Whole Child Skill Development

Building Foundations for Success


Developing whole child skills, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and the ability to make responsible decisions, are essential to student success inside and outside of the classroom. Development of these skills is associated with lower levels of emotional distress, enhanced well-being, improved academic outcomes, and more stable employment in adulthood. These skills can be taught, practiced, and strengthened in everyday interactions in schools, at home, in workplaces, and in community organizations.

The image below displays examples of foundational whole-child skills that can be developed through school-based activities.

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The Montana Whole Child Skill Development Competencies

The Montana Whole Child Skill Development Competencies are intended to guide the lifelong development of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making for all Montana students. The competencies were developed in partnership with Montana educators, parents, caregivers, school counselors, and youth mental health and development experts. The competencies are:  

  • Designed for students kindergarten to grade 12: The competencies were designed to serve as a tool to support the skill development of all Montana’s students.
  • Aligned with educator skills: Educator skill development competencies coincide with student competencies & emphasize the important role caring and trusted adults play in modeling, teaching, and strengthening student skill development.
  • Vertically and horizontally aligned: Competencies align within grade-levels, vertically across the five competency areas, and are aligned across grade levels, horizontally, reflecting the expected progression of skill development as students age and move from kindergarten through grade 12.
  • Developmentally appropriate: The competencies are informed by Bloom’s taxonomy to be developmentally appropriate across grade levels.

The implementation of the Whole Child Skill Development Competencies requires two underlying conditions:

  • First, all students will have the support of trusted adults in a safe and healthy environment.
  • Second, these adults will use developmentally appropriate practice, will explicitly model the skills, and will decrease their level of support as the learner gains confidence.

Access the Montana Whole Child Skill Development Competencies

Strategies to Strengthen Whole Child Skills

Educators are very likely already implementing strategies that stengthen Whole Child Skills. The strategies below are provided for consideration and were selected by a work-group of Montana educators and child development experts as strategies that are strength-based and correspond with the Montana Whole Child Skill Development Competencies. We encourage all strategies to be selected based on ease of  implementation into existing curriculum, school practices, and student and educator preference.

Benefits of Building Whole Child Skills

Increase in academic performance

Studies show students who have the opportunity to increase their skills in the areas of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship building, and responsible decision-making, increase their academic performance by an average of 11 to 17 percentile points, compared to other students. Many schools have adopted the Montana Whole Child Skill Development Competencies into their academic and student support systems to maximize the academic outcomes of all students and support the elevated needs of student groups.

(Source: Durlak, et al., 2011. Journal of Child Development, Volume 82, Number 1, 405-432).

Decrease in behavioral health concerns

The skills outlined in the Montana Whole Child Skill Development Competencies have been shown to help students better manage stress and reduce feelings of depression and these positive effects on behavioral health tend to carry over into adulthood. School-based programs dedicated to fostering the development of these skills also protect against substance use in teens and reduces the risk of substance dependency in adulthood.

(Sources: Durlak, et al., 2011. Journal of Child Development, Volume 82, Number 1, 405-432; Committee for Children, 2022).

Increase in teacher retention

Teacher wellbeing is an essential part of teacher retention. Some of the specific benefits of Whole Child Skill Development that contribute to both student and teacher wellness include:

  • Supportive classroom climate: Whole child skill development contributes to the creation of a safe, caring learning environment that benefits teachers and students.
  • Supportive learning environment: Studies show teachers who work at school with programs dedicated to whole child skill development report higher levels of efficacy and students increase their academic performance.
  • Better classroom management: Whole child skill development helps reduce stress and behavioral health concerns in both students and adults resulting in better classroom management and fewer discipline referrals.
(Sources: Aldrup, et al., 2020, Frontiers in Psychology; Durlak, et al., 2011. Journal of Child Development)

Increase in School Attendance

Whole child skill development is an effective strategy for preventing student dropout and increasing school attendance and graduation by improving a student’s attitude towards school and helping build the skills necessary to complete school such as self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and maintaining a positive attitude.

(Source: Jones, D.E., Greenberg, M., Crowley, M., 2015. American Journal of Public Health). 

Increase in Workforce and College Readiness

Whole child skills for students (and adults) are vital to creative and productive outcomes in our global society. Development of the skills outlined in the Montana Whole Child Skill Development Competencies, builds collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity, all which map to attributes such as problem-solving skills, the ability to work as part of a team, a strong work ethic, analytical skills and the ability to communicate. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (2020), these are the traits that many employers value in addition to job-specific skills. Even with increased usage of technology within our society, these skills (sometimes referred to as soft skills) are valued and critical for professional success as they ensure the workforce has knowledge in both the technical skills related to the specific job role and the social and relational skills in order to be successful in project and people management. Schools and communities that purposefully develop whole child skills provide opportunities to prepare students and adults for post-secondary success.

High Return on Investment & Sustained Positive Impacts

The positive effects of school-based whole child development skill building are long-lasting. Youth who attend schools with dedicated teaching of these skills tend to have a more positive view of themselves and others and are able to develop positive relationships with family members and coworkers at a higher frequency as adults; these youth also tend to perform better occupationally and are less likely to need public assistance in their lifetime. These benefits are especially present in children whose families live below the poverty line. Investment in whole child skill development pays for itself as the average return on investment for school-based programming is $11 for every $1 spent.

(Sources: Jones, D.E., Greenberg, M., Crowley, M. (2015). American Journal of Public Health; Belfield, C., Klapp, A., Bowden, B., Levin, H.M. (2015) Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis) 



Integrated Multi-tiered System of Support Approach for Whole Child Skill Development

The Integrated Multi-Tiered System of Support Approach for Whole Child Skill Development framework was codeveloped by the OPI and local education agencies and other stakeholders including Montana teachers, school administrators, counselors, content area specialists, and caregivers. The OPI’s multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) serves as the framework for implementation. 

Whole Child Skill Development Infographic

Establish foundational support and plan

As schools work to maximize the benefits of school-based whole child skill development (WCSD) through a school-wide, systematic approach it is important schools take the steps to establish the necessary foundational support and plan. Research has shown the necessity of a strong foundation and school climate supportive of WCSD in order to achieve desired goals. The other foundational areas for implementing school-based WCSD can help to establish a shared level of understanding of school-based WCSD and create a shared vision for implementing WCSD strategies.

In all planning processes, schools are encouraged to utilize a multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) approach to meet the varying levels of WCSD needs among student groups (see Collect and Share Data on Continuous Improvement). As schools establish foundational supports and create WCSD plans they are encouraged to review the other foundational areas and select strategies that can simultaneously meet multiple recommendations. 

Honor and elevate youth voice and engagement

Schools that honor and elevate youth voice and engagement use student perspectives and experiences to shape the ways schools operate to support student learning. Unless youth voice is gathered, schools may never have an accurate perception of the relationships that are crucial to effective school-based whole child skill development (WCSD). Once school staff begins to understand the perspectives and experiences of students they can honor and elevate the voice of youth by incorporating youth voice into WCSD policies and procedures and many other aspects of school life.


  • Facilitating Listening Circles (International Institute for Restorative Practices)- This professional development resource provides information and guidance on facilitating listening circles to provide students and school staff with an opportunity to speak and listen to each other.
  • Youth Voice Best Practices (Carlow University)- A toolkit for venter youth voices in educational programming.   

Strengthen adult competencies and capacity

Student whole child skill growth occurs when whole child skill development (WCSD) curriculums and strategies are delivered and supported by caring, trusted adults. This necessitates good modeling by adults and dedication to strengthening adult competencies and capacity across all school settings. As schools develop school wide WCSD implementation plans, opportunities to grow adult competencies must also be considered. 

Examples of strengthening adult competencies and capacity may include:

  • Providing professional development opportunities in one or more of the five competency areas included in the WCSD. For example, building in time for school staff to learn and practice stress reduction techniques.
  • Offering professional development opportunities to learn about the lived-experiences of their students and the community they live in.  
  • Building staff trust, community, and collective efficacy by providing opportunity to develop shared goals and leveraging the unique skills and knowledge everyone has to offer to work towards goals.     
  • Character Development: Competencies and Activities (YMCA)- Strategies focused on building emotional management, empathy, personal development, relationship development, and responsibility in adults who work with youth.  
  • ParentingMontana.org- Growing strong emotional and relationship skills is a three-generation approach with the potential for broad impact. ParentingMontana.org seeks to grow the these types of skills of children and their parents. 

Implement school-wide, trauma-informed, restorative approaches

When implemented universally, whole child skill development (WCSD) strategies can yield beneficial academic outcomes where all students regardless of location, socioeconomic status, gender, race, and other differences, are provided with opportunities to thrive in the school setting, tailored to meet their individual needs. To maximize the potential of achieving academic outcomes that benefit all students, schools must take purposeful steps to ensure:

  • WCSD strategies are inclusive of all students, their values, lived-experiences and culture
  • Meaningful WCSD opportunities are provided to all students across the entire school system and across all tiers for the MTSS model
  • All members of the school and community are able to meaningfully participate and contribute to the dialog and decision-making processes  
  • Authentic relationships between schools, students, families and community members are in place and used to inform WCSD strategies in school and out-of-school

WCSD and restorative practices can be used to intentionally build learning environments where each individual student thrives and improve the school climate to foster trusting and supportive relationships. Restorative practices utilize and build whole child competencies in proactive or responsive ways:

  • Proactive restorative practices: practices that proactively build healthy relationships and develop community.
  • Responsive practices: practices that respond to conflict and wrongdoing with the goal of repairing harm, rebuilding relationships, and restoring community.
Source: International Institute for Restorative Practices (2018).  

Partnerships to Strengthen Family, Tribal & Community Engagement

Whole child skills are continually developed and refined wherever people spend time, including time spent with families/caregivers and in the community. Forming strong partnerships between schools, tribes, and community organizations has many benefits and school-based whole child skill development (WCSD) will be more effective if it aligns with local values and is supported by a wide range of stakeholders. WCSD is most effective when students are given the opportunity to practice competency area skills outside of the classroom and observe adults and peers model desirable skills.


Collect and Share Data on Continuous Improvement

Measure what you care about.

The Integrated Multi-tiered System of Support Approach for Whole Child Skill Development displays the importance of data as an interrelated component with systems and practices to producing desired outcomes. Delivering whole child skill development (WCSD) strategies through a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) helps ensure the varying levels of student needs are being met to the best of the school’s ability. Data on student whole child skill development can be used to identify current skill competencies and inform the Tier 1 (Universal) strategies that are most likely to build whole child skills competency across all student groups and the additional strategies necessary in Tier 2 and Tier 3 to create necessary opportunities for student to develop and master whole child skills.

Data-based decision-making 

Data-based decision-making requires that data are timely, valid, reliable, accurate and reviewed in ongoing cycles. The roles and responsibilities for data-based decision making within the system are clearly defined and executed. Using a data-based decision-making process shifts the work of school leadership teams from a reactive or crisis driven process to a pro-active, outcomes driven process, and sets the stage for continuous improvement. Data analysis allows for evidence to guide decision making for both the effectiveness of the system and for the needs of all students. Visit the OPI’s webpage for more information on data-based decision making

Screeners and school climate surveys 

School-wide screeners are tools schools can use to measure baseline skills and growth overtime. Whole child skill development (WCSD) has a bidirectional relationship with school climate: the climate of a school will foster or hinder WCSD and the skills of students and school staff will directly contribute to the climate of a school. School climate surveys are a great way to measure the manifestation of the WCSD strategies schools implement. They are also a great tool for gathering youth voice.

Existing screening data may also be available to inform WCSD strategies and measure WCSD strategy outcomes. This data may come from within or outside of the school. For example, schools routinely gather academic data and may be gathering other child wellness measures (e.g. Youth Risk Behavior Survey) and school measure (teacher satisfaction and retention) throughout the year. Within a community, many childcare establishments, including Head Start programs, and some healthcare practitioners use screening tools to measure whole child skills and other child development benchmarks. Due to the multitude of potential benefits of WCSD strategy implementation, schools are encouraged to use a variety of data sources to inform decision-making and track outcomes. Visit the OPI’s webpage for more information on comprehensive screening and assessment.

Sharing data

By sharing data with stakeholders, schools can create opportunities for shared celebrations when goals are achieved and create opportunities for collaborative strategizing for continuous improvement using shared information. These practices can help build collective efficacy towards meeting shared WCSD goals and helps ensure everyone is operating from a point of shared understanding. Visit the OPI’s webpage for more information on collaborative teams.   


OPI Staff are here to help: 

Michelle Cusey, Coordinated School Health Unit Director- 406.431.3029