‘Holistic’ Child Development -What Does it Mean Anyway?

Dec 1, 2022 | Education

‘Holistic’ Child Development -What Does it Mean Anyway?

As parents, care givers and teachers we are under constant pressure ‘to get it right’ with the children in our care, but what exactly does that mean? We often here of taking a ‘holistic’ approach to parenting and teaching. Even in Hive Education, the ‘H’ in ‘Hive’ stands for ‘Holistic’. With posters in Hive for each of the letters Hive, children are always asking me what holistic means, which made me think it’s probably a tricky concept for adults to understand too. So here’s my understanding of what exactly this means.

Child Development is the process by which a child changes and grows over time, influenced by both experiences and physiological changes. Holistic Child Development refers to the intimately interconnected elements of development, rather than individual elements i.e. the development of the child as a well-rounded whole-being, rather than just their ability to socialise. Theories of holistic child development and learning include the work of Piaget, Chomsky, Erikson, Bowlby, Ainsworth, Pavlov and Skinner amongst others. The holistic approach to child development, from infancy, became popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s with the emergence of journals and literature highlighting the importance of caregivers and teachers nurturing ‘the whole’ child, and all their needs, rather than focusing on individual parts of the child. This was a result of writings by classical educational philosophers such as Steiner and Krishnamurti.

Attachment Theory, as originated by the workings of Bowlby (1907-1990), was described as ‘‘A lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’’. In the terms of holistic child development, attachment forms a major contributing factor. Children develop different styles of attachment based on experiences and interactions with their caregivers.

• The emotional bonds a child forms with significant attachment figures alter their perceptions and interpretations of events throughout their life.

• Disruptions to these bonds can cause attachment issues and are often the cause of social, emotional, behaviour and mental health problems.

A child should be provided a safe and stable environment in which to grow, in order to develop emotionally, physically, socially, morally, culturally, intellectually, creatively and spiritually. The initial bond with the caregiver and following provision of a safe base allows for secure attachment to develop. A child who is securely attached, who is given the opportunity to develop in all the holistic areas, will, in general, become resilient adults and continue the cycle to offer positive and secure attachment to their children. ‘Resilient children are better equipped to resist stress and adversity, cope with change and uncertainty, and to recover faster and more completely from traumatic events or episodes.’ (Newman and Blackburn, 2004). Carl Rogers (1959) stated that the individual has within himself or herself great resources for self-understanding, for altering the self-concept, basic attitudes or his/her self-directed behaviour, but these resources may only be tuned when the child has been provided the environment for facilitative psychological attitudes.

According to Fraiberg (1959) attachment forms an integral part in child development and furthermore how we develop as adults; ‘Our personal identity – the very centre of our humanness – is achieved through the early bonds of child and parent. Conscience itself, the most civilizing of all achievements in human evolution, is not part of constitutional endowment, but the endowment of parental love and education”. According to Attachment Theory, secure attachments facilitate children’s formation of coherent and organised mental representations of the relationship that they can use effectively to predict attachment figures’ behaviour. This competence then provides children with the ability to engage in what Bowlby called ‘goal-corrected partnerships’, whereby they use their insights into attachment partners to align their own goals with those of the attachment figure. Therefore, attachment relationships offer children the means by which to attend to and use mental representations of others to guide behaviour (Lenna L. Ontai and Ross A. Thompson, University of California).

Children with unrepaired insecure avoidant, insecure ambivalent and disorganised attachments may show common issues such a lack of trust and self-worth, a fear of getting close to anyone, anger, and a need to be in control. A child with an attachment disorder feels unsafe and alone, may suffer from mental health issues and depression, difficulties in school and even end up in trouble with the law. It should be stated here that attachment issues may be reversible or temporary. A study carried out by Michael Rutter (1981) found that early separation, due to physical reasons, between infant and caregiver did not result in long-lasting attachment troubles, but temporary problems which were overcome when family life returned to normal. However; those who were separated due to psychological issues resulted in maladjusted children, with lasting problems.

Parent’s or caregivers’ attachment style can greatly impact on the social development of the child. Children will be influenced by the quality of relationships support and social interactions of the adult. Adults with difficulties in the area of social integration will likely have a significant impact on the child; however from the age of two children will begin to form their own friendships in a progressively complex social world. The Good Childhood Society Inquiry (Children’s Society 2007) noted in their survey that along with their family, friendships were the most important thing in the lives of children and young people. Relationships with their peers become increasingly more important as children move from adolescence into early adulthood. Children with positive social interactions are more likely to have high self-esteem, have positive relationships with peers, and achieve in school. Furthermore, research finds that positive social skills are associated with positive later life outcomes, such as successful marriages and careers.

Studies by Jack and Gill (2003) found that apart from perceptions influenced by adult attitudes, other issues affecting social interactions include economic disadvantage, housing and geographical location. Jones (Jones et al. 2000) found that children living in suburban and rural settings were more inclined to travel with a sense of safety to visit their peers than those in urban settings, who often feared travelling alone to meet friends. This perception about personal safety in numbers was also cited as a major reason for groups of children gathering together, thus creating gangs.

A major social impact on holistic child development is that of bullying and harassment. In a world of social media and advanced technology bullying is presently at its’ height. Although dated, a study carried out by Trinity College (1997) found that 31% of primary and 16% of secondary students have been bullied at some time. A UNICEF study in 2007, found that The U.K. had the poorest peer relationships in Europe. Studies in Scandinavia show that approximately 60% of boys who were characterised as bullies in grades 6-9 had at least one conviction by the age of 24. As much as 30-40% of former bullies had three or more convictions by this age. Thus as young adults, former school bullies had a fourfold increase in the level of relatively series criminality as documented in official crime records. (Source: Olweus, 1993 courtesy of Health Service Executive).

With increased immigration and asylum seeking, racial and religious harassment has also become a social and cultural issue in 21st Century Child Development. The impacts on the child at the receiving end of the bullying or harassment can include negative self-image, self-harm, eating disorders, academic difficulties, isolation and ever more prevalent suicide. Cultural impact on child development varies greatly from country to country. The type of parenting skills range, for example, from a more authoritative approach favoured in North America to a more child-centred style in Denmark. The age at which a child begins formal schooling will impact on child development milestones. Race and racial stereotyping can also influence greatly the development of the child. Stereotyping is taught, a lesson which has lasting results when the child perceives negatively an attitude of inferiority of themselves or against others. Class and children of colour are still statistically more likely to lack access to basic resources and suffer economic hardship; thus inhibiting holistic child development.

Environmental issues in Child Development are closely linked to attachment in the first three years of the child’s life. An unstable environment, whether due to emotional, financial, addiction or behavioural constraints, can greatly impact holistic child development and lead to lasting effects. In the short-term an unhealthy environment can lead to poorer language development by age three, later behavioural problems, deficits in school readiness, aggression, anxiety and depression and impaired cognitive development at age three. Longer term impacts have been documented high level of early school leavers, teen parenthood and adult unemployment and low earnings

Currently interventions offering support for parents dealing with issues relating to attachment are not widely available and how accessible they are is vague. However; a group which offer an excellent service for parents and children, particularly for vulnerable mothers and babies is The Beesborough Centre in Cork. Referrals, with an emphasis on attachment and parent-child bonding and early brain development, are made to attend direct intervention and continually assessed sessions. Another successful intervention, countrywide is Parenting Plus, a charity which offers parenting programmes in community and clinical settings. Barnardos offer a very successful parenting database, where parents in need of developing positive parenting skills and other useful information about their children’s needs, can access information in their local area. These services are all free or accept donations.

In 2000 The Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Children, published ‘A Guide to What Works in Family Support Services for Vulnerable Families’, which gave us measurable results as to the success rates of each support service; Therapeutic, Parent Education Programmes, Home-Based Parent and Family Support Programmes, Child Development and Education Interventions, Youth Work and Community Development. This report includes both free and fee paying services, which may be costly. G.P. referred public waiting lists, such as through Túsla, may be long, while private appointments such as therapeutic interventions in play, music and art therapy or counselling services are usually speedy (though longer since Covid 19).

As children grow, in addition to those offered in the home setting, their existing emotional, physical, social, moral, cultural, intellectual, creative and spiritual needs are developed in the educational setting.  Most educational structures available in Ireland; Pre-school, Primary (including Aistear), Secondary and Third level are intended to respond to the holistic development of the child; however there are several which are more explicitly focused on a child-centred approach.

The growth of Montessori in the 1960’s and 1970’s highlighted a more child-centred, active-learning method of early education. By encouraging learning through reflection, questioning, philosophy and a sense of wonder and awe of the universe, it is believed that it would encompass a holistic nature of child development in all aspects of life. This holistic approach, which avoided the labelling of children, was in direct contrast to the more traditional practice at that time, of directing children to fulfil academic targets, through directed text book studies and standardised tests. Other Primary and secondary alternatives to the more traditional National school include Steiner, Waldorf, Educate Together and Community schools. According to the Education Group Pearson (2015-2016) Ireland is ranked 16 in the world’s educational system, under the following headings;

  • The literacy rate is 99% for each male and female.
  • The education in the country is free for all levels from primary to third or college/university level.
  • The students from the European Union are the only to be charged for fees and funds, mainly the tuition fees. 
  • The Irish government is having an investment of 8.759 billion euro annually on the education.  

In conclusion, holistic Child Development is based on a range of contributing factors, which rarely come together with exacting precision. However for a child to benefit from an ‘all-round’ holistic style of development, encompassing each of the necessary elements; attachment, environment, background, interventions and education conditions, must be right. As parents, care givers and teachers we can only do our best to share with children our best holistic approach.