“Can You Please See All of Me, And Not Just What’s At The Surface?”

How often do educators or researchers examine and assess children’s behaviors or ‘attitudes’? What about you?  Does your assessment hinge on one dimension? Or do you go deeper than just the surface or observable behavior? In order to go deeper, we have to be open, curious and want to know ‘who is this child?’ Countless numbers of children are misdiagnosed, mis-perceived, underestimated and harshly disciplined in learning environments, including the home everyday.

When children enter their classrooms, they have not been ‘unplugged’ like robots, since last visit, but rather engaging and experiencing in environments outside of the classroom. You observe a child with his or her head on the desk, appearing to be fully disengaged, maybe asleep. What is your knee-jerk reaction? You say to yourself or him, ” We come to school to learn, not sleep.” You may think,’ How dare he tune me out’. ‘How rude.’ From  those inner thoughts, you snap at this child and embarrass him, giving him a jolt back into your world. You call him out for such disrespect. It is understandable, but is it wise?

If it is a repeated event,  you become more and more insulted and angry at this child. So, next time you decide to ask him a lesson-related question that you already know he doesn’t have the answer to. Rather than chalk it up to just sleep, you take it personally, and then begin to label that child as unable to ‘make it’ in your classroom. He performs poorly on your exams and then you know for sure.  But are you 100% sure that that is all there is to it? Do you consider any other factors at play? Do you consider the possibility that there could be more to performance and behaviors than what you can immediately see? Adults like to believe themselves all powerful and all knowing, but really? Really? Do you wonder why this behavior, particularly because it seems to be a pattern? Or are you just pissed? Do you reach out to other teachers or the home? Don’t you want to know why?

Do you think that it could be a reflection on your instructional style? If you look around the classroom and all students are wide awake and engaged, then that should inform you that there is something else at play here. Be curious. Do some probing. Speak with that child after class to get some clues.


woman in black shirt looking at the window with her dog

When we can see what’s beneath the surface, we have a greater awareness of the fact that everything that happened before walking in that room that day will have an impact on learning. A seemingly disrespectful and inattentive student may be experiencing the effects of sleep deprivation….because he has to help out at home.

Similarly, a child who has difficulty sounding out words may be feeling anxious about reading out loud in class. Students of color may seem disengaged in learning, but may be affected by subtle and frequent micro-aggressions that make them feel like outsiders.

While educators do recognize the complexities of their students, we still benefit from a more profound understanding of the factors at play beneath the surface to understand the ‘whole child’. We must see below the surface and read between the lines. To assist with that understanding, researchers from multiple specialties should collaborate to find out how and why children differ from one another. A whole child approach considers many aspects of development including children’s physical, mental health and safety, academic and identity development and the supports they need to thrive.

Bringing together our knowledge from psychology, education, sociology, neuroscience, health, and other disciplines can help inform educators’ practice. For example, years of research have shown that sleep quantity and quality can impact children’s moods and cognitive functioning. These findings provide insight into how to support children who may be struggling in their schoolwork because of sleep issues. Teachers can use evidence-based approaches that support working memory and attention, such as clear, chunked instructions. They could also use activities that support emotion and self-regulation, such as mindfulness breaks, to intentionally compensate for the impacts of limited sleep.

Relationship-building is important and getting to know your students and their family fast-tracks the way to establishing trust and seeing the whole child. Behaviors are both intent and impact. Consider both and don’t assume it’s all about you. Couldn’t your intervention be more mindful and empathetic, while still upholding classroom etiquette? When we see the whole child, whole person, there is less probability for unintentionally alienating that child. Rather than being accusatory or punitive in approach,  be more inquisitive, restorative and come to understand that every child is multi-dimensional.

Educators, perpetual learners and teachers, have access to vast amounts and sources of information in this digital world. Exploring the latest research, there is so much to learn from observing children. There’s even more to learn from their families. Communication, conversation, collaboration and cultural humility are essential components of partnering with families to better understand their children and accelerate achievement.

Every child is unique, yet there are similarities. No matter the race, religion, ethnicity or aptitude, they all share the same needs. Some are readily met and consistently supported throughout settings. Others, through circumstance and external barriers, along with inequity, struggle to have their needs met. It is not their fault. They have no power. Don’t unwittingly  blame them. Don’t pity them. Don’t  ostracize them. Don’t ever underestimate them, their strengths or their potential. See them. Discover them. Encourage them. Most importantly, get to know them BENEATH THE SURFACE.

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