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More than two years into a global pandemic we continue to witness the effects of the Coronavirus, and one of the groups that has suffered most is children.

At the pandemic's peak, more than 1.5 billion children worldwide were out of school, which is more than 91% of the world's students. Many children were adversely affected physically, mentally, and emotionally by the resulting social isolation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency department visits due to suspected suicide attempts jumped 31% among those aged 12-25 in 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. And in late 2021, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry declared that the pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health has become a national emergency.

Knowing these effects of the pandemic, we must help address the mental health challenges our children have endured the past two years, and this is something that parents, caregivers, and educators know first-hand. At the Fetzer Institute, we believe that an approach that embraces whole child development is a step in the right direction.

This approach to education focuses on creating environments that support children's academic, social, and emotional development. According to Xiaoan Li, who leads the Fetzer Institute's Education initiative, "Students need to feel safe, loved, and cared for to become active learners," and this is what whole child development is about.

For many years, the Fetzer Institute has committed resources to creating learning environments where young people can reach their full potential. Early support of organizations like the Collaborative for Academic Social Emotional Learning helped fuel decades of research that has documented how social and emotional learning has a positive impact on a wide range of outcomes, including academic performance, healthy relationships, and mental wellness. 

Fetzer’s education work now articulates that constitutionally respectful spiritual development and support is critical to the learning process. This is an essential part of our mission of creating the spiritual foundation for a loving world.

More recently, the finding that adolescents with a robust spirituality—rooted within their families and supported in educational settings—are 35%-80% less likely to fall victim to substance abuse, deepens our understanding of the importance of this approach.

Our support of research on the spiritual dimensions of childhood development led to What Makes Me: Core Capacities for Living and Learning. This report, released in collaboration with UNICEF and the Learning for Well-being Foundation, assesses how nine core capacities can improve the lives of children, and how our education systems and broader social systems can protect and promote these abilities. These capacities—and our attention to them—are key to improving childhood well-being that has suffered during the pandemic.

Whole child development can help our children recover from the trauma brought by COVID-19, but all hands need to be on deck for this to work. As Xiaoan Li notes, “In education we tend to emphasize 8-5. We sometimes overlook the role parents play as their children's first teachers, embodying and teaching the beliefs they cherish. We all—parents, educators, and communities—have a shared passion and part in helping our kids to be their full selves, to reach their full potential, to connect with awe and wonder, sacred dignity, purpose, and meaning. We need to work together to help our children thrive academically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.” 

Learn more about Fetzer’s work in whole child development by visiting our Education page.