What Is Holistic Child Development?

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What Is Holistic Child Development?

by Christa Foster Crawford

This article is reprinted with permission from CCTI Barnabas Newsletter vol.7 No. 3,

Christa Foster Crawford, J.D.

A week ago I finished my last class in the Masters of Holistic Child Development (HCD) program from Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary. And, a month ago I took my first class towards a Ph.D. in HCD at Asia Pacific Nazarene Theological Seminary— taught by none other than Dr. Phyllis Kilbourn. In partnership with Compassion International, these seminaries are two of the pioneer institutions providing graduate degrees in Holistic Child Development.

So, what is HCD? You’d think with all of this HCD education under my belt, it would be easy for me to answer this question. You’d be wrong.

Since I had just asked the same question in one of my last classes, I knew the timing was of God when Rosemary Sabatino contacted me to write an article on HCD for The Barnabas Letter. I am a new convert to HCD. I never heard of the subject before beginning my master’s program three years ago. But I am an enthusiastic believer, having recruited others to the program as well as teaching in and starting to write textbooks and curricula for the discipline. Yet, there I was on the last day of class realizing that I did not know what the “key principles of HCD” really were. Was I really such a terrible student?

I suppose I was somewhat comforted when the professor was unable to give a definitive list of the “Top 10 Principles” of HCD, though obviously he was a leading expert in the subject. I was even more surprised when I went to the HCD Global Alliance website for a definition and found none. So the invitation to write an article on HCD for The Barnabas Letter gave me the opportunity to answer my own question, and to share some of those thoughts with you. I am not a representative of the Holistic Child Development movement, nor am I one of its architects. I can only tell you what I have learned about HCD and how it has enhanced my understanding of the needs of and interventions for the sexually exploited children with whom I have been working in Thailand and the surrounding region for the past nine years.First of all HCD is holistic ... our interventions must address all aspects of the child.

So, then, what is Holistic Child Development? First of all, HCD is holistic. It recognizes that our interventions for children in crisis must address all aspects of the child: body, soul, mind and spirit. HCD understands the child’s need to develop mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and in a whole host of other ways.

A child in crisis is in need of salvation, but he or she is also in need of food, clothing, safety, security and healing. Christians working with children in crisis must recognize, understand and seek to provide for the full range of the children’s needs through partnering with others. This criteria requires us to learn about the holistic needs of children by taking advantage of the training resources provided by CCTI, HCD programs and others. At the same time, we must realize that the “core of human and social transformation is spiritual.”2

In other words any truly holistic intervention “must give attention to spiritual as well as physical needs.” Any intervention that does not recognize the spiritual needs of children will ultimately fall short. In this way Christians play a unique and vital role in ministering to children in crisis. The world can meet the physical, emotional and mental needs of the child; only Christ provides an answer to the spiritual needs of the child and the spiritual root of their problems, which is in a word: Sin.4

Second, HCD is about the child. Like its name, holistic child development puts the child at the center. In our HCD courses we talk about putting the “child in the midst” just like Jesus did in Matthew 18:2 when he brought a child into the middle of the disciples’ argument about who is greatest in the kingdom.second

The HCD movement has some overlaps with the Child Theology movement, the key theological question of which is this: “What does it mean for us today to respond to the teaching and example of Jesus when He placed a little child in the midst of his disciples so that they could be encouraged to change and become lowly like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?”5 This question also provides a core theological foundation for all of HCD.6 Rather than being incidental and marginal, children and childhood have a surprisingly significant presence and role in Scripture that we often overlook.7 By seeing how important children are to God, we recognize how important they must be to us as well. By listening to what Jesus had to say about children, we hear how He expects us to respond. For if welcoming a child is like welcoming Jesus, then it is vital that we keep them in the center of our focus.

Finally, holistic child development is about development. In one sense it is about “child development” – the science of understanding how a child develops in each of the holistic ways mentioned. Child development theory helps us to better understand the nature and effects of crisis on every aspect of a child’s development, making us better able to meet the child’s individual needs. But HCD is also about the practice of development – of addressing the spiritual, structural, societal, economic and other roots of the problems that put children at risk and responding to those problems at the individual, familial, societal and spiritual levels. Because HCD is holistic it can help us formulate comprehensive responses to these interrelated causes and needs. Because it is Christian, it can be truly transformational – not just alleviating harm to children in crisis but also bringing them to Jesus who restores their souls.

So, what difference does my understanding of HCD make in my ministry to children in crisis? There are many advantages. Perhaps most important is that HCD has given me a new set of lenses with which to view the needs of children and a new set of tools by which to respond; lenses that see children with their holistic needs as central, and tools to develop their full range of potential.

Children are important to God

While the concept of holistic child development may be new, the principles behind it are not. HCD helps us to bring back into focus what Jesus put in the center: a child. HCD reminds us of God’s special concern for children and of His particular call for Christians to care for their needs. This is a responsibility not just of development practitioners but of the church as a whole – of any who would seek to welcome Jesus. May HCD enable the church to see the hurting children in its midst and equip it to respond holistically to God’s call.

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