[game piece] This is Your Lifeline! [game piece]

A Simulation to Teach about Cumulative Risk and Resilience in Adolescent Development


Stephen Wright, Stacey Horn, and Judith Torney-Purta
University of Maryland at College Park


Cumulative risk and resilience is a subtle and complex concept in developmental psychology, one which can be difficult to teach but one which is vital in understanding adolescent social transactional processes in various community contexts. "This is Your Lifeline!" is a class exercise developed and piloted by a group of doctoral students at the University of Maryland (including the first two authors above). The exercise illustrates the concept of cumulative risk and resilience using a game-show format. Its purpose is to simulate the ways in which risk and protective factors, such as those identified by Cairns and Cairns in their recently published longitudinal study, influence the course of individual adolescents' lives, as well as their reciprocally causal influence in relation to the community and social settings in which they are embedded.

The game is set up to show how risk and protective factors come into play for adolescents over the course of time. The game-show format allows the class participants to experience what it would be like to start out life with an initial set of risks and how those ultimately affect development later in life. Each participant is given a set of initial conditions which include things such as socio-economic status, neighborhood culture, family structure, parental health, nature of relationships and other events which have occurred in the participant's life up to age nine. According to the events described in their initial conditions the participants are assigned a number of risk or protective cards with which they start the game.

Overview of Play

The game consists of three rounds. The first round simulates development from 9-12, the second round from 12-15 and the third round from 15-19. At each round, participants draw three random numbers between 1 and 20. These numbers correspond to three life-events which happened to that individual during that time period. An individual's initial number of risk or protective cards (which, again, are based on ones life situation up to age 9) make available to that person a particular set of life-events. So, for example, a participant starting out with two risk cards will be more likely to experience negative life-events and less likely to experience positive life-events than a participant starting out with two protective cards. (The list of life-events is not the same for all players; the list used at a particular time will be determined by the number of risk or protective cards that player has.) Once a participant has received her random numbers and has been told her corresponding life-events, a total risk score is calculated for that round. [orange star game piece][green clover game piece] Low risk scores earn the participants green protective cards while high risk scores earn them orange risk cards. A risk card cancels a protective card, and vice-versa. (A protective card = 1, a risk card = -1.) For each round then, a player's total risk or protective cards determine which events are available to him for that round. The object of the game is to score low and accumulate as many protective cards as possible. The player with the most protective cards after round three of the game is the "winner." A special prize can also be given for the player whose life situation (as defined by the number of risk or protective cards) improves the most during the course of the game.

Pedagogical Aim and Uses

The game illustrates how the impact of life-events can differ dramatically depending on what has already occurred in an individual's life. For example, becoming pregnant at 14 has very different consequences for a young woman with a supportive family, close relations with others in her community, and who attends a school which has many resources available to students than a 14-year old who is basically on her own and has dropped out of school. Additionally, the game illustrates how risk factors tend to cluster together and how difficult it is to counteract accumulated risk with a one-shot intervention program.

The game could be used with any age level student in a variety of psychology or education courses. It could simply be used to illustrate the concept of cumulative risk in adolescent development, social development, community development, or identity development classes. It could be used as a starting point for discussing intervention strategies or curriculum development for high-risk youth. Whatever the use of the game, the beauty of it is that it takes a very abstract and complex concept and makes it into a personal experience for the participants, without having to leave the classroom.

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Get information about (or buy) the book Lifelines and Risks: Pathways of Youth in Our Time by Robert B. Cairns & Beverley D. Cairns (1995), which provided the theoretical and empirical basis for this game/simulation.

Book Description: In this highly original work, Robert and Beverley Cairns follow the pathways of 695 young people growing up in the 1980s and 1990s (their educational successes and failures, their friendships, their loves - in short, the events and feelings they experienced in the course of living). The focus of the book is on the primary risks of youth in our time, and lifelines--the avenues by which redirection and help may be provided. The authors consider the specific risks of violence, deviant social groups, school dropout, teenage parenthood, suicide, threats to self-esteem, and substance abuse. Lifelines held out to these youths include parents, friends, teachers, lovers, and relatives. To describe these lifelines and risks the authors draw on contemporary longitudinal studies, cross-national epidemiological statistics, empirical studies conducted by their colleagues and students, and new findings from their own longitudinal studies.

[book cover]


View a PowerPoint presentation on Teen Risk Factors right on the web.
If you would like to copy/download the materials needed to run this simulation in the classroom, click here.

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