Nurturing the Whole Child in Ohio’s Schools

ICF is supporting the Region 8 Comprehensive Center (Region 8 CC) in its work with the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce to ensure that each student is challenged, prepared, and empowered for his or her future through an excellent preK-12 education.

The challenge

A growing number of Ohio students are impacted by poverty—approximately 51% of Ohio’s total student population is considered economically disadvantaged, an increase of 37% in 10 years—along with other adverse childhood experiences that interfere with their abilities to learn and reach state and local achievement goals. In a 2018 report from the Health Policy Institute of Ohio, children in the state ranked in the bottom half of states on 65% of national child health metrics.

Through school-based physical, mental, and emotional health learning and support, Region 8 CC and the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce looked to meet students’ overlooked needs so they can fully engage in their academic and social activities.

The solution

To achieve the goal, schools and districts had to align their work with the needs of the populations they serve through a thoughtful, systemic approach, and thorough networking across state associations, higher education, and local nonprofits to create a coalition.

Once the strategic plan was adopted, the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce collaborated with us and our other partners in the Region 8 CC to design a comprehensive plan for the state to support districts in systemic adoption of the framework so districts can coordinate policy, processes, and practices while practicing cultural responsiveness, focusing on equity, and dedicating time and resources to continuous improvement.

Collaborating to create a movement

When the Whole Child work began, Ohio wanted to “start a movement,” according to an Ohio Department of Education staff member. As the Department team collaborated with stakeholders in the field to define the vision for the Whole Child work, we and the rest of the Region 8 CC team supported them by helping develop the action plan, processes, and tools to adopt, communicate, and support the implementation of the framework in Ohio’s districts and schools through a multi-year technical assistance approach.

Our team began by enhancing the Department team’s skills and knowledge around strategy development, designing working sessions for stakeholders from a variety of roles and backgrounds. In turn, the Department team provided the Region 8 CC with institutional history and state and local education agency context. Working together, our process included gathering feedback from people with various perspectives and roles, using the feedback for meaningful change, and creating feedback loops so the community is aware of how feedback is being used, and ensuring that what has been built is scalable and sustainable.

When the Whole Child framework was developed and shared, many people felt they had “permission” to focus on the wholeness of children to promote success. A staff member at the Region 8 CC reflected that the Whole Child movement in Ohio has “been empowering to people by giving people permission to think about education differently.” A Department staff member recalled a comment shared by a national consultant at a recent meeting: That on a national level, people are talking about what is happening in Ohio and the good work happening there with Whole Child.

Collaboration, unification, and diversity

Ohio’s Whole Child Framework puts the whole child at the center, where each of five tenets, Healthy, Safe, Challenged, Engaged, and Supported, reflect the ideal conditions leading to healthy and successful outcomes. It includes many dimensions of child wellness that are traditionally siloed across multiple fields, agencies, and service types. Integration of those dimensions of wellness into educational practices required a new way of collaborating. Our Region 8 CC team had to work strategically with Ohio’s Department of Education to involve everyone and create ways for stakeholders to engage in equitable and meaningful ways.

The effort more than paid off. Through the Whole Child Advisory Group and collaboration with other agencies across the state, this work has created spaces for people from different fields, in various roles, with diverse lived experiences, and identities to learn from each other and create something together. One Whole Child program administrator noted that the most significant impact of the work has been “building cross-sector partnership across various agencies and internally, not just at the state education agency, but building capacity at local levels,” while a program coordinator reflected that people from various fields have been able to “rally around the Whole Child work” without allowing politics or other barriers to disrupt the progress.

Where we are now

Across the last three years, team roles have changed as the movement continues. For example, at the start of the work, the Region 8 CC was more heavily involved in facilitation of collaborative work—over time, Ohio’s Department of Education and Workforce has taken over facilitating and leading these pieces.

With the creation of the Whole Child Network, the Department now provides resources on its website that all districts can access and use, and districts who join the network to access even more services such as additional evidence-based resources, coaching, and other networking opportunities.

While the Whole Child Framework created new insights and opportunities for many districts, others in the state used it to spotlight the work they were already doing. During a Whole Child Advisory Group meeting, one district superintendent shared that their district had taken a Whole Child approach nearly eight years before the framework came out, and that the official framework made it seem as if the state was “finally speaking our language and elevating what is important to us.” Similarly, an Ohio school was recently recognized as the district’s “North Star” for its exemplary Whole Child work over the course of several years, starting before the official framework was created—work that may not have come to light if Ohio’s Department of Education Whole Child Framework had not been published.

Looking ahead

The Whole Child initiative is still underway, and the Region 8 CC continues its capacity-building services with the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce and the Whole Child Advisory Group. In 2023, efforts focused on the continued development of implementation tools and resources, along with the alignment of existing and new initiatives to the Whole Child Framework.

In 2024, we will continue to support the work of the Whole Child Advisory Group and Whole Child Network. Region 8 CC will partner with Ohio to strengthen the alignment and integration of initiatives, including policies, programs, and practices, that help prepare students for future success.

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