Principal Leadership for the Whole Child: An Exploration of the Role, Vision, and Practices of Two Principals in Whole Child, High-Poverty, Urban Elementary Schools

Author: ORCID icon
Sheriff, Linda, Administration and Supervision - School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia
Eddy Spicer, David, ED-EDLF, University of Virginia

With mental health challenges and disparities in educational outcomes on the rise (Blad, 2022; Naff et al., 2022; Reardon et al., 2012; Viner et al., 2022), there is a burgeoning movement to implement a new approach to education that involves integrating and coordinating programs that support student and staff social, emotional, and physical health with academic programs (Darling-Hammond & Cook-Harvey, 2018; Lewallen et al., 2015; Mahoney et al., 2020; The Commission on the Whole Child, 2007). Conceived around the notion of the whole child, proponents of these various frameworks suggest that the approach could be a critical factor in improving education equity and academic outcomes (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019; Lewallen et al., 2015; McClure, 2016). Implementing the frameworks has been problematic and recent studies suggest this is due to lack of buy-in (Jones & Bouffard, 2012) and beliefs that implementation is too difficult, time-consuming, and labor intensive (Valois & Hoyle, 2000). Implementation strategies have mainly focused on policies (Darling-Hammond & Cook-Harvey, 2018; Temkin et al., 2019), organizational and structural changes and supports (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019; Oberle et al., 2016), or changes in instructional methods and curricula (Bailey et al., 2019; Osher et al., 2016). However, there is very little information on the role of the school principal and the leadership necessary to introduce systemic support for the whole child, even though there is nascent evidence that school principal support and involvement is an important factor in the success of a whole child initiative (Bailey et al., 2019; Rasberry et al., 2015; Valois et al., 2015). This gap in the literature is potentially hindering the spread of the whole child and its success. Having a framework to both guide principal training and future research on the role of the principal is an important next step in advancing the whole child approach.

This study was designed to explore the role of the principal in a school that supports the whole child and has a significant student population from high-poverty and minoritized communities. As whole child approaches gain interest from education leaders, a number of models for whole child-like approaches have been promulgated, including the Whole School, Whole Student, Whole Community framework (WSCC), systemic social and emotional learning (SEL), and two different whole child frameworks. Using Bronfenbrenner’s (Bronfenbrenner, 2005) theory of socio-ecological spheres and Maslow’s (Maslow, 1943; Mcleod, 2018) developmental theories as a foundation, I found commonalities among the models mentioned above and developed an exploratory, unified whole child framework to ground this capstone research. Among other aspects, the analysis of the five models yielded six school-based conditions that are common among the models and that can be influenced by the principal: whole school change, student centeredness, systems-orientation, caring school climate for students and staff, coordination and collaboration, and cultural responsiveness and family/community connections. A non-systematic review of the affective leadership and school change literature revealed that none of these models include what is known about the principal’s role in a whole child school or the conditions identified in the available whole child models. Therefore, the conceptual framework for this study includes elements of caring leadership (Smylie et al., 2020), transformational leadership (Sun & Leithwood, 2012), and Fullan’s (2015) theory of systems change.

Guided by the foundations of caring leadership (Fullan, 2015; Smylie et al., 2020), this capstone research was designed to explore the beliefs, aims, knowledge, and practices of a principal in a school considered exemplary in implementing a whole child approach, as well as their definition of the whole child approach and how they take into consideration internal school conditions and external environments. The research involved exploratory, descriptive case studies of two principals in elementary schools in the same school district in a mid-sized, Mid-Atlantic city who were involved in two different whole child initiatives. The core findings are based on two semi-structured interviews with the two principals which were triangulated by interviews with two to three staff members and an officer in the Parent Teacher Organization, and a review of relevant documents.

Key findings include the view of both principals that the whole child is a mindset and not just a program and that their beliefs, aims, knowledge, and practices are remarkably similar. These findings suggest the possibility that there are common beliefs, aims, knowledge, and practices that can be taught to principals who want to implement a whole child approach, no matter the design of the initiative. Other findings include the cohesion of their beliefs, aims, knowledge, and practices; their systems-orientation; and their person-centeredness. The latter highlights relationship building across the socio-ecological spheres of students, teachers, staff, and community, their mutual desire for a sense of community, their understanding that everyone can grow and learn, and their understanding of the link between health and learning and the societal influences that affect child development. Specific beliefs, aims, knowledge, and practices are provided and can be used by principals, districts and organizations interested in providing training for principals on whole child implementation. Furthermore, exploratory frameworks for the whole child and for the principal for the whole child and a research agenda to continue to understand and promote the whole child approach are provided.

EDD (Doctor of Education)
Whole Child, Principal Leadership, School Improvement, Framework, Social Emotional Learning and School Climate
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