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Book Review: The Whole-Brain Child

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

Affiliate Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, we may earn commissions from qualifying purchases.

Time is our most precious commodity, especially as a parent. Pathfinder’s book series aims to summarize the latest parenting and child development books to provide useable tips for busy parents.

These reviews can help you decide whether adding it to your reading list fits with life’s competing demands. Besides, we read it so you don’t have to!

The Whole-Brain Child teaches caregivers the basics of children’s brain development and provides 12 strategies for helping children use the different parts of their brain to better handle and learn from challenging situations and conflicts.

With some understanding of what different areas of the brain do, conflict can be turned into a teachable moment, providing an opportunity for children to better understand themselves.

In addition, they can help teach children about their emotions and how to control them.

Finally, such situations can also contribute to building the parent-child relationship. We recommend this book for two reasons; first, it is backed by sound research about how the brain works and develops, and because the strategies provided are approachable and useful for parents.

The book explains that different regions of the 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 while the right brain is more emotional and handles images, personal memories, and the “big picture” of experiences.

The lower section of the 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 of the brain helps us do more complex things like thinking, planning, and empathizing.

Illustration: "The Whole-Brain Child" book

In terms of brain development, the left side and upper section of the brain develop later than the right side and lower section of the 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 lower section of the brain.

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

While there is no single theory that accurately depicts all aspects of child development the underpinnings of this book are based on well-researched and evidence-based methods.

Applying the Pathfinder PROE framework of child development:

We believe that the key ideas of most well-known child development theories can be placed into one (or more) of four main concepts, Play, Relationships, Observation, and Experiences, that we call the PROE framework of child development.

Pathfinder Health takes an active approach to child development and the PROE framework of child development is based on action-oriented concepts.

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

The 12 strategies outlined in The Whole-Brain Child:

1. Connect and redirect - when a child is upset, responding with logic often doesn’t work. Try responding to 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 outburst 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 upper 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 contributes to their brain development and 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 which may 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 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 recall personal memories. Meaningful experiences (both negative and positive) contribute to your child’s development but so do everyday experiences, so help them to remember as much as you 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 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 other 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.

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