We could all swap parenting fails. One of my big parenting mistakes could have been avoided by taking a whole-child approach.

Here is the back-story:

I have two children. One is very rules-oriented, doesn’t struggle with obedience, and is generally a joyful kid who happily drums to an original beat. The other child is also highly creative but definitely displays big emotions more often.

At our local big-box store not long ago, I ran in to grab a pair of sunglasses I needed, saved for, and planned to buy. I took my strong-emotion child with me only because it was convenient, and this child was already in the car running errands with me.

After being questioned at least four times in the course of 15 minutes about buying something for my child, I explained in a calm voice that we weren’t there to buy anything but my sunglasses on this particular trip to the store. (My husband and I are trying to teach this child about instant gratification versus waiting and planning.)

Upon getting in the car and hearing a fifth, “So-and-so has this…” I snapped. I said, “Not everyone has to be the same and you don’t need anything.”

Tears came — accompanied by a lack of understanding. I had caused our more emotional child to feel less-than and like personal wants were of no value.

Had I made the connection about the integrated brain, the whole child approach, I would have better understood why “want versus need” are harder concepts for kids that age to grasp.

But what I am learning from this experience as a parent is patience, remembering how my child’s brain is wired, and engaging this child’s emotions with a more thoughtful response that includes valuing the emotions and then connecting those emotions to reason and logic.

~ Brooke Turbyfill

Director of Communications and Community

Learnwell North Georgia

What is the whole child approach?

The idea of a whole-child approach isn’t new.

But it may feel like too much science for you to ingest and apply.

Or you might wonder why it’s so important to understand the whole child’s brain wiring when you are homeschooling or sending your child to school each day.

If you aren’t familiar with WHY children need whole-brain approaches to education, Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson have written many books on the subject. The basic purpose is to develop resiliency and health by addressing the entirety of the brain. One book recommendation is The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.

Helping your child understand his or her brain can help him…

  • When he is in stressful or anxiety-producing contexts
  • When he is in the middle of a relational conflict
  • When he is having big emotions and not sure what to do next
  • When he can’t focus at the school table or in the classroom and needs language to explain why

The basic brain science is that our brains have four quadrants:

  1. A left side: quantitative, factual, and calculated — focused on logic and order
  2. A right side: emotional, artistic, and whimsical — creative and intuitive
  3. An upstairs: where our brain conducts intricate processes (planning, decision-making, self-awareness, empathy, and morality)
  4. A downstairs: where our basic functions (breathing and blinking) and where our emotions and impulses (anger and fear) live

These four quadrants should be integrated, working together, for full health.

So as we understand better how our children’s brains are wired and still developing, we can teach, parent, and relate with them from a more holistic approach. “Getting there” is never going to be a perfect process, but the more we learn as parents and educators, the more we can integrate these approaches into our daily lives.

How does this apply to you today?

Here are some practical takeaways that you might be able to talk and/or think through over dinner, at the school table, or as you drive from one activity to the next.

  • Because our children’s “upstairs” brains are in development until their 20’s, we can expect that they will not always choose to be calm, rational, logical or wise in moments when they are experiencing fear, anger, sadness, or overwhelm.
  • When our children experience one of the “downstairs” emotions such as anger or fear, our role can be to help them integrate that experience with part of their “upstairs” brain.

First, we can acknowledge our children’s strong emotions whether or not they seem to be for a valid reason. (Remember, the logic part of our child’s brain is not fully developed yet.) Statements such as, “You seem angry right now. Can you tell me why you are mad?” invite them to talk through their feelings.

Second, we can help them connect their feelings-based brain (downstairs) to their logic-oriented quadrant by helping them brainstorm, think about others, or simply be aware of what’s causing their strong reaction. A statement such as, “You’re angry that your friend told you that you were lying when you weren’t. Let’s come up with a plan about how you can respond if this happens again.”

Following up with ideas to help her empathize with her friend or try to understand where her friend is coming from may help her connect emotions to reason — providing her the tools she needs to be resilient, which is the overall goal of the whole child approach.

Why do we look at education from a whole child approach?

When we are teaching our children — whether it is learning to do a chore on the weekend or helping them with schoolwork — it’s easy to forget that our children do not start with the same toolkit we have as adults. So any time they are experiencing emotions that are strong, it’s not common for them to think with reason or logic.

At Learnwell, we aim to facilitate education from a whole child approach. where a child learns not because he is told robotically to learn a set of principles or remember a piece of literature. Our desire is that students learn because their brains get extra practice at integrating all four parts, thus developing skills for resiliency — so that they can thrive.