Thinking Holistically About Whole-Child Schools

by | Aug 19, 2019

What is a holistic leader? Jane Kise discusses what makes these leaders so important in our schools — and how they positively impact students and the school more broadly.

What is a holistic leader? Holistic comes from the word holism, which in psychology refers to looking at human beings as integrated systems, not as separate parts (intellect, emotions, body, spirit and more). Holistic leaders consider systems. They don’t look at short-term results alone, but keep a close eye on long-term goals. Their school vision is informed by the very real barriers of time, budget, student needs and more. They recognise that “doing more with less” involves balancing high expectations with the very real impact of limited human capacities and burnout. These are just a few of the systems involved in a whole-child school, one where students are supported academically, socially and emotionally with an eye on their ongoing development and capacity to thrive.


What difference does holistic leadership make?

You’re two months into the school year, greeting students as they walk into your school or class. “We’re so ready to learn”, “I read way ahead in our assignment last night – it was so interesting”, “Last night, I found a maths problem to share. Do you think my classmates can help me figure out a way to calculate whether a yellow light is long enough for a car going the speed limit to stop before it turns red? My dad…”

Behaviour referrals are down, you’re hearing that students are cooperating with each other and getting along in every classroom, common assessments show steady progress toward mastery of standards … and you say to yourself, “We’ve done it! We’re a whole-child school!”

The above illustration describes a school where students are energised by learning, engaged in their classrooms and emotionally intelligent. Sound familiar, or more like a fantasy? How do schools get there? You can probably list a set of initiatives designed to do so – social and emotional learning, differentiated instruction, positive behaviour interventions and support, standards-based grading with common assessments, anti-bullying programs, Response to Intervention – what can you add?

Note that these initiatives go back and forth between academic and social-emotional needs of students. It’s too easy for education systems to focus on one and neglect the other – “We need to boost test scores!”, “We need to improve student mental health!” A holistic leader recognises that these elements are in fact interdependent.

Holistic Student Polarity Diagram

This interdependency can also be called a polarity – two interdependent sets of values that, over time, need each other. Each side is “right”, but incomplete. How well are you balancing these competing sets of student needs?


Student Needs, Adult Needs

But here’s the real problem: to pass on social and emotional skills, you have to have them yourself. That requires being in a healthy place. Teaching is one of the most stressful professions there is. In a major study (Herman,, 2018), 97 per cent of the teachers fell into the high-stress category. The higher the teachers’ level of stress, coupled with low levels of coping strategies, the lower student outcomes were. That means that social and emotional learning – resilience, stress management, self-efficacy and more – has to start with the teachers.

It takes a holistic leader to create an atmosphere where teachers and students can thrive. They must create the conditions necessary for collective teacher efficacy, an atmosphere where teachers believe that they have the capacity to reach the goals set out for them and that their hard work will have the desired results (Sun & Leithwood, 2015). According to DeWitt (2017), creating these conditions has the highest impact on student learning of any strategy studied. But only holistic leaders can create this environment.


Are You Holistic Enough?

Being holistic means you see the interdependencies in students, staff and initiatives. To get to collective teacher efficacy – which is interdependent with student self-efficacy – leaders need competencies in the following areas (Kise, 2019):

  • Inspiring group purpose. Coyle (2018) found that employees perform better when they are connected to an organisation’s purpose; in fact, this was a better predictor of performance than their overall competency.
  • Providing teachers with individual support. You can’t hold teachers accountable if they aren’t receiving the information and support they need to develop new skills. This takes listening, empathy and coaching skills on the part of the leader.
  • Creating an atmosphere of safety and trust. This is the number-one predictor of effective teams (Coyle, 2018). Does your school staff experience the sort of healthy family atmosphere required to create this atmosphere? Unconditional respect even as we expect professional growth?
  • Modelling self-care and care for others. When leaders fail to model work–life balance, they discourage others from seeking it for themselves (Skakon, Nielsen, Borg & Guzman, 2010). Since we know that student outcomes worsen under highly stressed teachers, balance is crucial.

All too often, we focus on leadership skills like strategic planning, hiring and evaluation practices, and scheduling – the hard skills of leadership – when what is essential are the so-called soft skills, which are actually harder to learn. You’ll know you’re getting there when what you hear in your learning community is more like the description we began with, of students ready and engaged in learning. And you’ll be even closer when teachers willingly share mistakes, collaborate in ways that keep them all more energised for the job, know they have time to build relationships with students even as they push for student growth, and know exactly why they’re getting out of bed every morning.


Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: The secrets of highly successful groups. New York:
Bantam Books.

DeWitt, P. M. (2017). Collaborative leadership: Six influences that matter most. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Herman, K. C., Hickmon-Rosa, J. & Reinke, W.M. (2018).“Empirically derived profiles of teacher stress, burnout, self-efficacy, and coping and associated student outcomes.” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 20(2), 90-100.

Kise, J. A. G. (2019) Holistic leadership, thriving schools: Twelve lenses to balance priorities and serve the whole student. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Skakon, J., Nielsen, K., Borg, V. & Guzman, J. (2010). Are leaders’ well-being, behaviours and style associated with the affective well being of their employees? A systematic review of three decades of research. Work and Stress, 24(2), 107–139.

Sun, J. & Leithwood, K. (2015). Leadership effects on student learning mediated by teacher emotions. Societies, 5(3), 566–582.

Learn more from Jane at the:
2nd International Summit on PLC at Work, Melbourne
29–30 August 2019

The 2nd International Summit on PLC at Work brings together world-renowned experts who will share their knowledge and inspire you to take the next step in your school improvement journey.

Limited places still available — book now!

Read more in Jane A. G. Kise’s latest book:

Holistic Leadership, Thriving Schools
Twelve Lenses to Balance Priorities and Serve the Whole Student

Lead a school where educators help students flourish academically, socially and emotionally. ILeadership expert Jane A. G. Kise offers a toolkit of strategies that support the daily work of school leaders. Through the Twelve Lenses of Leadership, F–12 leaders and administrators will discover core leadership competencies to overcome ongoing challenges, navigate competing priorities and unite their entire school community around one common purpose: supporting whole-child learning.

Buy now at Hawker Brownlow Education

Jane Kise Jane A. G. Kise, EdD, is a consultant with extensive experience in professional development for instructional coaching, differentiation, and effective mathematics instruction. Other areas of expertise include leadership development and coaching, strategic planning, team building, and conflict resolution. Read more articles by Jane Kise

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