Morning Zen

The Dangerous Consequences of Classroom Consequences

September 03, 2019

The second-grade boy was a mess. Mom and dad were both suffering from opioid use disorders, and child protective services placed him with the grandmother who was struggling to make ends meet. The boy’s emotional and behavioral issues from living with drug-addicted parents added to the grandmother’s stress.

I know a bit about such things, not just as a child psychologist, but also as a child who had to live with my grandmother because of my parents’ addictions and mental illness. Fortunately, I never experienced what this boy experienced at school: Class Dojo. I grew up in a kinder and gentler era when people did not diagnose a child with a parent disorder.

In 3rd grade, the boy got lots of emoji dings for problem behavior. Those daily dings sent a message to the grandparent that the boy misbehaved at school, and the grandparent should “do something” about the boy’s bad behavior. All this made the boy worse.

You might think about this practice as an adult. Imagine there was “Boss Dojo” in which any problem at your work caused your spouse to receive a “ding” about the bad behavior at your job. And you are supposed to correct your spouse at home for bad behavior at work. Not only would this cause all heck at home, but it would also ruin your work relationship.

Fortunately, the boy had limited exposure to these negative consequences because he got moved to a PAX Good Behavior Classroom. No more dings sent to grandmother. The boy learned the PAX Game and did well. He won for his team. The teacher sent positive notes home about the boy’s progress. Grandmother and grandchild had a much better home life, and the boy made good academic progress. The psychiatrist was able to take the boy off of two of the three psychotropic medications he was on—reducing all the common side effects.

Then, the new school year started, with a different teacher meting out electronic consequences for classroom behavior at an astonishing rate for the students. The negative consequence emojis consumed much of the classroom day. Grandmother received 10 to 15 negative dings about her grandson daily. The implicit demand was that caregiver at home should “do something” about the misbehavior at school.

Did all those “dings” for bad behavior help the child? No. Instead, they made the child worse, requiring the child to be on more medications to deal with his inability to escape from circumstances he never created. The adults created mental, emotional, and behavioral problems with inescapable adverse childhood experiences.

My colleagues’ gold-standard work on following up with children from primary grades who did or did not have the Good Behavior Game® (GBG) clearly shows GBG works, and unending consequences for problematic behavior at school makes kids worse. The neat thing about the research is that GBG at school causes a considerable improvement in child behavior at school AND at home, without the use of meds or even therapy with the parents or caregivers. Those benefits last a lifetime for children who get the Good Behavior Game (GBG) we’ve developed and refined1, 2, 3, 4. PAX GBG is what we call a nurturing environment5, 6, the complete opposite of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).

As a child psychologist, a scientist and a former Sunday school teacher of many years, there are both behavioral and spiritual consequences of punishments for every infraction. The Old Testament is filled with consequences for every possible infraction. The New Testament is a re-write with an incredibly powerful concept in one rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In my dissertation research, I discovered that children who were spanked for breaking a safety rule engaged in more dangerous, life-threatening behaviors7,8,9, which was nearly immediately reversed when adults praised and reinforced children for being safe.

Children who are noticed, praised and reinforced for peace, productivity, health, and happiness by adults and peers in schools grow up to be peaceful, productive, healthy, and happy10. That is both spiritual and scientific practice.


  1. Ialongo, N., Domitrovich, C. E., Embry, D. D., Greenberg, M., Becker, K., Bradshaw, C. P., & Lawson, A. (2019). A randomized controlled trial of the combination of two school-based universal preventive interventions. Developmental Psychology. doi:
  2. Jiang, D., Santos, R., Josephson, W., Mayer, T., & Boyd, L. (2018). A Comparison of Variable- and Person-Oriented Approaches in Evaluating a Universal Preventive Intervention. Prev Sci, 19(6), 738-747. doi:10.1007/s11121-018-0881-x
  3. Smith, E. P., Osgood, D. W., Oh, Y., & Caldwell, L. C. (2018). Promoting Afterschool Quality and Positive Youth Development: Cluster Randomized Trial of the Pax Good Behavior Game. Prev Sci, 19(2), 159-173. doi:10.1007/s11121-017-0820-2
  4. Streimann, K., Selart, A., & Trummal, A. (2019). Effectiveness of a Universal, Classroom-Based Preventive Intervention (PAX GBG) in Estonia: a Cluster-Randomized Controlled Trial. Prevention Science.
  5. Biglan, A., Flay, B. R., Embry, D. D., & Sandler, I. N. (2012). The critical role of nurturing environments for promoting human well-being. American Psychologist, 67(4), 257-271. doi:10.1037/a0026796
  6. Smith, E. P., & Bradshaw, C. P. (2017). Promoting Nurturing Environments in Afterschool Settings. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev, 20(2), 117-126. doi:10.1007/s10567-017-0239-0
  7. Embry, D. D. (1984). The safe-playing program: A case study of putting research into practice. In S. Paine & B. Bellamy (Eds.), Human Services That Work: From Innovation to Standard Practice (pp. 624). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Co.
  8. Embry, D. D., & Malfetti, J. M. (1982). The Safe-Playing Program: Final Report on Nation-Wide Process Field Test. Retrieved from Falls Church, VA:
  9. Embry, D. D., Rawls, J. M., & Hemingway, W. (1985). My Safe Playing Book: An Experimental Evaluation of a Bibliotherapuetic Approach to Reduce the Risk of Pedestrian Accidents to 4-Year Old Children. Retrieved from Wellington, New Zealand:
  10. Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. D. (2014). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Brain and Behavioral Sciences, 37(4), 395-416.
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About the Author

Dennis Embry

Dennis Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson and co-investigator at Johns Hopkins University and the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. Dr. Embry serves as a National Advisory Council member and Chief Science Advisor to the Children’s Mental Health Network. His work and that of colleagues is cited in 2009 the Institute of Medicine Report on The Prevention of Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People. Clinically his work has focused on children and adults with serious mental illnesses. In March 2014, his work and the work of several signatories was featured in a Prime-TV special on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation on the prevention of mental illnesses among children—which have become epidemic in North America.

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