Michele Howard's class of 28 fourth-graders at Pinewood Intermediate School in Mohonasen has been focused and working independently at their desks for nearly 10 minutes, until someone starts talking to a neighbor. "That's a Spleem, cubby team," says Howard, making a hash mark on the white board.
A timer goes off. "Nice job. Only one Spleem," Howard says. "All the teams win." She pulls a card out of a blue lunch sack emblazoned with "Granny's Wacky Prizes" and reads it aloud: "Lie on the floor with your arms at your sides and try not to laugh while the teacher walks around the 'graveyard' and makes funny faces." The kids scramble to the floor, suppressing giggles. Once Howard makes it all the way around the room, she blows a harmonica. Dozens of hands shoot up making peace signs and the kids fly back to their desks and settle back to work in a matter of seconds.
The class is playing the PAX Good Behavior Game, an evidence-based classroom management program that is implemented by elementary school teachers. BOCES Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator Jen Russo piloted a training in June, and Education Support Services has since brought in a national trainer to prepare teachers in Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Mohanosen, Cohoes and Schenectady to begin implementing the program in their classrooms.
The success has been remarkable. “One of my teachers, with tears in her eyes, said ‘it’s saved my teaching career,’” said Russo. “She is a seasoned teacher, but with the volume of kids teachers have now, and the level of need those kids have, she was desperate. Teachers need help managing their classroom in a positive way.”
Russo works regularly in the same classroom and has seen the progress herself. She said before starting the Good Behavior Game, she was regularly stopping more than five times during a lesson to manage focus and behavior issues. “It’s frustrating,” said Russo. “It takes all your energy. They aren’t being naughty, but they’re antsy. They’re off task. They’re up moving around. I really couldn’t believe the changes I was observing. Now we can get through a lesson with no disruptions. The good behavior game harnesses classroom management strategies we’ve known all along, but it’s working better than anything we’ve seen.”
So what’s different? What makes the Good Behavior Game so effective?
"In some ways, the kids create it themselves," says Russo, "and it takes the onus off the individual, off the 'naughty kid.' It creates a classroom culture that fosters focus and good behavior, gives space for silliness and teaches self-control."
In the Good Behavior Game, teachers and students work together to define classroom rules. The children create a word map of things they think they should see, hear, do and feel more or less of in their ideal classroom. Behaviors the class would benefit from, like offering compliments or following directions, are called PAX. Things that should happen less, like interrupting or name-calling, are called Spleems.
Throughout the day, teachers notice and identify PAX and Spleems often and accurately. The good behavior game is played a few times each day during regular lessons. Kids are divided into rotating PAX teams, and cooperatively work toward the goal of having fewer than three Spleems during the game period. At first the game may last just a few minutes. As the year progresses, the game is played for increasing lengths of time, gradually requiring teams to demonstrate fewer than three “Spleems” over a span of 30 or 40 minutes instead of three or four.
During the game, individuals are not cited or punished for infractions. The whole team receives a Spleem for an unwanted behavior during the game period. The students work together to encourage PAX and limit Spleems.
Any team that has three or fewer Spleems at the end of a game earns a “Granny’s Wacky Prize.” These prizes are never material; they are simply fun, intrinsic rewards. Teams may win the chance to walk to the cafeteria backward or have a 10-second giggle fest or a 30-second dance party.
Before playing the game, Howard quickly reviewed expectations with her students and together they listed PAX behaviors and Spleems: Focus on your work. No wandering. No talking. No inappropriate noises. Do your work quietly at your desk. Look at the instructions on the board or raise your hand if you have a question. They were reminded that if all the teams win, Howard will add a letter to the word "recess" on the board. Each letter earns them three minutes of recess at the end of the day.
"They are more focused," Howard said, "less impulsive. They want to play. They're eager to play and to win the prizes. We've worked up to 20-minute games three times a day, and we're going to keep stretching that." Howard said the impact of the program extends beyond game time. At one point after the game was over, things got a little loud in the classroom and two hands shot up peace signs, the symbol for "PAX quiet."
"The kids are learning to self-regulate, and there is a sense of positive peer pressure that encourages PAX behavior."
Down the hall in Kerry Vumbaco's special education classroom, the kids were equally eager to play the PAX game. Vumbaco announced their English language arts sequencing lesson would be a PAX game, and one boy gasped, "sounds good!"
Vumbaco has been using the Good Behavior Game with her class since the beginning of the year. The kids start their day by writing "Tootles," or compliments to their classmates recognizing PAX behavior. Posters hanging from the ceiling list the class-identified PAX and Spleems.
"It really is wonderful," said Vumbaco. "It's very easy, and it works for all levels of students. I have one student who has very high needs. He is non-verbal, and was always tapping on desks, touching people's things. Now if I say 'PAX hands,' he stops immediately."
Asked to demonstrate, the student stands up from his desk and clasps his hands behind his back with a beaming smile.
The Good Behavior game was created by Kansas fourth-grade teacher Murial Saunders in 1967 and further developed with graduate student Harriet Barrish and co-founder of applied-behavior analysis, Professor Montrose Wolfe.
Today the game kits, training and support – which include a Facebook page and website of resources and ideas from a community of participating teachers – are produced by the PAXIS Institute. Founded by Denis Embry, a graduate student with the game’s original authors, the PAXIS Institute encourages collaboration between social science research and prevention practice.
Since 1999, the revamped PAX Good Behavior Game has been implemented in classrooms in 32 states, four Canadian provinces and, more recently, Ireland and England.
“I look forward to seeing what our own data shows after the pilot year,” says Russo, “but anecdotally it has been extremely well-received by teachers and the research on the game’s impact is stunning. We’ve had a lot of curricula that focus on long-term life skills, but this is something that has an immediate impact in the classroom and a long-term impact that endures well beyond the game’s target age range.”
Decades of longitudinal research and a study by Johns Hopkins University demonstrated that exposure to a single year of the Good Behavior Game in grade 1 correlated to increased graduation and college attendance rates and decreased instances of drug and alcohol abuse, violent and criminal behavior, jail time, suicide and antisocial personality disorders.
More immediately, teachers who have fully implemented the good behavior game have seen 60 to 90 more minutes of instructional time – time that was previously spent managing behavior — a 30 to 60 percent reduction in behavior referrals, and a 20 to 30 percent reduction in special education referrals. “This research has been vetted and well-reviewed by the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices,” said Education Support Services Deputy Director Laura Combs.
The registry is maintained by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and provides a searchable database that both categorizes information about substance abuse and mental health prevention programs and reviews and rates the methods and outcomes of scientific studies examining the efficacy of prevention programs.
“In some cases grant-funded programs require that prevention strategies be on the National Registry,” said Combs. “With the registry, you have a wealth of independent research giving evidence of the program’s benefits, and a review of the validity of that evidence.”
While quantifying the benefits of any prevention program is an abstract process, the PAX Good Behavior Game is currently identified as the single most cost-effective prevention strategy by multiple independent sources, including the Washington State Institute for Public Policy and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Classroom kits cost $300, and the value of the equivalent of 14 to 26 days of instructional time regained over a school year alone was estimated at up to $30,000.
“We started this program in June, and we just keep getting more and more requests for it as teachers see it in action,” said Russo. “In Mohonasen, our goal was four classrooms to start, but we’re up to 12 now, and hopeful it will take off in all of them.”
The program is catching on as the teachers themselves spread the word about their successes. In the hall, Mrs. O'Brien-Neal shared that her class played a PAX game while trying to "beat the timer" and pack up their things as quickly as possible at the end of the day, which has been a particularly chaotic and stressful time in her class.
"It often takes them 15 minutes to pack up," said O'Brien-Neal. "They focused and did it in under two minutes. It was amazing."
According to Russo, the Good Behavior Game can be introduced at any point during the year, and teachers can elect to use as little or as much of the program as they choose.
“It pairs phenomenally with building-wide programs like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) or Second Step,” said Combs. “Once building is up and running with it, it is going to make a difference. It’s going to change the climate and culture.”