A Whole Child Approach: Balancing Learner Agency and Mental Health

Academic performance and mental health are inextricably linked: students who struggle to regulate their own behaviors also struggle academically. Inversely, learners display disruptive behaviors when grades drop.


This pattern begins in early years. We often observe disruptive behaviors around the time when students realize they're being compared with peers... and they're not fairing well. Self-regulation challenges that lead to expulsion further compound the issue of low academic performance; students who aren't present during instruction (for any reason) are less equipped to demonstrate mastery. We know that students who struggle with mental health usually do not receive adequate treatment making truancy inevitable. It's truly a vicious cycle that spirals into abject poverty, substance abuse, and prison.

Unsettling trends were published by the Child Mind Institute and Association for Children's Mental Health.

  • Being at risk for mental health problems in first grade leads to a 5% drop in academic performance in just two years.

  • Half of all mental illness occurs before the age of 14; 75% occurs by the age of 24.

  • High school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be jailed than four-year college graduates.

  • Over 50% of students with emotional and behavioral disabilities ages 14 and older drop out of high school - the highest drop out rate of any disability group.

We want children to be positive statistics: successful workers, managers, business owners. It follows that we must identify cracks in society (outside learning environments) and cracks in how we respond to learners with academic challenges (inside learning environments). We must work diligently and with tenacity to repair, not patch, these cracks before they become potholes - or worse, sinkholes that swallow our youth. We want to ward off disengagement from the lifelong learning process.


Consider the proposal below as a framework for reflection and action planning. You're invited to keep the conversation going by sharing the content, leaving a comment, or submitting a guest blog post.

Examine the Approach

Educators take a course in graduate school called instructional theory. During this course, I was charged with developing a personal instructional philosophy (or educational philosophy). Though generally referred to as expectations, parents have instructional philosophies as well. We all have a set of beliefs that govern how we approach and experience the task of educating others.

  • Engagement. Are you hands-on and enjoy guiding students to the finish line? Do you prefer to serve as a guide on the side?

  • Voice. Are you open to researching student interests to answer questions and provide supports? Do you listen and leave students to their own devices?

  • Participation. Are you solely exposing learners to quality workbooks, e-books, worksheets, and activities? Do you carve out time to discuss learning expectations and outcomes?

Promote Learner Agency

Specialized instruction becomes an option only after we provide adequate instruction; this is the status quo that results in many overlooked drop-outs. Still, there's a reason students with mental health disorders are not eligible to receive the accommodations they need when there's lack of appropriate instruction. This reasoning further supports our responsibility to examine how we're approaching instruction and learning. How are we providing adequate instruction?

Does your approach limit or promote learner agency? Is there a healthy balance of student freedom and adult control that's age-appropriate? Are we considering how our approaches impact mental health?


Consider the Impact

There's value in reflecting on how we engage students. When leading activities, adjust feedback and answers to student questions with rigor in mind. We want to provide just enough support for the student to demonstrate maximum independence.

Consider a student that you know has background knowledge in long division; you know the student is capable, but she's forgotten steps to complete a long division item. Showing work - the problem solving process - for the student isn't an example of giving feedback with rigor in mind. Instead, we achieve an appropriate level of rigor through questioning... by asking guiding questions that lead the student to uncover logical next steps. Another approach that maintains rigor involves reminding the student to look at her notes on long division, where she's recording the story that helped her demonstrate mastery on previous items.

In these ways, we promote learner agency. The student feels a sense of accomplishment; she's empowered. She gets to participate in the learning process as opposed to passively watching a leader-centered approach. Meta-cognition and meta-learning take place; she's thinking about her own thinking as well as learning how she learns best.


Humanism is a school of thought that suggests students learn when their affective (feeling) and cognitive (thinking) needs are met. When giving feedback with rigor in mind, we affect learning in ways that motivate the learner. By the end of our scenario, we've improved how she feels when thinking about long division.

Teaching and re-teaching in ways that accommodate student anxiety about making mistakes and failure, facilitates stability, strengthens character, and improves relationships.

Schedule educator professional development and parental engagement training today. You're also invited to keep the conversation going by sharing the content, leaving a comment, or submitting a guest blog post.