empathy, resilience, teamwork, relationship skills, perseverance, and problem solving are just some of the skills that schools help shape as we grow up.

Van Ness Elementary is a PK-5 school in DC Public Schools, that focuses on the importance of student wellbeing in addition to academics, explicitly teaching students stress management, social‑awareness and self-awareness skills to help them develop the socio-emotional and academic skills they need to thrive. In collaboration with Oak Foundation partner, Transcend Education, Van Ness built the ‘Whole Child Model’, which is a set of practices and routines that educators follow to create a learning environment where students feel safe and loved. In the model, students are acknowledged individually, and helped to know that they belong.

Classrooms include tools and spaces to promote emotional self-regulation, and teachers model compassionate language and use misbehaviour as an opportunity to learn, rather than to punish. Every morning, each Van Ness student is greeted by a staff member, invited to set a goal for the day, and given a nutritious breakfast (when in the classroom). They also engage in community-building exercises with peers, and learn techniques for self-regulation.

“If kids don’t feel physically and emotionally safe – if they don’t have a sense of belonging, if they don’t feel cared for and loved – they are not able to access the parts of their brains that are needed for critical thinking and academic learning,” says Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, founding head of school at Van Ness. “I have seen my child mature drastically,” says Crystal Mays, parent of a child at Van Ness. “Pierre is a different Pierre from the first day of Van Ness, so those methods are really beneficial.”  

The importance of interpersonal relationships has perhaps never been more evident than during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many students attended school online or in-person only part-time. Schools and educators quickly realised the impact of the isolation from peers and teachers on students’ wellbeing, as well as their ability to learn. Students need a sense of safety and predictability, meaningful relationships with others, and skills to identify and cope with their feelings – even if it’s through a computer screen.

To tackle the problem of isolation among students during the pandemic, Van Ness adapted the Whole Child Model for remote and hybrid settings. As school closures created national demand for this approach, its team worked with Transcend to launch an open-source site to share the Whole Child Model with schools across the country. Individual elements of the Whole Child Model, including ‘strong start’ – a component of the model that reimagines the first hour of the school day to get all students mentally, emotionally, and physically ready to learn – have been adopted by schools across the US. This school year, DC Public Schools launched its transformation effort to become a whole child-centred, anti-racist school system to ensure a district-wide approach with many of the same practices that led to Van Ness’s success. To support those efforts, Transcend is partnering with DC Public Schools to partner with a second cohort of schools to implement the model, as well as a school in Memphis, TN, that will build on learnings and experience from DC. 

“Students are more than just their academic outputs. As we move forward in the aftermath of Covid‑19, I hope we all remember that the path forward must include a focus on students’ social and emotional wellbeing, as well as their learning growth,” says Jenee Henry Wood, head of learning at Transcend.

Since opening in 2015, Van Ness’s approach, combined with a rigorous academic model where students are the makers and owners of their own learning, has seen great success. Early indicators suggest that the focus on the whole child has impacted academic achievement as well. 

This grant to support Transcend’s work with Van Ness and similar school communities across the country falls under Oak Foundation’s Learning Differences Programme (LDP), which seeks to build a world in which schools unlock the creativity and power of every young person, and equips them to shape more just and equitable communities. We partner with and invest in not‑for‑profit organisations that improve education for all students, particularly those with learning differences who experience further marginalisation due to racism and poverty. You can read more about the programme here. To learn more about Van Ness, visit its website here, or check out this video of an educator at Van Ness demonstrating the “strong start” component of the Whole Child Model.