Clark County students playing good behavior game

Dawn Henseler White is a PAX partner at Wellspring in Springfield. CONTRIBUTED
Dawn Henseler White is a PAX partner at Wellspring in Springfield. CONTRIBUTED

The best predictor of how first-graders score on a language test is not their language skills. It is their ability to regulate and control their own behavior.

As Dennis Embry, a senior scientist at the PAXIS Institute and co-investigator of the Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention says: “If kids can’t be (mentally) present, it doesn’t matter what the teacher does or says — no matter what the curriculum is — they can’t learn.”

The purpose of the PAX Good Behavior Game (GBG) is to teach students to regulate their own behavior in a way that helps them “be present” in the classroom so they can learn. According to validated research, the game also teaches children the kind of personal resilience that makes them less likely to act out, exhibit attention-deficit problems, or develop substance abuse problems, not only as youth, but even into adulthood.

Those short- and long-term benefits are why Wellspring is playing a part in bringing the game to 65 Pre-K, kindergarten and elementary school classrooms in Springfield and Clark County. Those reasons are also why 10,000 teachers in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Sweden and Estonia have been given PAX GBG training in the past 14 months; why Wright State University requires that training for students who will teach in grades K-3 and 4-9; and why schools in Greene County have trained more than 1,000 teachers and staff in the past decade.

The game is based on the realization that just as children need to be taught reading, writing and arithmetic, they need to be taught behaviors that help them learn those subjects. Some of the behaviors are of the everyday sort: raising their hands, getting in line, waiting their turn to speak. Together the behaviors create a better atmosphere for teaching and, by reducing distractions, make it possible to devote more time each day for on-task learning.

Simon Kenton first-grade teacher Kierstin Cochran has seen PAX games trim her students’ bathroom breaks 12 minutes to six. With two breaks a day, that means an additional dozen minutes of instructional time. And with dozens of transitions of that sort in each school day, the time adds up. Estimates are that, over a school year, PAX GBG can reclaim 14 to 24 days of instructional time, which translates into three to five weeks of school.

A key difference in PAX GBG is that it encourages teachers to respond to behavioral mistakes as they would treat mistakes in math, reading or science — not by getting angry, but by continuing to teach their students to improve their behavior. The strategy is not just a matter of being nice. In a punishing setting, children who are aggressive or shy in school — students at highest risk for academic and behavior problems — tend to become more so, making them less likely to focus on learning and more likely to disrupt learning for the whole class.

This teaching-oriented strategy is one of the ways PAX methods are consistent with “trauma informed care,” a kind of care that helps students who come to class with burdens from their personal lives act in a way that helps them improve their behavior and learning.

The GBG teaches behavior by discussing with the students what behaviors encourage a calm orderly school environment (PAX behaviors) and what behaviors are disruptive (“spleems”) before a game begins.

The made-up word “spleem” was chosen as a playful, non-judgmental way to describe behavior problems. Its purpose is to protect students with behavioral issues from the constant stream of negative reinforcement they often experience and give them the chance to improve their behaviors before they conclude they’re simply no good and stop trying.

GBG games are played in teams, and it is the teams, not just the individuals, that fail or succeed. Teams that have three or fewer spleems during a PAX game win the game and a prize. This not only encourages all students to strive for what’s called “PAX” behavior while making their way to the gym, the cafeteria, or other daily activities, but allows room for a margin of error that encourages improvement.

The length of the games gradually increase to stretch students’ attention spans and their ability to focus on their school work. And the results are real. I gained a sense for the power of that when I visited a first-grade class and the teacher told me it was the first time they’d been able to get to the second page of a handout that year. In reaching the second page, they had turned a more important page in their capacity to learn.

The incentive for children involves winning what’s called one of “Granny’s Wacky Prizes.” The prizes are typically 20-second to minute-long games that give the students to get up, move around and have fun. For young students, it can mean crawling like worms under their desks. Sixth grade students at Simon Kenton once decided to walk down the hallway backwards in silence just for the fun of it.

“So much more is expected of our kids these days,” said Snowhill Elementary School second grade teacher Adrienne Jackson. “This gives them a chance to catch their breath” — and to know that they have earned it.

Simon Kenton Elementary School Principal Amy Paul said those fun moments not only give the students a brief breather, but provide time for students and teachers to have fun together, something she’s seen improve the teacher-student relationship that is so crucial to learning.

All contribute to what research reviewed by the National Registry of Evidence-Based Program and Practice of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found: that PAX GBG students have fewer referrals for individual education plans and mental health services and that GBG classrooms have lower incidence of ADHD behaviors.

Dawn Clemens, director of the Catholic Central preschool and a teacher of 3- to 5-year-olds, puts it more simply. “The beauty of the PAX system is that it works,” she said. “The world would be a better place if everybody practiced PAX.”

We thank the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Clark, Greene and Mental Health Services for Clark, Champaign and Greene and Madison Counties and the Wilson Sheehan Foundation for helping us to bring this program to our area.

For more information about PAX GBG, call me at 937-206-0203 or email

Dawn Henseler White is a PAX partner at Wellspring in Springfield.

Submissions welcome

Community members are invited to submit a Community Commentary column for publication. Columns should be approximately 500 words in length and will be edited for publication. The News-Sun will make the final decision on whether they will be published. Any column submissions should be emailed to Springfield News-Sun Editor Samantha Sommer at For more info, call 937-328-0346.