Design Principles for Schools: Five Stories about Embracing a Whole-Child Purpose

Researchers know so much more about the brain and development than they did when the 20th-century U.S. education system was designed. And we can now use this knowledge to design a system in which all young people have access to high-quality opportunities for transformative learning and development.

The Design Principles project synthesized what is known from the science of learning and development into the Essential Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole-Child Design. Building from the science of learning and development, each of the five elements is grounded in a substantial body of research. Taken together, they are the key ingredients to students’ healthy development, learning, and thriving:

  • Positive developmental relationships
  • Environments filled with safety and belonging
  • Rich learning experiences and knowledge development
  • Development of skills, habits, and mindsets
  • Integrated support systems

These five elements must be integrated and implemented in ways that are personalized, empowering, culturally-affirming, and transformative.

But what do these principles look like in action? The Design Principles for Schools: Putting the Science of Learning and Development Into Action playbook includes descriptions of structures and practices that characterize whole-child design and provides stories of schools implementing these structures and practices.

Here are five stories of schools across the country that are already embracing a whole-child purpose and operationalizing the guiding principles. You can read more about these schools and others in the Design Principles for Schools playbook.

Positive Developmental Relationships

At Gateway Middle School in San Francisco, students not teachers lead conferences. With direction from their advisors, students share what they are most proud of, what they found most challenging, and how they have grown during the school year. These conferences help students build strong relationships with their teachers and caregivers.

According to the Design Principles for Schools, “Positive relationships enable children and adolescents to manage stress, ignite their brains, and fuel the connections that support the development of the complex skills and competencies necessary for learning success and engagement. Such relationships also simultaneously promote well-being, positive identity development, and students’ belief in their own abilities.”

Environments Filled With Safety And Belonging

At El Puente Academy in New York City, every student belongs to an advisory that meets twice a week to focus on life and relationships and participate in community-building games and activities. El Puente is located in the Southside neighborhood of Brooklyn — once one of the most violent in New York City — and has been recognized as one of the New York City Department of Education’s “Schools of Excellence.”

According to the Design Principles for Schools, “This type of environment is essential for student learning and development; it both buffers students from stress and adversity and provides safety and consistency, so that students can take risks, explore new experiences, and develop their identities.”

Rich Learning Experiences and Knowledge Development

At San Francisco International High School, students often arrive without knowing the English language. But those students graduate, enter college, and succeed at much higher rates than their peers at other schools. Why? A focus on inquiry-based curriculum and assets-based classroom environments. Instruction connects academic topics to real-world topics, and students are encouraged to use their native languages to engage with the content.

According to the Design Principles, “San Francisco International High School is just one of many innovative schools that have demonstrated how standards can be better taught and learned when students are motivated by the opportunity to dive deeply into serious questions, demonstrating what they have learned by showing and explaining the studies, products, and tools they have developed. This kind of learning process can, with the right kind of teaching supports, help students develop the executive functioning and metacognitive skills needed to plan, organize, manage, and improve their own work and become more self-directed.”

Development of Skills, Habits, and Mindsets

The educators at East Palo Alto Academy created a simple framework, called the Five Community Habits, that all school stakeholders use. The five habits — responsibility, social responsibility, critical and creative thinking, application of knowledge, and communication — not only guide the development of curriculum but also the evaluation of student work.

According to the Design Principles for Schools, this example “illustrates how a school can embed social, emotional, and cognitive skills and habits into an academically rigorous curriculum and empower students to practice these skills with growing independence. When such skills are practiced sufficiently to become habits, they support the development of engaged, productive, and effective learners in ways that transfer to new situations.”

Integrated Support Systems

Oakland International High School, a school for recent immigrants in Oakland, CA, focuses on academics, health and social services, youth development, and engagement with families and communities. The school provides integrated supports ranging from grade-level teaching teams to community walks and English as a second language (ESL) classes for parents to an after-school and weekend sports program.

Integrated support systems are critical to removing barriers to learning and development for all students. According to the Design Principles, “Well-designed systems weave together school and community resources for physical and mental health, social services, and expanded learning time, integrating these practices into day-to-day schooling so that students’ needs are readily identified and met holistically, without bureaucratic delays. They also ensure that practitioners have a shared developmental approach to thinking about students with an asset-based lens.”

Learn More

Given what we know about the interconnectedness of the brain and development, it is important for practitioners to use each of these five elements in an integrated way to design learning settings that enable young people to develop their whole selves in the learning process. There is not just one way to integrate whole-child practices and structures in a school or community learning setting.

Learn more about the many ways schools and educators can nurture students’ assets and address their needs and challenges to create equitable and impactful school settings in The Design Principles for Schools: Putting the Science of Learning and Development Into Action.

Learning Policy Institute & Turnaround for Children. (2021). Design Principles for Schools: Putting the Science of Learning and Development Into Action.

Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement. www.turnaroundusa.org