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Seeing graduation beyond the game

Walking into Erin Van Dyke’s kindergarten class at Bellview Elementary in Ashland when it’s time to do a quiet activity, the first thing a visitor might wonder is how the room of about 20 children is so quiet.

Among the group of state administrators, public health employees and psychologists stopping by the class Tuesday, however, no such uncertainty was present.

Two of the visitors created the methods Van Dyke used to achieve this calm. And the scene is increasingly common in classrooms across Southern Oregon, as teachers and principals expand their use of the “good behavior game” that the kindergartners were playing that afternoon by way of their silence.

Increasing graduation rates, an emphasis for school districts across the state, begins in classrooms like Van Dyke’s, before kids are old enough to know algebra but while many of them are already dealing with experiences that send ripple effects throughout the rest of their education.

The members of the group visiting this week were brought together by their conviction that elementary school classes present key opportunities to combat negative effects, a conclusion that Southern Oregon school districts are progressively embracing in their funding and training choices.

The game is a method of positive reinforcement — hardly a new concept in teaching. The type of good behavior game taking root in Oregon, called “PAX” after the Latin word for “peace,” was spearheaded by one of the visitors to the class, Dr. Dennis Embry.

A psychologist who specializes in preventive science and “behavior vaccines,” or methods to combat social, mental and emotional disorders, Embry said his goal in creating the PAX good behavior game was to “improve the well-being of children everywhere.”

So far, the science has supported its efficacy: The long-term impacts of PAX have been vetted in well over 100 studies in various countries. The methodology has been studied in the context of after-school programs, recess and parenting and has been linked to outcomes ranging from higher likelihood of graduation to prevention of suicide and self-harm.

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