Jun 08 2021

Design Principles for Schools: Putting the Science of Learning and Development Into Action

Published by the Learning Policy Institute and Turnaround for Children in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment and in association with the SoLD Alliance.

Education aims to give every student opportunities to learn and thrive, but our current education system has not been designed to promote the equitable opportunities or outcomes that today’s children and families deserve and that our democracy and society need. Our system was designed for a different world—to support mass education preparing students for their presumed places in life. That world believed that talent and skills were scarce, it trusted averages as a measure of individuals, and it was a world in which racist beliefs and stereotypes shaped the system so that only some children were deemed worthy of opportunity.

To achieve the transformation we need today, education systems must be willing to embrace what we know about how children learn and develop. This knowledge has been well established through the science of learning and development, which shows that the range of students’ academic skills and knowledge—and, ultimately, students’ potential—can be significantly influenced through exposure to learning environments that use whole child design. To facilitate this transformation, this playbook translates and highlights the science, structures, and practices that can become the foundation for a new approach to learning when integrated and implemented. These design principles do not suggest a single design or model but suggest an approach to systemic change that supports equity for all students and the development of the full set of skills, competencies, and mindsets that young people need to live and thrive in their diverse communities.

This playbook and its framework are organized into five key principles developed by a group of educators, practitioners, and scientists. The playbook focuses on these principles and their integration, pointing to the concrete practices and structures schools can use to bring them to life at their sites. With this information, the playbook aims to guide the transformation of learning settings for children and adolescents.

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.

What Can Schools Do to Foster Positive Developmental Relationships?

Support structures that enable the development of continuous, secure relationships and allow teachers to know children well, as well as opportunities among adults for collaboration toward shared goals. These structures include:

  • small schools and small learning communities;
  • advisory systems that create small family units within schools;
  • looping that allows educators to be with the same children for more than one year;
  • time and protocols for home visits and other outreach that connects families and educators;
  • staff collaboration time and structures; and
  • opportunities for shared decision-making.

Support practices that allow educators to engage in trust-building and collaboration with students, families, and each other to achieve shared practice around a developmental approach to learning and development. These practices include:

  • behaviors that communicate respect, caring, and valuing of students and families;
  • pedagogies that allow educators to develop deep knowledge about their students, their talents and interests, their families, and their cultural contexts;
  • classroom and schoolwide strategies that counteract stereotype threat through cultural affirmation and reinforcement of students’ capacities; and
  • collaboration skills for building productive relationships among staff and with families.

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.

What Can Schools Do to Foster Environments Filled With Safety and Belonging?

Support structures that foster safety and belonging, which include:

  • shared values and norms framed as “do’s” that guide relationships (e.g., respect, responsibility, kindness) rather than “don’ts” that direct punishments (e.g., don’t talk, touch, or move); these are co-developed with students and translated into expectations for each community member’s actions and interactions;
  • consistent routines that support order and positive interactions (e.g., daily greetings, regular classroom meetings, shared classroom practices), building a foundation for a strong sense of community and belonging within the school;
  • restorative routines and settings that support reflection and build life skills (e.g., community circles, places where students can defuse and reflect, and processes for explicit conflict resolution); and
  • inclusive settings, including heterogeneous classrooms and socially supportive extracurriculars that are culturally affirming and communicate common expectations and opportunities.

Support practices that build safe and caring learning communities, which include:

  • educators’ regular and skillful use of co-developed norms, routines that enable responsibility and agency, de-escalation practices when situations become tense, and management of conflict through dialogue and reparation of harm;
  • attention to signs of trauma, using a range of tools and resources to uncover and understand what children are experiencing, as well as healing-oriented practices, including mindfulness, counseling, and access to additional resources; and
  • respect for students, coupled with instruction that builds upon students’ cultures, identities, and experiences alongside efforts to reduce implicit and explicit bias in the classroom and school as a whole; these practices include affirmations that establish the value of each student, cultivate diversity as a resource, and encourage asset-based celebrations of accomplishments.

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.

What Can Schools Do to Foster Rich Learning Experiences?

Support structures that foster rich learning experiences, which include:

  • curriculum and program offerings that support inquiry and problem-based learning around rich, relevant tasks that are culturally connected and collaboratively pursued;
  • performance assessments and rubrics focused on higher-order thinking skills and applications of knowledge that structure the teaching, tasks, feedback, and metacognitive reflections that guide learning; and
  • tools for learning about students’ experiences, interests, strengths, and readiness that can be built upon to draw connections to the curriculum and foster learning (e.g., learning surveys, student reflections, observation protocols, formative assessments, and exit tickets).

Support practices that develop competence and confidence in learners include:

  • “two-way” pedagogies that provide knowledge of students as learners and individuals in order to enable explicit connections between students’ prior knowledge and cultural experiences and the content under study;
  • careful scaffolding and supports for students to undertake rich, engaging, authentic tasks, creating zones of proximal development for rich learning through active inquiry and strategic, explicit instruction;
  • recognition of strengths and skills with opportunities to continue to develop them and share them with others, developing positive academic identities;
  • cognitive supports that make tasks doable by structuring them well, reducing unnecessary cognitive load, and that use multiple modalities and tools for accessing information and expressing learning (as in Universal Design for Learning); and
  • opportunities to develop mastery and metacognitive skills, including opportunities to access resources; collaborate; practice; give and receive useful feedback; and reflect, revise, and improve, so that students can ultimately manage their own learning toward mastery of content and deeper learning skills.

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.

What Can Schools Do to Develop Skills, Habits, and Mindsets?

Support structures that integrate cognitive, social, and emotional development into learning, which include:

  • curricula and dedicated time that enable students to explicitly learn and practice valued skills, habits, and mindsets (e.g., social and emotional learning or conflict resolution curricula);
  • opportunities and routines that reinforce skills, habits, and mindsets during everyday instruction and school activities;
  • scaffolds that support executive functions like planning, organizing, implementing, and reflecting on tasks; and
  • collaboration protocols and rubrics that support interpersonal skill development in the context of subject matter classes.

Support practices that make learning and skill development visible and supported, which include:

  • strategies that reinforce skill, habit, and mindset development; affirm students’ abilities and assets; and provide appropriate scaffolds (e.g., using growth-oriented language and practices);
  • strategies that help students describe their thinking and feelings; build self-awareness; and develop strategies for calming, self-management, and problem-solving; and
  • practices such as educator modeling, think-alouds, and metacognitive activities that make the development of cognitive, social, and emotional skills visible while conveying what is possible.

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.

What Can Schools Do to Create Integrated Support Systems?

Adopt structures that incorporate universal and tiered supports, which include:

  • assessments that help educators understand student wellness and progress and the supports students need;
  • availability of high-quality tutoring and mentoring, counseling, and student support teams;
  • additional before, during, and after-school time for expanded learning, along with summer programs or Acceleration Academies during intersessions; and
  • health, mental health, and community partnerships with social service providers, including community school models.

Adopt practices that enable these structures to be effective, which include:

  • strategies and practices that ensure collaboration, coordination, and shared developmental approaches across providers of services; and
  • approaches that are culturally competent, carefully integrated, and age appropriate, considering students holistically and with an assets-based lens.

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.

Taking Whole Child Design to Scale

There is not just one way to integrate whole child practices and structures in a school or community learning setting. Rather, there are a number of ways that educators can nurture students’ assets and address their needs and challenges to create equitable and impactful school settings. To create more schools that teach all students the complex skills they actually need for academic and life success while affirming their identities and potential, developing their character, and fostering equity, evidence suggests that we must:

  • redesign schools to support high-quality teaching and strong relationships;
  • rethink curriculum, assessment, and accountability structures so that they focus on powerful learning with associated supports;
  • improve professional learning opportunities;
  • build unified integrated support systems; and
  • take a systemic approach that enables change in all schools.



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.

This research was supported by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is also provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, and Sandler Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.