Setting a Whole Child Vision

Why States Need to Set a Whole Child Vision

Improving educational and life outcomes for young people must be guided by a clear, coherent vision that articulates the knowledge, skills, and dispositions students need to be successful and how state and local leaders will provide the resources to ensure students are able to succeed. A shared whole child vision, created by a diverse, representative set of stakeholders, is essential for communicating the need for a systemic, collaborative approach to meeting the needs of every child.

A whole child vision can also deter states from advancing policy affecting children and youth in a piecemeal manner. When various agencies and educational entities work separately, this can lead to inefficiencies, redundancies, and at worst, policies that directly contradict one another. In contrast, a shared vision that has broad stakeholder buy-in provides clear direction for state policymakers in developing and adopting legislation, budgets, guidance, and regulations and in analyzing existing policies and practices for alignment with the vision. A clear, coherent vision sets a precedent for cross-agency coordination, streamlining of services, and the creation of shared learning opportunities to more effectively support children and youth.

A statewide whole child vision, tied to a statewide data system that measures both system inputs (e.g., funding, access to pre-k, high-quality academic curricula and supports, effective teaching, and expanded learning opportunities) and youth outcomes, can also provide a necessary tool for policymakers to assess existing systemic inequities and develop plans to erase them.

To set a whole child vision, states can do the following:

  • 1 Convene a diverse set of stakeholders to develop a statewide whole child vision

  • 2 Assess conditions for learning and development for children and youth

  • 3 Establish coordinating bodies to advance the whole child vision through children and youth cabinets and strategic task forces to identify current state capacity and needs and provide guidance to support service provision

Policy Strategy 1 Convene a Diverse Set of Stakeholders to Develop a Statewide Whole Child Vision

The core purpose of setting a shared whole child vision is to broaden the definition of both student and system success and establish a foundation for policy and practice in the state. The vision should (1) articulate the knowledge, skills, and dispositions young people need and (2) create a roadmap for distributing resources and support to ensure all young people can reach their full potential. A shared whole child vision communicates to all stakeholders the need for a comprehensive and collaborative approach to serving young people adequately and equitably.

A statewide whole child vision can also signal to districts and schools the importance of focusing on the whole child in their priorities and can empower communities to develop learning experiences and opportunities that will help young people meet science-backed developmental goals. At the local level, many school districts and individual schools may already have a mission statement that articulates a definition for student success and a high-level vision for establishing a learning environment to support students in achieving it. States can learn from these locally crafted statements and engage stakeholders in developing a statewide whole child vision that is grounded in the local context.

Policy Actions

States can develop and set a whole child vision for the state by:

  1. Convening and engaging stakeholders across the youth-serving ecosystem to develop a shared whole child vision. State leaders such as governors or chief state school officers can convene stakeholders across agencies and youth-serving organizations. Convenings can take the form of listening tours, surveys, or meetings to gather input from stakeholders. These stakeholders should include:
    • State officials from education, health, housing, juvenile justice, social services, and other agencies working with young people

    • Legislators

    • State board of education members

    • Tribal agencies

    • Community leaders

    • After-school and youth development professionals

    • Child care providers

    • Institutions of higher education

    • Superintendents, principals, teachers, students, and families and caregivers

States should prioritize including historically marginalized communities to ensure their perspectives are part of the decision-making process.

  1. Developing a whole child vision for learning and development. The vision or strategic plan should be grounded in the science of learning and development and provide a roadmap to supporting young people from birth to adulthood, including elements of:

  2. Academic development

  3. Cognitive development

  4. Social-emotional development

  5. Identity development

  6. Ethical and moral development

  7. Mental health

  8. Physical health

States can develop statewide developmental goals and competencies for children as part of the vision that clearly lay out expected student outcomes. Stakeholders might consider the orientations, skills, habits, and mindsets of a successful 24-year-old in their state or what a successful high school graduate should know and be able to do. Convened stakeholders can also consider the creation of a strategic plan for distributing resources, developing partnerships, and evaluating progress toward achieving the vision.

Policy Strategy 2 Assess Conditions for Learning and Development for Children and Youth

A statewide whole child vision can provide a roadmap for assessing the learning and developmental conditions of children and youth and can be a tool for ensuring adequate and equitable resource distribution. Once a needs assessment has been conducted, states can create a plan of action to track and evaluate progress toward meeting identified needs and achieving the vision. The plan can establish roles and responsibilities for state agencies and stakeholder organizations; steps for implementing the vision; and timelines and processes for publicly reporting progress.

States can also invest in a statewide data system that compiles data on children’s well-being and opportunities to learn. Many states have statewide longitudinal data systems in place, but these systems largely focus on student performance outputs (e.g., standardized test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment and retention, employment). While these data are important, data systems should also include a more holistic set of indicators, including system inputs and student opportunities, to ensure all children are supported from birth through adulthood.

To accomplish this, states may need to convene permanent or short-term governing bodies, such as a child and youth cabinet or strategic task forces (see Policy Strategy 3: Establish Coordinating Bodies to Advance the Whole Child Vision) and invest in coaching and other supports for state policymakers, educators, and youth-serving professionals on data collection, analysis, and use for continuous improvement.

Policy Actions

States can inventory existing policies and practices for alignment with the whole child vision by:

  1. Conducting a needs assessment to identify current conditions for children and youth and to determine capacity to provide needed resources and services. A needs assessment provides a systemic approach to identifying the needs of children and youth across the state and evaluating state and local capacity for meeting those needs. For the needs assessment, states can collect demographic and publicly available data, conduct interviews and focus groups to collect stakeholder input, and use targeted and focused data collection methods, including surveys and other measurement tools.

  2. Creating an action plan to ensure the whole child vision gets realized. States can task convened stakeholders to create a strategic action plan for meeting the vision, including roles and responsibilities, implementation guidance, timelines, and communication plans for reporting progress. States can also consider establishing indicators of short- and long-term goals that measure progress toward meeting children’s needs and assessing impact on young people’s opportunities and outcomes.

  3. Establishing and investing in a statewide data system that spans cradle to career, including indicators of engagement and opportunities to learn, such as measures of:

  4. School climate and culture, such as discipline and chronic absenteeism data, and access to rich learning experiences and opportunities inside and outside the traditional school day

  5. Equitable access to certified and experienced educators and other measures of educator quality

  6. Access to technology and virtual learning opportunities

  7. Measures of fiscal equity that can reveal any disparities in access by race, gender, English learner and special education status, and other student characteristics (See Redesigning Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment, and Accountability Systems for more on opportunity-to-learn indicators.)

States could develop data collection procedures that provide unified reporting on states’ early childhood education availability and quality, as well as the compensation and qualifications of the workforce, and integrate multiple early childhood data systems with each other and with k–12 data. Further, states should be transparent and engage youth, families, and communities in developing data systems, collection, analysis, and use to ensure trust in data systems across stakeholders.

  1. Providing information, time, coaching, and other support for educators, other youth-serving professionals, and state agency staff on data collection, analysis, and use. This may include using needs assessment data to identify and align interventions for both individual student and schoolwide needs. In addition, state agencies may need to coordinate to find time for recurring check-ins to validate data and share best practices.

Policy Strategy 3 Establish Coordinating Bodies to Advance the Whole Child Vision

With various agencies and institutions involved in setting policy that affects children and youth and their families and caregivers, it is far too easy for miscommunication, conflicting policies, and inefficient service provision to be the norm. For example, the early childhood education (ECE) “system” is made up of a patchwork of programs in most states, with several federal and state agencies overseeing these programs. (See Figure 1.1.) The complexity at the federal level is passed down to state administrators who often lack the capacity or authority to untangle the web of funding and requirements. This is further complicated by state programs that have their own income eligibility, quality standards, and monitoring. The incoherence of this fragmented system inhibits efforts to address ECE needs, access, and quality at the federal, state, and local levels. (See Investing Resources Equitably and Efficiently for more information on aligning ECE programs.) This fragmentation also causes disconnects in all youth-serving systems—k–12, out-of-school time, health, and others—that have led to wasteful spending and missed opportunities to meet the needs of children and youth more adequately.

Figure 1.1
Many Federal and State Agencies Oversee ECE Programs

Diagram of ECE Programs

Note: This chart was designed to show administrative complexity in the state of California. Some organizational changes have been made at the federal and state levels since its initial design.

Source: Melnick, H., Ali, T. T., Gardner, M., Maier, A., & Wechsler, M. (2017). Understanding California’s early care and education system. Learning Policy Institute.

Thus, a foundational piece of effectively carrying forward the shared whole child vision at all levels of leadership is to take a coordinated and collaborative approach to decision-making and service provision. One means by which state leaders can do this is to use their convening power to bring diverse stakeholders together to address necessary changes through permanent bodies, such as a state children and youth cabinet. Children and youth cabinets, often brought together by the governor, bring together heads of government agencies (e.g., education, health and human services, housing, child welfare, transportation, labor, juvenile justice, tribal) with the goal of facilitating a comprehensive approach to serving children and youth, strengthening partnerships, and assessing and improving overall coordination and efficiency across state and local government agencies. (See Figure 1.2.) A Forum for Youth Investment report on the need for big-picture structural changes lays out several attributes of creating a well-structured and staffed children’s cabinet:

  • The opportunity to promote and institutionalize a common vision

  • The capacity to engage all stakeholders

  • The capacity to assume shared accountability

  • The authority to align policies and resources; increase public will and demand; engage young people and their families; and improve the quality, quantity, and coordination of service delivery

States can also encourage community-focused local children’s cabinets to improve local leadership coordination and service provision.

Figure 1.2
Six Structural Components of Children’s Cabinets and Councils

Diagram: Components of Children’s Cabinets and Councils

Source: Gaines, E., Faigley, I., Pittman, K. (2008). Elements of Success 1: Structural options [State Children’s Cabinet and Councils Series]. Forum for Youth Investment.

Policy Actions

States can establish coordinating bodies to advance the whole child vision by:

  1. Convening leadership across a range of children, youth, and family issues. This may include leaders from health and human services, economic development, education, higher education, transportation, housing, child welfare, juvenile justice and corrections, labor, tribal nations, and other relevant agencies to identify and advance ways to better serve young people holistically. For example, the state can do the following:

  2. Create a permanent children and youth cabinet that meets regularly and is staffed by at least one fully dedicated full-time equivalent employee

  3. Convene a stakeholder task force to evaluate gaps in cross-sector service provision

  4. Create standing advisory bodies—including youth councils—to offer ongoing support and problem-solving

  5. Issue guidance on ways state and local agencies can coordinate and streamline services

  6. Identify and invest in a state-level governing body, if needed, with the authority and expertise to coordinate children and youth programs, including programs for children from birth through school age

  7. Establish cross-agency data sharing to better identify and meet child, youth, and family needs equitably

  8. Develop cross-agency initiatives and budget proposals to support alignment

States should prioritize including youth and family voices in these governmental bodies to ensure their perspectives are part of the decision-making process.

  1. Convening short-term task forces to study and make recommendations on areas of need. In addition to permanent state structures, the state can also convene diverse stakeholder organizations and agencies to address targeted areas of need and develop and strengthen targeted elements of a high-quality, equitable education system. Stakeholders might include early childhood educators, expanded learning providers, health and mental health providers, higher education institutions, and research institutions. For example, as described in the state examples, Oklahoma created a task force on trauma-informed care, while North Dakota created one on behavioral health.

Kansas: Vision for Education

In 2015, the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) and the Kansas State Board of Education began efforts to set a vision for the whole child by defining the characteristics of a successful student. State education officials conducted a statewide listening tour with community and business leaders, parents, and educators and asked them one question: “What are the characteristics, qualities, abilities, and skills of a successful 24-year-old Kansan?” These answers, along with using data on academic and graduation rates, helped to define Kansans Can, an initiative that sets a new vision for a more student-centered system and schools over the next 10 years. The new vision is grounded in a graduate profile that articulates student learning competencies through higher standards for academic and cognitive preparation, social-emotional development, technical and employability skills, and civic engagement.

In support of the vision, the KSDE launched the Kansans Can School Redesign Project in 2017. This project focuses on redesigning an elementary or secondary school around the vision of the graduate profile and characteristics of a successful high school graduate. (See Transforming Learning Environments for more information on this project.) Kansans Can and the School Redesign Project are also supported by the Kansas Children’s Cabinet, which focuses on improving early childhood experiences and opportunities, including increasing kindergarten readiness for every child.


Ohio: Strategic Plan

In 2017, the Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction and State Board of Education worked with over 150 state partners to develop a strategic plan centered on supporting the whole child. Together, they sought input from students, families and caregivers, teachers, principals, business leaders, employers, community members, and postsecondary representatives through 13 regional meetings. The 5-year vision they helped craft has one goal—that every year, Ohio will increase the number of students enrolling and succeeding in a postsecondary learning experience. The strategic plan has three core principles (equity, partnerships, and quality schools); four learning domains (foundational knowledge and skills, well-rounded content, leadership and reasoning, and social and emotional learning); and 10 priority strategies focused on recruiting and retaining effective educators; creating meaningful accountability structures, student supports, and early learning opportunities; and supporting student success in and beyond high school (see Figure 1.1). The strategic plan emphasizes creating a more equitable future that is responsive to the changing needs of the workplace; serving the nuanced learning needs of a more diverse student body; and addressing increased student exposure to poverty and social stressors, including adverse childhood experiences and homelessness.

Figure 1.1. Ohio Strategic Plan for Education: 2019–2024


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Source: Ohio Department of Education. (2018). Ohio’s strategic plan for education [Infographic].


Virginia: Profile of a Graduate

The Profile of a Virginia Graduate was born out of a shared desire by the Virginia Board of Education, General Assembly, and governor to ensure students in the state are “life ready” and prepared for the economy of the future. In 2014, the state board committed to reviewing student achievement and graduation requirements, school accreditation standards, and the state’s School Performance Card. At the same time, the General Assembly created the Standards of Learning (SOL) Innovation Committee to provide support and recommendations to the board for the development of a graduate profile. Within its initial recommendations, the SOL Innovation Committee laid out the “5 C’s”—critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communication, and citizenship—that, along with stakeholder engagement and feedback, provided the foundation for the graduate profile (see Figure 1.2). The General Assembly codified the committee’s recommendations in 2016 and directed the board to develop and implement the Profile of a Virginia Graduate.

Figure 1.2. Virginia’s 5 C’s


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Source: Virginia Is for Learners. (2019). Virginia’s 5 C’s [Infographic]. Virginia Department of Education.


Kentucky: Longitudinal Data System

The Kentucky Longitudinal Data System (KLDS) was created in the 2013 legislative session to expand on the work of the Kentucky P-20 Data Collaborative, a joint effort from the Kentucky Department of Education, the Kentucky Council of Postsecondary Education, and the Education Professional Standards Board. The Kentucky Center for Statistics (KYStats) is legislatively authorized to collect and link data from various Kentucky education- and workforce-related agencies, including the Department of Education, Education Professional Standards Board, Education Workforce & Development Cabinet, and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. KYStats reports statistical data to state policymakers, agencies, practitioners, administrators, and the general public to allow them to evaluate education and workforce efforts in the state of Kentucky. The reports also provide data at the state and district levels and allow the public and policymakers to compare data on a range of student and workforce outcomes, including college and/or career readiness, access to challenging coursework, degrees attained, and employment status after graduation. KYStats also collects and summarizes information related to educator quality. For example, the teacher preparation feedback report communicates data regarding teacher preparation, placement, and retention. KYStats has also published a report on teacher equity. Finally, KYStats reports on student needs and services, such as participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and kindergarten readiness.


Rhode Island: Children’s Cabinet

The Rhode Island Children’s Cabinet was reconvened in 2015 under Governor Gina Raimondo after she worked with the state General Assembly to give the Children’s Cabinet a more formal decision-making role to engage in agreements between agencies serving children and youth. The Children’s Cabinet is made up of 11 individuals, including the governor and the directors of key departments and state agencies, such as elementary and secondary education, postsecondary education, and health and human services.

To improve governance, services, and outcomes, the Cabinet created a strategic plan for 2015–20 that focuses on five main desired outcomes for supporting the holistic development of young people, ensuring they are (1) supported by stable families and communities; (2) physically healthy and safe; (3) behaviorally able and emotionally hopeful; (4) academically empowered and career ready; and (5) socially, culturally, and civically engaged. By 2018, the group reported making progress in these areas, including reducing chronic absence, lowering teen suicide rates, and improving interagency data sharing. Since the onset of COVID-19, the group has reported on the use of relief funds to support these efforts and meet the needs of vulnerable populations, such as children and families experiencing homelessness.


Illinois Governor’s Cabinet on Children and Youth

In Illinois, the governor’s office led an effort in 2016 to align and facilitate coordination among state agencies serving children and youth. This effort led to the creation of the Governor’s Cabinet on Children and Youth (Children’s Cabinet). This initiative brings together 12 agencies that oversee children and families in need of state assistance. The Children’s Cabinet focuses on seven priority projects: (1) decreasing lead poisoning; (2) developing the early childhood workforce; (3) improving completion of workforce readiness pathways; (4) building a statewide mentoring network; (5) providing childcare subsidies; (6) collaborating on supports for youth in the child welfare and criminal justice systems; and (7) increasing access to alternative high school programming.

In a 2018 annual report, the Children’s Cabinet reported progress on each of the seven priority areas, including:

  • revitalizing lead poisoning prevention efforts;

  • selecting metrics to measure the state’s early childhood workforce needs;

  • increasing adoption of common statewide definitions related to career pathways;

  • starting to coordinate mentoring services across the state;

  • coordinating studies of the impact of state childcare subsidies;

  • gathering feedback from youth in child welfare and criminal justice systems; and

  • approving new methods of obtaining high school equivalency certification.

In addition to making progress in the priority areas, the Forum for Youth Investment reports that the Children’s Cabinet has established new relationships between agencies and increased collaboration between leaders and staff.


Washington: Department of Children, Youth & Families

In 2017, Governor Jay Inslee created the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), a cabinet-level agency that combined services from the Division of Child Care and Early Learning (DEL) with programs in the Department of Social and Health Services, including child protective services, foster care and adoption support, and juvenile rehabilitation services. DCYF acts as the lead agency for state-funded services related to resilience and health. To promote collaboration across agencies, DCYF:

  • Partners with state agencies, tribes, and community organizations. State agencies are included in DCYF’s leadership, with representation from state department heads overseeing programs for children and families, tribal affairs, accountability, and licensing. DCYF also includes specific resources to support tribal relations. Similarly, DCYF offers family and youth services with connections to local providers.

  • Creates reports to highlight progress on DCYF programs: DCYF’s research, reports, and analysis are supported by the Office of Innovation, Alignment, and Accountability, which has access to data across agencies.

  • Works with external stakeholders through a community engagement team. The community engagement team provides oversight and support to effectively communicate with constituents. Youth-focused advisory groups, subcommittees, and councils also work to ensure communication is targeted and consistent.

Additionally, the agency is prioritizing “addressing equity and disproportionality” in the areas of child welfare, early learning, and juvenile justice. For example, its 2016 report on racial disproportionality in child welfare shows that the agency has removed initiatives that lacked a clear connection to eliminating racial disproportionality and has implemented trainings on cultural competency and anti-racism and implemented the Washington State Indian Child Welfare Act.


Oklahoma: Trauma-Informed Care Taskforce

Due to the high rates of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) within the state, Oklahoma formed a Task Force on Trauma-Informed Care to investigate existing trauma-informed practices across the state via Senate Bill 1517 (signed into law in 2018). The Task Force is made up of 17 members appointed from different state agencies, including the departments of health, human services, and education and other entities and individuals, such as professional health organizations, state accreditation bodies, schools, tribal leaders, and members of the general public. The Task Force produced an interim report with a sampling of trauma-informed practices and used that information to identify communities that had effectively created networks of care providers and community leaders. The state pulled best practices from these exemplars, or “resilience communities,” to put together findings and recommendations in a 2020 strategy report. This report describes how the Task Force and its member agencies can learn from existing state and local initiatives to develop a coordinated approach to preventing trauma due to ACEs. The report also includes considerations for identifying and ensuring that appropriate interventions, such as family resource centers that offer counseling, job training, home visiting, health screenings, and food banks, are available for children, youth, and their families.


North Dakota: Children’s Behavioral Health Task Force

In 2017, the North Dakota legislature created the Children’s Behavioral Health Task Force to oversee and align different sectors of children’s behavioral health. The Task Force consists of six members from education, health, human services, corrections, the Indian Affairs Commission, and the Committee on Protection and Advocacy. This interagency task force provides guidance and recommendations in the areas of education, health, welfare, community, and juvenile justice. North Dakota also provides professional development, including training materials and evidence-based strategies, to educators on youth behavioral health based on the annual local needs assessment on the issues of trauma, social and emotional learning, bullying, and suicide prevention.

The Task Force led to the creation of the Pediatric Mental Health Care Access Program, a funded partnership with the Health Resources and Services Administration for Maternal and Children’s Health. The program aims to reach children in underserved areas to provide primary care and mental health services through local partnerships and school-based partnerships.

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