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You might say that the online classroom is a clinic for the mind. The online ESL tutor needs to teach from a holistic approach or rather to, at all times, consider the student’s intellectual and emotional well-being. With every class you teach, you must ask yourself two important questions: what can I do to develop a holistic classroom? How can I contribute to the holistic development of a child? Your priority as an ESL teacher should be to accomplish both. Your endeavor in creating a holistic learning space should include, as Virginia L. Sauvé notes, “story weaving” and empathy.1 In essence, holistic development ensures that your students are emotionally healthy and intellectually developed. What exactly is holistic learning? The mere use of the word holistic may conjure images of home remedies, essential oils, or self-healing. These mental connections are, to an extent, true, but there is far more to holistic approaches than healing one’s self. According to one source, “holistic development is a way of activating the entire brain…to provide young children with experiences that allow them to develop both hemispheres of their brain.”2 There are four areas of a child’s brain that are developed via holistic approaches to learning: the cognitive, language acquisition, physical being, and the social-emotional areas of the brain.3 This article will look at the different areas where tutors can implement a holistic approach to create a safe and stimulating learning space for their students.

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ALO7’s Teacher Katie creates a warm classroom environment by asking her students
ice-breaker questions and really getting to know them.

Classroom Management: Behavior and Rules:

Using a holistic approach to manage your class may require utilizing different methods that you may feel uncomfortable or unsure of implementing. Part of effectively managing your online classroom is the development of rules and a set of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in class. How can you create rules that are both empathetic to your students as well as disciplinary? An excellent example is trying a Behavior Management System (BMS) that encourages creativity and stimulates the four areas of the brain while also fostering an organized and disciplined learning space. One way to do this is to introduce classroom rules and behaviors via a story or game. For example, you might tell a story about a noisy student who always shouts out the answers. Then ask your students: why should the student not shout out the answers? Or you might play a game called “Do or Don’t in Class” and reward points to students shouting “No” or “Yes” to statements such as “I shouldn’t talk when Cindy is talking” or “I should listen to the teacher.” One source suggests using the “Shark & Swimmer system” to reward students for correct behaviors and to kindly correct students who misbehave while helping them maintain their dignity.4 The trick is to create an environment that stimulates creativity and student-student interaction without plunging into chaos.

The most important thing to keep in mind when managing class rules is that numerous studies have found that positive reinforcement is better for student development and learning than negative reinforcement. The holistic approach values the cognitive and social-emotional areas of the brain. Positive reinforcement helps the student feel valued, successful, and capable. Your goal should be to use holistic approaches to fire up the neurons in your students’ brains, especially the trouble makers who need more guidance and attention rather than backlash.

One source suggests using the “Catch Them Being Good” technique where you proactively seek out good behavior in your students, including the times when difficult students are on their best behavior.5 In the online classroom, try praising good behavior as early in the class as possible using TPR and virtual rewards. You might ask your students to applaud anyone who exhibits good behavior during class to motivate a ‘troublemaker’ since he might covet the admiration of his peers. Or you might tell an ironic story. For example, you might tell a story using the trouble-making student’s name (ex. Cindy) and say, “Cindy is an outstanding student. She always helps her classmates, and she never shouts the answers in class.” This practice will encourage the student to strive for that goal. The goal of a successful BMS is to engage the students, create a safe learning space, and encourage good behavior and a healthy social-emotional state.

A Safe and Creative Learning Space: Storytelling, Empathy, and Risk-Taking:

Implementing an engaging and positively-oriented BMS is the first step in creating a holistically safe and creative learning space. However, the BMS cannot be the only resource in a holistic approach to creating an environment that values creativity and encourages failure. Virginia L. Sauvé makes a strong case for storytelling in the online classroom to foster risk-taking and student-student engagement. A holistic classroom thrives on storytelling. Storytelling allows you to get to know your students and for your students to learn more about you and their classmates. Storytelling creates an environment where opinions, experiences, and memories are valued and cultivated to develop the persona and foster a healthy social-emotional state of being. Allowing storytelling in the classroom can also create a safe space where risk-taking is valued, and failure is praised as part of a healthy learning process. Sauvé argues that storytelling is holistically valuable because it is a natural interaction involving the sharing of memories or experiences in an environment where students feel safe to share their feelings. According to Sauvé, “when the individuals in a classroom feel safe to be who they are, with all their fears, doubts, and questions, as well as their achievements, failures, and dreams, then and only then can they move from the stories of their past to understanding and taking control of their present and their future.”6 This might sound at first too complex, except that it is actually quite simple.

For example, in one of my classes this past month, with some older students, I was asking questions about their travel experiences. One girl was discussing her experience in Japan. All of a sudden, this had never occurred prior to this moment, the male student began to ask her questions because he discovered they had both been to the same city in Japan! I stepped back and watched the interaction between the two students unfold, noting the connections they drew, and how, at the end of the class, it was clear that a higher level of camaraderie had been attained. Asking questions about personal experiences or having students share stories is a great way to foster discussions between students and develop movement, interaction, and empathy in the online classroom. If the “storyweaver is also a healer,” as Sauvé would argue,7 then it is our jobs as tutors to ensure that our ESL classroom is a safe space for healing and risk-taking. If one of your students is sad in class because she had a bad day at school, then encourage her to open up and recruit the other students to make her laugh and inspire her to be creative. A successful holistic classroom prioritizes listening and healing. It is important to teach empathy to your online students as empathy is a valuable tool in healing and developing the mind. The cognitive processes of your students can only reach their maximum potential when they feel safe, are willing to take risks, and maintain a healthy social-emotional state of mind.

Happy Beautiful Little Girl Student Using Mobile Pad Computer
Photo courtesy of © Kittichai Boonpong |

Motivating Students with the Holistic Approach:

The goal of your holistic classroom should be to encourage the use of cognitive functions and the development of emotional well-being. A successful Behavior Management System and a safe learning space are the building blocks for motivating your online ESL students. Encouraging risk-taking is vital for the holistic approach to teaching. An effective holistic classroom should create a sense of community and shared learning goals. Sauvé observes that a holistic community, “helps [students] to ask questions without fear of being embarrassed by their ignorance…when the trust is there, they can take risks they need to extend themselves beyond where they want to go.”8 Use games, activities, and stories that motivate students to take risks and learn from each other’s mistakes.

Whatever methods you use to motivate students, remember that the holistic approach seeks to stimulate all five senses to develop the brain and make connections. According to one source, you should use activities that help improve cognitive, language, social-emotional, and physical areas.9 For example, language can be reinforced by associating words with visual aids or sounds. You might try showing a picture of an elephant and having your students identify the animal and mimic the sound it makes. Or you might use problem-solving games to help students correctly identify and imitate sounds, words, and pronunciations. If you are learning about the body, you might have students dance and point to the part of their body that you call out, or you might play “Simon Says.” This involves physical interaction and motor development, which stimulates the learning process. Movement is critical in motivating your students in the online classroom where physical contact is virtually impossible. One source notes, “we should include activities that involve moving their arms and legs. These help students engage and focus on both those activities and the rest of the lesson.”10

While your activities should be motivating and stimulate creativity and movement, remember that the holistic environment also needs to be predictable and consistent so that students feel comfortable and are confident about what to expect from their tutor. Activities should also be challenging and personalized for your students. Tell stories and play games using student names or include student interests in the courseware. For example, Yoyo likes Elsa, and Jason likes Batman. You might ask the question: What is Elsa’s power? What is Batman’s power? What power do you want? You can also teach empathy and social-emotional well-being through stories such as a student who struggles in school but learns to ask questions in class and take risks.

Reward students for sharing their interests and motivating other students to learn. According to one source, “emotional health is crucial for success,” and “creativity is necessary for innovation.”11 Reviewing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may help you understand the areas of your student’s brain that need attention in order to motivate the learning process. Positive reinforcement is one way to promote creativity and productivity. There are hundreds of areas where students need motivation in order to learn. Motivation can help develop social skills, self-awareness, imagination, cognitive skills, character building, etc.12 Your classroom needs to be authentic and open to creativity and imagination. I recently had a girl who kept showing her plushie Pikachu on her webcam. I decided to incorporate that into the class. I began to ask her questions about her toy: Where did she buy it? Was it big or small? What does a Pikachu do? The other students chimed in as well, but with their own toys and sharing their own interests. Being able to be flexible while teaching and morph the lesson to match the students’ interests goes a long way in helping to create a nurturing environment where students can grow.

Conclusion: The Role of Tutor as Quasi-Psychologist:

In conclusion, it might sound corny, but in some aspects, the online ESL tutor should attempt to be a quasi-psychologist. You should regularly examine your students’ behaviors, learning how to adapt, and change the learning environment according to their individual needs and wants. The goal of a holistic environment is to encourage learning, creativity, risk-taking, and instilling empathy in your students toward each other. The holistic classroom also endeavors to teach students to learn by using all five of their senses and to develop the cognitive, emotional, and physical aspects of the brain. Empathy and healing should be actively at work in the holistic classroom as part of the learning process. Moreover, the goal of your holistic classroom should be to encourage lifelong learning and cognitive development by ensuring that your student has healthy social-emotional well-being and that they can interact with their classmates by exhibiting the same characteristics toward others. The holistic classroom seeks to create a community of learners who learn from mistakes and develop creative habits.

References for The Holistic Approach to Teaching ESL in the Online Classroom:
1 Sauvé, V. L. (2002). Storyweavers: Holistic Education for ESL/EFL Learners. TESL Canada Journal, 20(1), 89–102. Retrieved from
2 Eash, T. (n.d.). How Brain Development Influences Holistic Development in Children. Retrieved from
3 Eash, T. How Brain Development Influences Holistic Development in Children.
4 This Behavior Management System Will Rescue Your ESL Classes. (2019, September 19). Retrieved from
5 ESL Classroom Management-Catch Them Being Good! (2019, March 6). Retrieved from
6 Sauvé, V. L. Storyweavers: Holistic Education for ESL/EFL Learners.
7 Sauvé, V. L. Storyweavers: Holistic Education for ESL/EFL Learners.
8 Sauvé, V. L. Storyweavers: Holistic Education for ESL/EFL Learners.
9 Eash, T. How Brain Development Influences Holistic Development in Children.
10 ESL Classroom Management is a Holistic Effort. (2019, September 19). Retrieved from
11 DeNeen, J. (2012, October 15). Holistic Teaching: 20 Reasons Why Educators Should Consider a Student’s Emotional Well-Being. Retrieved from
12 Holistic development for students. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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