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Enabling Conditions to Accelerate the Implementation of Equitable Whole Child Design Across the Learning Ecosystem

There is no question that as communities move to create more equitable conditions for learning they could and should consider how to build and strengthen adults’ capacity to implement science-informed approaches to teaching and learning. Many efforts to support whole child education elevate the importance of training and supporting student support staff, training teachers to better utilize non-academic instructional time, or bringing trained personnel into the schools from other youth serving organizations.

But the power to transform learning settings and achieve equitable conditions for learning at scale rests on the ability of communities to embrace and deliver integrated, cross-setting approaches to science-aligned transformation. Therefore, this playbook concludes with recommendations for promoting a connected and aligned learning ecosystem.1

For this to happen, schools and community partners can co-create their vision of student success that reflects the values and culture of the community’s students and their families and is fully supported by science-aligned approaches. The sheer diversity of community programs means that they do not always present a visible, coordinated force in their communities, yet we know that for many young people community programs can allow them to thrive. Vision setting requires a shared understanding of where and when learning happens, acknowledging all the settings where young people spend their time, not just K-12 classrooms.

Related to increasing coordination is the need to be intentional about valuing and prioritizing partnerships between schools and community partners. This requires an intentional outreach and engagement strategy, with resources dedicated to nurturing and maintaining partnerships. Even when schools have community partners and programs, they typically operate in silos and are not well-aligned with the school’s academic plans and goals. As referenced in the Integrated Support Systems Playbook, community schools are one approach to aligned partnerships where coordinators facilitate and provide leadership for the collaborative process and development of a continuum of services for children, families, and community members within a school neighborhood. In some instances, partnerships are coordinated by a family resource center or an afterschool site coordinator. Regardless of who coordinates the partnerships, they need to be strategic and data driven so that partners have access to the information and data they collect about youth so they can better align supports across settings.

A variety of local infrastructures exist that could support more and better coordination in service of ensuring that regardless of the setting, young people have access to and are experiencing consistently supportive and engaging learning experiences. National youth serving organizations with affiliate models, afterschool and summer learning intermediaries, and local children’s cabinets can and do play a critical role in taking science-aligned approaches to scale in community programs. Working through their affiliates and networks, these organizations support professional development, program quality assessment, and effective use of data aimed at increasing access to quality youth development experiences and improving the capacity of adults across diverse community settings to implement science-informed practices. Further, local coordination of community programs paves the way for school- community partnerships because it can provide the district with a single-entry point for tapping into the diversity of learning settings in a community.

However, this kind of coordination will not happen without dedicated resources aimed specifically at improving partnerships and coordination. This means dedicated staff time across all the settings and sectors that comprise the learning and development ecosystem—district offices, city agencies, public and private community institutions, and local community non- profits—so that partnership is part of their “day jobs.”

One way to ensure that youth experiences are consistent across settings is to make joint capacity building the norm so that adults across learning and development settings have access to and engage in common professional development resources and trainings. There is mutual benefit in sharing professional expertise and content and, indeed, many efforts exist to co-train educators and youth development professionals. However, these efforts are primarily school driven, designed, and delivered. Youth development and other community learning settings have a history of supporting aspects of whole child design, namely: building relationships with caring adults and fostering supporting learning environments. Schools and districts should invite community partners to lead in trainings and initiative designed to improve youth outcomes through high-quality enrichment opportunities including STEM, project-based learning activities and summer enrichment programming as well as support address issues such as trauma, chronic absenteeism, diversity, and inclusion. Schools and community partners should seek ways to design and deliver trainings jointly and open up any and all relevant professional development and training opportunities to all adults across the learning and development ecosystem that are striving to support the whole child.

Community partners can bring unique assets including alternative spaces for teaching and learning, experimentation with a variety of pedagogies aimed at fostering inquiry based- learning, and often serve as the bridge between schools and families. Yet historically, community programs have been substantially under-funded, relying primarily on short-term, unstable resources. Stable funding would allow community programs to deepen their practice and improve quality by accessing critical professional development supports to help them implement science- aligned practices alongside school day professionals.

More funding would also allow programs to serve more students. Advocates need to continue to push for equitable and dedicated local, state, and national funding, including expansion of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Initiative, the largest federal funding stream to support afterschool, before school, and summer learning. Locally, educators and community practitioners need to band together to help local philanthropy and the business community understand why investing in community learning and development opportunities will contribute to a healthy, productive workforce.

A Call for Collaborative Action from the National Commission for Social, Emotional, and Academic Development sums up the need for partnership and collaboration in support of whole child design:
“The sheer diversity of youth development organizations means that they do not always serve as a visible and coordinated force in their communities. The research on how [young people] learn has brought new credence to the adage that schools can’t do it alone. School leaders committed to galvanizing community commitment to a whole child, whole community approach to learning can accelerate this work by partnering with [community learning and development] organizations and networks in their communities and inviting [community partner] leaders to join them in setting community-wide goals.”2

Science-aligned transformations create a tall order for educators and practitioners regardless of their professional backgrounds and system affiliations. But taking an ecosystem approach that embraces the notion that all adults and all settings matter will lay the groundwork for creating the optimal and equitable conditions for healthy learning, development and thriving that each and every learner should experience.


Developmental and learning science tell an optimistic story about what all young people are capable of. There is burgeoning scientific knowledge about the biologic systems that govern human life, including the systems of the human brain. Researchers who are studying the brain’s structure, wiring, and metabolism are documenting the deep extent to which brain growth and life experiences are interdependent and malleable.

Three papers synthesizing this knowledge base form the basis of the design principles for community-based settings presented here. For those seeking access to the research underlying this work, these papers are publicly available.

  • Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context. Applied Developmental Science , 23(4), 307–337. /10.1080/10888691.2017.1398649.
  • Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B. J., & Osher, D. (2019). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science , 24(2), 97–140.
  • Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science , 24(1), 6–36.

1These recommendations are drawn from the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development Building Partnerships to Support Where, When, and How Learning Happens

2Findings from the Building Partnerships brief.