Building Strong Brains

– BY GAYATHRI TIRTHAPURA, TRUSTEE AT TEJASVITA TRUST

We start every academic year with a month long training program for all teachers,  so that we learn new concepts, equip ourselves with tools and resources and incorporate new ideas into our preschool intervention. On one such morning during this year’s training in June 2019, the teachers arrived to a surprise! We were going to play a collaborative game to understand young children’s brain development better. The Brain Architecture Game designed by the Harvard Center for the Developing Child is perfect to understand how young children’s brains develop for success or failure later in their life. 

Let me first briefly explain how this game works. This is a game of chance where teams of adults build pretend brains containing the neural circuitry based on the first five years of a fictitious child’s life, using simple materials like pipe cleaners and straws. The goal is to build a strong and tall brain that is capable of learning new skills and which can withstand the stresses of life from her sixth year onwards. Through the roll of dice or by drawing life experience cards,  the players get either stronger or weaker materials for building their brains. For example, a stronger material is won if the child has a strong genetic makeup or has many positive social supports in the family or has positive experiences during the first five years of life; the positive experiences could be from growing up in language-rich environments, having highly skilled and loving caregivers, living in safe and friendly community and so on. The team gets weaker materials to build the pretend brain if the child has weaker genetic makeup or fewer social supports or if they have many stresses in their lives like domestic violence at home,  severe neglect of basic needs, caregiver substance abuse, premature birth and so on.  Once the foundational neural circuitry of the first five years are built using the materials they get, the team tests the pretend brain with stresses of life (represented by small weights). The brains either collapse or stand stable,  depending on how strong the foundational neural circuitry of the first five years is. 

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Teams of teachers played the game with great enthusiasm and built five different pretend brains. We then reflected on the experiences we had while building the brain and had a discussion. Here are a few of the main insights we got from the discussion. 

  • Firstly, the super importance of the first five to six years of a human life became plain obvious – and this is something that neuroscience research in the last few decades has prominently highlighted. 
  • It’s fairly common knowledge that positive experiences strengthen the foundation of the brain. But if there are strong negative experiences during the first years of life, strong social and/or caregiver support was a deciding factor in whether the children’s brain became strong enough to withstand the stresses later in life and focus on learning. The more stresses the children faced in their first years of life without strong social or caregiver support, the weaker their foundational neural circuitry was. And the weaker the circuitry was, the faster their brain collapsed with the stresses from sixth year onward. 
  • It was definitely possible to strengthen the circuitry even after first few years by retrofitting the foundation with stronger materials. But it came at the cost of not being able to build a tall brain – a taller brain represented a child with higher cognitive, physical and social-emotional skills. 
  • What was also pleasantly surprising for us, was the fact that children who were born with a weak genetic makeup (and hence weaker neural base) were able to surmount the challenges presented by it and build a strong foundational neural circuitry with the help of strong social supports and caregivers. 
  • In summary, lots of positive and stimulating experiences and strong social supports and caregivers during the first six years of life are the key to building strong brains that will lead to success and lifelong learning.

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Playing this game was like opening a blackbox called the brain and exploring the components inside. It helped us understand the necessary and important role we Tejasvita teachers play as social supports in the lives of children we work with. We understood that, yes, playing this role is helping build stronger foundations in their brains. A strong and effective social support or a caregiver is someone who is unconditionally responsive and supportive to the child’s needs, who provides a stimulating and developmentally appropriate environment to the child and invests time and effort in building coping skills in the face of adversity. 

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We come across many learning and behavioural challenges in Tejasvita’s preschool classrooms, triggered by many life challenges that the children face. In the past five years, we as a team have focused on giving a rich and stimulating environment for the children through our play based approach. We’ve also strived hard to build a program that caters to the social and emotional developmental needs of the children through our child-centric approach. We have incorporated many best practices from proven child-centric classroom approaches like choice, purposeful movement, positive discipline and so on. Music based activities, free play, process based art, read-alouds of world class books, building critical thinking skills through hands-on activities, learning through storytelling are all part of our curriculum. We also regularly build their cognitive and social-emotional resilience by offering the right level of challenges based on their individual abilities.

After playing the Brain Architecture Game, it was heartwarming to know that we are working in the right direction. Yet the question for us has always been, as to how we can progress from strength to strength and make improvements to our preschool intervention every year. Following are a few examples of new ideas we’ve introduced this academic year. We would like to be more ‘present’ for the children so that we can cater to their needs better. In order to do this, we are increasing our group mindfulness and self-care practices as a team. We have also increased activities that are designed to increase the level of their brain’s Executive Function. These are fun activities that build their working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility and which help in retrofitting their neural circuitry for a strong foundation. Certain kinds of music and related activities have been proven to have a positive effect as well and we have now integrated them into our program. As a team, we have also managed to attract many committed, passionate, responsible and educated adults from privileged communities to work with these children. 

We feel very fortunate and grateful to be able to work with the children. They give us their utmost love and trust us everyday that we are with them. We also feel deeply responsible for their future and would like our six hours a week with them to be impactful so that their brains become stronger. Playing the Brain Architecture Game was simple and fun but also deeply insightful for us. It has helped us move through the planning and implementation of our preschool program with a new rigour. In the process, we also hope to learn and grow and make our own brains stronger. 

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