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Promoting peace: Montana teachers get training in classroom behavioral game

Dozens of Montana educators spent Thursday learning a classroom behavioral game that not only inspires youngsters to encourage and practice good behavior but has also shown promise in reducing the risk of a number of problems and mental health issues later in life.

Called the PAX Good Behavior Game, it aims to teach kids how to control their behavior at an early age by promoting good behavior and eliminating disruptive behavior in the classroom.

“It looks like a classroom management strategy,” said Claire Richardson, lead international trainer with the PAXIS Institute, which provides the training. “But it is not about classroom discipline, nor is it punishment.” PAX teaches children how to self-monitor and self-regulate their behavior.”

Forty teachers and counselors from schools across Montana attending the annual Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers took the daylong session at Castle Rock Middle School.

It’s something that state and local officials are encouraging in an effort to curb Montana’s highest-in-the-nation suicide rates by giving children an early foundation that can help to protect them later in life.

The Montana Suicide Review Team, a state-organized group tasked with looking into Montana’s suicide problem, has recommended the game as an intervention that could help decrease suicide risk by developing healthy coping skills in children.

“That pays off,” said Claire Oakley, director of Population Health Services at RiverStone Health, Yellowstone County’s public health agency, which helped bring the training to the conference. “It has a longtime payoff of less suicide and less criminality outcomes.”

PAX is the Latin word for peace, and in the game it promotes that through repetition. It asks teachers to have their students build a list of the things they want more of in their lives and in the classroom — things like peacefulness, productivity, happiness, health, compliments and the like — in their own words and calls each one a PAX.

“It’s going to become part of the students’ language and in their words,” Richardson said. “What is ‘respect’ to a kindergartner? That’s a pretty big word for them.”

Inversely, it also asks them to develop a list of things they don’t want to see or inappropriate behaviors such as fidgeting, disruptions, shy or anti-social behavior, inattention and other such behaviors.

“They’re not necessarily bad,” Richardson said. “We just want to reduce them.”

If the kids count up enough of the appropriate behaviors they get a reward, reinforcing their actions.

The rewards aren’t a snack or a toy or a sticker, though. Instead, the kids get a little time for a quick, intentionally silly activity — maybe walking around the classroom making animal noises or 30 seconds of throwing paper balls at each other.

“The kids are working together for the common good of their team, which is collectively the common good of the classroom, which is collectively the common good of the school,” Richardson said. “The vision becomes absolutely critical to give children a voice and feel like they’re making a difference. It is one of the few interventions out there where children are the heroes of the change.”

Lynn Weltzien is director of campus counseling at the University of Montana-Western and was one of the 40 in attendance on Thursday.

She said she hopes to take PAX back to Dillon in an effort to get local educators to implement it, while a colleague in attendance will do the same at the university with education staff. She said that Montana’s high suicide rate is the driving force behind her attendance.

“If there’s something out there that’s got 40 years of research behind it and could help, why aren’t we trying it?” she said. “I hope to see wider acceptance. I’ll go back and show them this is why we should get on board with this.”

A federal study indicated that students who’ve learned and regularly played the game are likely to have less problem behavior with teachers and other students, less likely to be disruptive, had some higher marks in school, more likely to graduate and less likely to have had mental health services by sixth grade or used alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs other than marijuana by eighth grade.

As reported on Oct. 1 by the Irish Times, the game was put in place in 21 classrooms in Ireland earlier this year and saw that about a third of the students with the most challenging behaviors had moved into the normal behavior range within 12 weeks.

In Manitoba, Canada, a 2012 pilot program and subsequent evaluation put the game into 200 schools and found that participating children had noticeably fewer conduct and emotional problems while significantly more pro-social behavior.

The Montana Department of Health and Human Services and RiverStone, which secured donations from Dr. John Jurist and the Eastern Area Service Administration, paid to bring the training to Billings and provide related materials for the teachers.

“This is a generational intervention,” Oakley said. “The effects are noted later on. We’re spreading it into a generation of children, but we’re also spreading into a generation of teachers.”

In early 2016, Montana tribal communities will also receive PAX training.

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