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Book Review: The Whole-Brain Child

Updated: Mar 7

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We read it so you don't have to!

Time is our most precious commodity, especially as a parent. Pathfinder Health’s book series aims to summarize the latest parenting and child development books to provide useful tips for busy parents and help them survive everyday parenting struggles while raising emotionally healthy kids and encouraging their intellectual development.

These reviews can help you decide whether adding a specific book to your reading list fits with life’s competing demands. We also provide context for understanding how these books can help you promote your child’s development.

In this article:

The Whole-Brain Child

Overview of The Whole Brain Child

The Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, teaches caregivers the basics of a child's developing mind. It provides twelve key strategies for helping children use the different parts of their brain to better handle and learn from challenging situations, conflicts, and day to day struggles.

The Whole Brain Child shows how, with some understanding of the different areas of a healthy child's brain, conflict can be turned into a teachable moment, providing an opportunity for children to better understand themselves and their emotions and teaching them how to control those emotions.

How a parent responds to and assists in a child's struggles can also ultimately contribute to building a stronger parent-child relationship.

How a child's brain functions

The structure of a child's brain

The Whole Brain Child shows how different regions of a child's brain work to do different things.

The brain consists of left, right, upper, and lower sections.

The left brain deals in detail, logic, and reasoning.

The right brain is more emotional and handles images, personal memories, and the “big picture” of experiences.

The lower section (the "downstairs brain") is considered more primitive because it is responsible for basic functions like breathing, in addition to reactions such as the fight-or-flight response.

The upper section (the "upstairs brain") helps us do more complex tasks like thinking, planning, and empathizing.

Illustration: "The Whole-Brain Child" book

The development of a child's brain

The left brain and upstairs brain develop later than the right brain and downstairs brain.

This means that young children do not yet have mastery of the logical reasoning, thinking, and planning skills that come from the left side and upper section of the brain.

Instead, in challenging situations and conflicts, children (and sometimes adults!) often respond using the emotional, reactive right side and downstairs brain.

It's no wonder kids throw tantrums! Their emotions tend to run the show.

How The Whole Brain Child connects the dots

The key strategies presented in this book aim to equip caregivers with tools and everyday parenting advice to help children integrate all parts of their brains to work together so that the brain as a whole can function optimally.

The Whole Brain Child and the PROE framework of child development

Understanding Pathfinder Health's PROE framework

Pathfinder Health believes that the key ideas of most well-known child development theories can be placed into one (or more) of four main action-oriented concepts: Play, Relationships, Observation, and Experiences. These are all of the ways that your child interacts with the world around them that foster vital growth and development.

1. Play

Play is essential for children's healthy cognitive, social and emotional, and physical development. It allows children to explore their creativity, practice new skills, and develop a sense of self. It also helps them to build social skills and learn how to cooperate with others.

While it may seem like children are just having fun when they play, they are actually doing a lot of learning.

Through play, children can experiment with different roles and try new ways of thinking and behaving. This helps them understand their world and themselves.

2. Relationships

Relationships provide the foundation for children to develop a sense of self and others and encourage their earliest communication. Building relationships with others helps kids develop both interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.

Interpersonal skills refers to your child’s ability to interact with others. This includes things like taking turns, sharing, and cooperating.

A nurturing relationship with their caregiver is especially important for a child’s social, emotional, and language development. This relationship helps children feel safe and secure and provides them with a sense of trust and stability.

When children have strong interpersonal skills, they are more likely to cultivate healthy emotional relationships later in life.

Intrapersonal skills involve being able to understand and regulate one's own emotions. This includes things like recognizing one's own feelings, setting goals, and managing stress.

3. Observation

Children use all of their senses in observing their surroundings and are constantly observing new things that help them learn.

This extends to observing social interactions, which allow them to see how their own emotions can affect others. Children also learn communication skills by observing others’ conversations.

In addition, observing their surroundings can help children develop important critical thinking skills. As they take in new information, they will start to ask questions and form hypotheses about how things work. This process of active learning will help them grow into well-rounded, inquisitive adults.

4. Experiences

Children build knowledge and developmental abilities through their interactions with the world around them.

It's important for them to be exposed to new things and experiences on a regular basis and encouraged to explore their surroundings.

They learn and adapt their thinking with each new experience and develop problem-solving skills that they can apply to other experiences.

They also learn how their actions and bodies impact the environment around them, teaching them self-awareness and cause and effect.

Trying new experiences and taking risks builds confidence, which encourages a child to try more experiences.

Applying PROE to The Whole Brain Child

Our PROE action concepts can be seen throughout The Whole-Brain Child's content and strategies, showing that they are all linked in important ways to a child’s brain and development.

The Whole Brain Child outlines twelve key strategies for helping children use the different parts of their brain to better handle and learn from challenging situations. These age appropriate strategies can be viewed through the PROE framework.

We'll look at each of the key strategies in turn and explain how PROE can help you understand and take advantage of these valuable brain-shaping moments.

The twelve key strategies

1. Connect and redirect

When a child is upset, responding with logic often doesn’t work. Try responding to their emotional needs first (right brain) then redirecting with logic and applying discipline if needed second (left brain).

This skill will help to strengthen your relationship with your child as they learn that they can trust you with any emotion.

2. Name it to tame it

Help your child to work through and make sense of what is upsetting them by helping them to tell the “story” of why they are upset. This will help your child to regain control and to use their left brain to make sense of what is upsetting them.

3. Engage don't enrage

Instead of responding to inappropriate behavior or outbursts with “we don’t act like that” or something similar, try to engage the upper section of the brain by inviting your child to think, reason, and plan. For example, you could say “what’s another way you could play with that ball instead of throwing it at the TV?”

4. Use it or lose it

Provide opportunities for your child to use their upstairs brain. This can be done through structured decision making (“do you want to wear boots or sneakers?”) or by prompting thought while reading or watching TV (“why do you think the boy is crying?”).

When a child experiences the ability to make decisions from a young age, it fosters healthy brain development and contributes to their self-concept and self-esteem in the long run.

5. Move it or lose it

After acknowledging feelings when your child is upset, try to get them moving--this can change their mood! This can be as simple as a quick race to the stairs. Using play in this way can help your child to refocus and shift their mindset.

6. Use the remote of the mind

Similar to #2, after calming down, help your child to pause, rewind, and fast-forward through the story of what happened to help them make sense of it and exercise the left and upper sections of their brain.

This helps your child to solidify their experiences and contributes to their emotional and intellectual development.

7. Remember to remember

Ask your child questions to help integrate their memories and exercise their brain. Ask them to recall details from their day at school, play memory-based games, or look at family photos and discuss personal memories.

Meaningful experiences (both negative and positive) contribute to your child’s development but everyday experiences do too! So encourage your child to remember as much as they can.

8. Let the clouds of emotion roll by

Teach and remind your child that their emotions come and go. This can help big emotions--even scary and traumatic emotions--seem manageable and under your child’s control.

9. Sift

Pay attention to what's going on inside. Help your child understand that there are lots of thoughts, feelings, and sensations in their head and their body. Teach them to “sift” through these so they can observe and decode their experiences.

This can include talking through differing feelings (happy they are going to summer camp but sad their best friend isn’t going) and relating bodily sensations to emotions (butterflies can mean you are nervous).

10. Exercising "mindsight"

Mindsight is essentially mindfulness (being aware of thoughts and feelings and being able to focus our attention where we want it to control them).

You can help your child learn this skill by walking them through the practice of being calm and still to help them focus on their thoughts and feelings.

Teaching your child to observe their own thoughts and feelings also helps them learn to be more in control of their brain and their body.

11. Increase the family fun factor

Spend time doing fun things with your child! This will strengthen your relationship with your child overall, making the other key strategies easier to do.

12. Connect through conflict

Teach and model respect, sharing, and forgiveness during the conflict. You can teach these concepts following conflicts that your child faces, and model them during and after your own conflicts that your child may witness.

When your child observes your modeling of desired behavior, it will have an impact on their own behaviors.

Pathfinder Health's takeaway

We recommend The Whole-Brain Child as a child rearing resource for two reasons.

First, it is backed by the latest neuroscience research about healthy brain development. Drs. Siegel and Bryson draw from a wide range of studies to support their ideas and recommendations. Current brain science research used in the book includes:

  1. Neuroplasticity: The brain is plastic, meaning it can change throughout a person's life by creating new neural connections and reorganizing existing connections based on experiences.

  2. Interhemispheric integration: The book focuses on the importance of integrating the left brain and right brain.

  3. The impact of stress and trauma on brain development

  4. Mindfulness: Mindfulness practices can change brain activity and improve emotional regulation.

Second, The Whole-Brain Child provides age appropriate strategies that are approachable and useful for parents trying to foster healthy brain development and raise emotionally healthy kids. Drs. Siegel and Bryson have made brain science parent friendly!


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