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Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole-Child Design

Learning Policy Institute & Turnaround for Children. (2021). Design principles for schools: Putting the science of learning and development into action.

Positive Developmental Relationships

Relationships engage young people in ways that help them define who they are, what they can become, and how and why they are important to others. When students and teachers have close, caring relationships, students feel more comfortable taking risks on behalf of learning and stretch to do things they have never done before. They have a safe space in which to express themselves honestly and make meaning of the things they are learning and experiencing. Beyond individual teacher–student relationships, building relationships between and among students, peers, families, and educators—both in the school and in the community—can provide the opportunities to build essential trust and create the collective will to enable equitable experiences, opportunities, and outcomes for each and every child.

Environments Filled With Safety and Belonging

In environments that are consistently caring, safe, attuned to relationships, and inclusive, youth learning and well-being will be not only promoted, but empowered. Learning communities that have shared expectations—that demonstrate cultural sensitivity and communicate worth—create calm and ignite curiosity. Children are more able to learn and take risks when they feel not only physically safe with consistent routines and order, but also emotionally and identity safe, such that they and their culture are a valued part of the community they are in. There is no one formula for creating and sustaining these environments, but key structures can increase equity of experience, opportunity, and outcomes for all students.

Rich Learning Experiences and Knowledge Development

Students learn best when they are engaged in authentic activities and are collaboratively working and learning with peers to deepen their understanding and to transfer knowledge and skills to new contexts and problems. This includes opportunities for students to develop their knowledge in ways that build on their culture, prior knowledge, and experience and help learners discover what they can do and are capable of. Because learning processes are very individual, educators need opportunities and tools to come to know students’ experiences and thinking well, and educators should have flexibility to accommodate students’ distinctive pathways to learning, as well as their areas of significant talent and interest.

Development of Skills, Habits, and Mindsets

Schools and classrooms that simultaneously emphasize academic growth and the development of the valued skills, habits, and mindsets that propel it are necessary for student learning and well-being, as well as for educational equity. These key skills—including executive function, growth mindset, social awareness, resilience and perseverance, metacognition, and self-direction—can and should be taught, modeled, and practiced just like traditional academic skills. Certain key structures and approaches can support the integrated and progressive nature of skill development and can be incorporated into the daily experience and work of school.

Integrated Support Systems

All children need support and opportunity. They have unique needs, interests, and assets to build upon, as well as areas of vulnerability to strengthen without stigma or shame. To support youth and their varied needs, learning environments should be designed to include protective factors, including health, mental health, and social service supports, as well as opportunities to extend learning and build on interests and passions. Comprehensive and integrated supports bolster student learning and development, particularly when they are implemented in collaborative, culturally responsive, and coordinated ways.

Integrating Design Principles in Schools

The Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole Child Design are each critical to supporting youth learning and development. Yet, their impact is deeply felt and effective when practitioners integrate all five into a coherent, continuously reinforcing set of practices and structures.


Design Principles for Schools: Putting the Science of Learning and Development Into Action by Linda Darling-Hammond, Pamela Cantor, Laura E. Hernández, Abby Schachner, Sara Plasencia , Christina Theokas, and Elizabeth Tijerina is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.