Morning Zen

Creating Good Trouble: Starting Action Circles to Help Title I School Kids Make More Money in Their Lives

March 21, 2021

What a concept! Help Black, Brown, Red, and poor White kids earn more money with better education— “earned income” in policy wonk.  That notion is starting to be discussed…for real.

Significant educational and income inequality is a cluster bomb in communities across America, from rural to metro areas. Such inequality feeds terrible things—like the opiate epidemic that spread out through the country from West Virginia [1] with 92% Whites, to inner-city places like Baltimore with 62% African Americans and the rest of America.

Then came Covid, and most children are even more behind. Almost 12 million children lived in poverty before Covid-19, and it has gotten worse since the epidemic. You don’t have to look far from your home to find primary-grade classrooms with lots of poor kids—of any color.

If you asked a hundred random people at the grocery store, or folks standing in line to get their Covid shot, or local elected officials: “What costs about $100—$150 per elementary school child’s lifetime that is proven in multiple studies to:

  • Improves their attendance,
  • Dramatically improves student behaviors,
  • Increases their standardized reading and math scores,
  • Reduces their need for special education,
  • Reduces teen pregnancy.
  • Increases high-school graduation and college entry,
  • Prevents or mitigate Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s),
  • Reduces every lifetime addiction (tobacco, alcohol, opiates, etc.),
  • Reduces teen pregnancy,
  • Reduces serious violent crime, and
  • Increases poor kids’ earnings at ages 19-21 by $10,000?”

Probably not one person would know what that scientifically proven thing is to heal the hurts— yet these unchecked outcomes over time drive up the cost of government and create considerable political conflict in America. Everybody knows we are in trouble. But very few know what the “Good Trouble” is to sweep away the bad trouble.

If you asked school principals, school superintendents or school boards, or local, state, or even national elected officials what that the proven strategy was that created such wonders, probably nobody would know the answer or that such prevention was possible.

However, almost all those officials could list many of the psychiatric drugs prescribed for better than half of the children in America [2-4], yet $100-$150 would probably only pay one month of the medication for one child. No wonder, psychotropic medications are the single largest cost to Medicaid for children—increasing a billion dollars a year  [2, 3].

The irony is that strategy has been listed as the most proven classroom-based strategy—invented 50+ years ago in a small Kansas town—in the world so far, based on multiple government reports in the United States, Canada, Europe, and other Commonwealth counties to protect children a lifetime of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders such as the 2009 Institute of Medicine Report [5].  Just a year after that publication, the Center for Mental Health Services (CHMS) at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) did something it had never done before: announce funding for a specific prevention strategy, the Good Behavior Game. Eighteen sites were funded around America, all using the PAX Good Behavior Game. In 2014, the Center for Mental Health Services had an extraordinary meeting with our team, with this comment and challenge:

“CMHS has never before have funded applicants that had, measurable for all sites funded, in this case with the PAX Good Behavior Game. We have a challenge. If we pick sites across the United States with reasonable readiness, can you show meaningful outcomes in three months?”

Our answer was, “YES!” And, so my colleagues did. The observational data on students’ behavior change that CHMS required across the eight sites in America with 180+ teachers was later published in the prestigious journal, Brain and Behavioral Science [6].

Those sites in Ohio then caused it to spread across all 88 counties of Ohio, in thousands of classrooms. You can watch the story of success for one whole Ohio county here.

About the same time—2011-12, the Province of Manitoba, Canada, launched the first population-level effort as a randomized-control trial prevention effort to reduce and prevent mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. That study proved that just one semester of the updated Hopkins recipe reduced mental-health disorders at a population-level—the first such study in the world to do so [7, 8] as a universal approach.

So, what does all this have to do about improving lifetime income of children in Title I schools in America?

Great question! Here is the answer. Based on the evidence accumulated since the first publication of the Good Behavior Game, about 21,000 students have been in high-quality studies—with two major longitudinal studies now following some 1,500 of those first graders into the 35 years of life and their children. That is incredibly rare in child-development and prevention science. An independent economic analysis by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) regularly computes the economic benefits of prevention and intervention programs or strategies for the State Legislature [9], based on the outcomes. Thus, policymakers can estimate both the behavioral-health benefits and cost-benefits of various strategies for individuals and society.

Specifically, the PAX Good Behavior Game, based on our colleagues’ research at Johns Hopkins, WSIPP estimates that PAX GBG a benefit of $10,073 per student, at the lifetime cost for helping each student at $160. I wish my retirement fund had that Return-On-Investment (ROI). But come to think about it, putting down $160 per child and getting a net return of $9,913 per child would be great for all of us in America.

Now imagine that several adults in your social circle who want your community and our world to be better. You form an Action Circle and method developed by Values-To-Action – a non-profit organization started by one of the world’s leading behavior scientists, Dr. Anthony Biglan. Use the materials and tools to launch a powerful, proven strategy—the Good Behavior Game—that bends the curve for children’s peace, productivity, health, and happiness quickly.

Why start with something like the Good Behavior Game to better the world? It’s simple. It works. It’s contagious, and you can see, hear, feel, and measure its benefits in real time. That inspires hope, and hope is what we need right now to better our world and our future.

You put some money together to pay for some teachers’ training and materials for just three-to-four classrooms—$3,000 to $4,000. You might have a bake or rummage sale, hit up your boss, pass the plate in your social group, go to the United Way or local Hospital.

You can recruit teachers at the get-go to use this proven strategy. Four classrooms would equal about 100 elementary students, which could produce these results based on the studies conducted by Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention and Early Intervention.

The best thing is the change you can see in the children. They will have hope—with a new sense that they can create peace, productivity, health, and happiness in their lives. That is priceless.

If not now, then when. If not us, then who? This is good trouble to make.

Published Studies on the Good Behaviorl Game®/PAX Good Behavior game®

  1. Merino, R., et al., The Opioid Epidemic in West Virginia. Health Care Manag (Frederick), 2019. 38(2): p. 187-195.
  2. Soni, A., The Five Most Costly Children’s Conditions, 2006: Esitmates for the U.S. Civilian Non-insitutionalized Children, Ages 0-17., A. Center for Financing, and Cost Trends, Editor. 2009, Agency for HealthCare Research and Quality: Rockville, MD. 20850. p. 5.
  3. Soni, A., The Five Most Costly Children’s Conditions, 2011: Estimates for U.S. Civilian Non-institutionalized Children, Ages 0-17, A.f.H.R.a. Quality, Editor. 2014, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: Washington, DC.
  4. Mathews, A.W., So Young and So Many Pills: More than 25% of Kids and Teens in the U.S. Take Prescriptions on a Regular Basis, in Wall Street Journal. 2010, The News Corporation: New York.
  5. O’Connell, M.E., T. Boat, and K.E. Warner, eds. Preventing Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities. Committee on the Prevention of Mental Disorders and Substance Abuse Among Children, Youth and Young Adults: Research Advances and Promising Interventions. 2009, Institute of Medicine; National Research Council: Washington, DC. 576.
  6. Wilson, D.S., et al., Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Brain and Behavioral Sciences, 2014. 37(4): p. 395-416.
  7. Jiang, D., et al., A Comparison of Variable- and Person-Oriented Approaches in Evaluating a Universal Preventive Intervention. Prev Sci, 2018. 19(6): p. 738-747.
  8. Jiang, D., et al. Program Evaluation with Multilevel and Multivariate Longitudinal Outcomes. in International Meeting of the Psychometric Society. 2015. Beijing, China: International Meeting of the Psychometric Society.
  9. Aos, S., et al. Good Behavior Game, Return on Investment: Evidence-Based Options to Improve Statewide Outcomes. 2019. 8.


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About the Author

Dennis Embry

Dr. Embry is an internationally noted prevention scientist and child and developmental psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson, AZ., the scientific advisor to the Children’s Mental Health Network, and a member of the Advisory Council for the U.S. Center for Mental Health Services.

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