Start Early. Start well.

January 16, 2020

Brain Game 'One Heck of a Reminder' of Teachers' Role in Building Children's Brains

Mount Hope Elementary staff members playing the Brain GameLeft, Mount View home visitor Nicole Crumbley studies the "brain" her team is assembling. Right, Mount View teacher Erin Pusch after bringing up the last of the finished brains.

By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor

On a recent morning, the Mount View Elementary School principal and four of her teachers gather around a table and stare down at the imaginary student they have just created for a game meant to help them better understand their real students. They have named this imaginary student Khaleesi after the dragon-flying queen on “Game of Thrones.”

These Omaha Public Schools teachers want to help Khaleesi. They want her to grow up strong, just as they hope for every Mount View kid.

But Khaleesi was recently removed from her home by child protective services, according to cards the group has drawn in an exercise called the “Brain Game.” At age 8, she was suspended from school.

So the teachers stare down at Khaleesi. They look worried.

“She’s leaning,” says one. “Oh my,” says another. “Khaleesi, we’re doing the best we can!” yells a third.

Khaleesi is a leaning tower of pipe cleaners and straws that the five-person Mount View team is building as part of the Brain Game, a Buffett Early Childhood Institute-led simulation.

The goal of the Brain Game is simple: Roll dice, draw cards, and try to build a taller tower than your fellow competitors—on this day, groups of teachers from Mount View. The Brain Game is meant to show educators that a child’s brain development starts before birth and is affected both positively and negatively by events that happen early in a child’s life. It’s meant to explain something these teachers already know in their guts: By the time a real-life Khaleesi enters fourth grade, her brain’s ability to function well and cope with stress can be profoundly affected by what she’s already experienced.

The Brain Game has been played by teachers, administrators, school board members, and other policymakers across Omaha and Nebraska. It is an eye-opening illustration that high-quality early childhood education is essential if we want to successfully build up our kids’ brains from Day 1. It’s eye opening enough that, soon after playing the Brain Game, the school board of Wauneta-Palisade, a consolidated school in southwest Nebraska, voted to expand its early childhood services.

“Yes, it’s possible to fix a leaning house later on,” says Kim Bodensteiner, the Buffett Institute’s associate director of program development, who is leading today’s Brain Game simulation. “But it’s far easier and less expensive to build a solid foundation in the first place.”

The Brain Game, which is adapted from one designed by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, begins with the simplest and yet most crucial of moves: Two rolls of the dice.

Roll one determines your child’s genetic inheritance. Roll two determines your child’s social support structure—in real life, things like being born with healthy parents and growing up in a safe neighborhood.

The Khaleesi team rolls a three, meaning that Khaleesi starts life roughly average, genetically speaking. Then they roll another 3, which determines that Khaleesi has a decent social support structure.

For these rolls, they get a corresponding “average” number of pipe cleaners and sturdy plastic straws to build the foundation for Khaleesi’s development. The sturdier the foundation, the more likely Khaleesi can “grow” into a tall, strong tower—or, in real life, the more likely that she can grow into a successful adult.

After the group builds Khaleesi’s foundation, they begin to draw cards representing events that can take place in a young child’s life and either help or hurt brain development—things that can move that child’s life in positive or negative directions.

For example: In year one, Khaleesi suffers from malnutrition (a red card, bad), is not spoken to enough, and given enough other “serve-and-return” interactions with adults (a yellow card, iffy). But she is supported by healthy relationships (a green card, good).

Year two brings more green than red, as does year three, and quickly Khaleesi is the tallest young structure in the room, a sturdy young brain seemingly poised for success later in life.

“We’re building a good foundation, folks. We have some good potential here,” Principal Meg Searl says.

As they build, the teachers discuss what they can do to help Khaleesi and her family. This discussion isn’t strictly theoretical: Mount View Elementary participates in the Buffett Institute-led “School as Hub” program that transforms a traditional elementary school into a hub meant to serve children from birth onward.

Khaleesi has tooth decay. Do we have a community partner that will provide her dental work? One of Khaleesi’s parents is deployed overseas with the military. How can one of our home visitors, who may have been visiting Khaleesi’s mother since pregnancy, help the family through this tough time?

What can we do about the lack of healthy food in Khaleesi’s home? Can we get help for Khaleesi from one of the programs at the Boys and Girls’ Club connected to Mount View Elementary?

“We could be giving the family some opportunities to do things besides sitting in front of the TV. Books and supplies that we have that can help this family,” Searl says.

After Khaleesi turns 6, things start to go badly for her family and her development. The group draws red cards that suggest the family is moving around a lot, and that a family member has been deported.

At this point in the Brain Game, the teachers have to add weights to the tower every time something bad happens to Khaleesi. The tower starts to sway wildly, threatening to topple. It stays upright, but only after the teachers slow their pace of building—illustrating the idea that Khaleesi’s brain development is being harmed by the stress surrounding her.

“It’s crazy how things can pile on other things,” says Angie Kilker, an instructional facilitator at Mount View. “You can fix one thing … but it might not help the underlying situation here.”

That’s by design. The Brain Game is meant to show that life events interact with each other. Negative events tend to snowball into more negative events, while positive ones tend to build on positive. Why? Because a child’s brain is not a blank slate at age 6, or even at age 3, or even at birth.

A real child who suffers extraordinary stress at a young age may be less likely to be able to cope with seemingly routine, low-stress events later. A young child exposed to mostly good things—nutritious meals, a stable home, constant “serve-and-return” interactions with caregivers—is more likely to be able to handle later challenges with relative ease.

And a child in the middle like Khaleesi—a kid living in poverty who has experienced both good and bad things early in life—well, her development can go either way.

“That last year, there were two or three things that just brought her way down,” says Kayla Sebastian, a second grade teacher at Mount View. “That definitely happens to kids living on the edge.”

The Brain Game is over at age 8. This is meant to illustrate that a child’s brain development is mostly formed by the time they enter the fourth grade.

The teachers who built Khaleesi and the other groups sit and talk about their real-life roles educating real-life Khaleesis.

They talk about how critical it is that the School as Hub program has helped build trust with parents and families. Mount View teachers and administrators wouldn’t know about many negative events in a child’s life, the stuff that can impact both behavior and brain development, if the parents and student didn’t have the opportunity to tell them. They won’t ever know if the parents and the child don’t trust them.

They talk about the importance of home visitors who start getting to know parents years before their children are Kindergarten age—home visits that build trust in the system and connect the family to an array of potential community resources.

They talk about how much more Mount View can do for young kids than a typical grade school that doesn’t think much about children until they show up on the first day of Kindergarten.

And they talk about how much further Mount View—how much further Nebraska—must go if we want to maximize Khaleesi’s shot at success.

“How do we really become that village that wraps around our children and our families?” Bodensteiner asks the room filled with Mount View educators as they nod in agreement. “Because it all clearly impacts brain development, alongside what happens in the classroom as well.”

Before they leave, the five-person group that built Khaleesi pauses to look at their structure.

Khaleesi is no longer the tallest, strongest child in the class. But the good news is that she is still standing.

“It’s such a great reminder, a great visual, for us to fully understand the stress some of our students are under … the impact that can have on a child,” says Principal Meg Searl. “We know what it does in real life. But this is one heck of a reminder.”

Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.

His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter. Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Matthew at matthewhansen@nebraska.edu.

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