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NM teachers use game that works by speaking the language of children

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Deven Melendez, left, and Samantha Chavez use lessons learned through the PAX Good Behavior Game in Mary Proue’s third grade class at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Santa Fe last week. The PAX system teaches self-regulation to promote good classroom behavior. Administrators hope the skills in the program will create kids more resilient to drug addiction and other risky behavior. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

A new era of public schooling is coming to some parts of New Mexico, one that holds hope that from kinder, more humane classrooms come children less likely to turn to suicide, risky behavior or drugs.

The changing agent? A game.

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That game is the PAX Good Behavior Game, called “the next big thing in child and adolescent psychiatry” by the academic journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. For some teachers already using the game, it has been as revolutionary as the research backing it suggests.

Since some of that research shows that the skills the game builds help combat later drug use, New Mexico just spent about $800,000 of a federal $9.5 million anti-opioid grant to purchase hundreds of kits, at several hundred dollars each, and training for teachers, aides and administrators to bring them into the PAX fold.

The program is in place in at least 38 schools across nine counties and reaches about 10,000 students, and could reach more once an indigenous version is launched in Native American schools.

PAX 101

PAX, Latin for peace, uses silly experiential prizes to incentivize good classroom andinterpersonal behavior. Cooperative PAX kids then create calmer, more friendly classrooms that provide opportunities for self-reflection and self-regulation, skills proponents say are necessary for making healthy life choices.

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From left, Josiah Urban, Jazmin Torres and Juan Gonzalez, from Mary Proue’s third grade class at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Santa Fe, walk past a bulletin board at their school last week (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Teachers learn to frame conversations with kids in “logic” they understand and in a way that focuses on desired behavior and not undesirable behavior.

“We have to accept that the systems and methods haven’t always been efficient or kid-logical,” PAX founder Dennis Embry, of Tucson, said at a recent teacher training in Española.

“Take for instance when teachers say, ‘Keep my hands to myself.’ Well, where are they? They are attached to me. That makes no sense at all. So we say ‘PAX hands don’t hurt.’ Now it has a deeper purpose than compliance. It’s purpose driven, not rule driven.”

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So “be quiet” becomes “use your Zero Inch voices,” referencing a spacial zone for how loud your voice can be to be heard. There is also a 3-inch voice for whispering, a 10-inch voice for classroom talking, and a 10-foot voice.

Mary Proue, a third-grade teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in south Santa Fe and an ardent fan of PAX, says children are taught accompanying hand signals so they can see and then know how to regulate their voice accordingly.

“You can just say, ‘We are at a Zero Inch Voice’ and they know. Otherwise you are kind of just yelling over everyone,” she said.

PAX and ‘Spleems’

Children work together to make a list of behaviors they want more or less of.

In Proue’s class, her students want more “playing nicely, helping others, compliments, manners, sharing” and they want to feel more “happy, appreciated, grateful.” They say they want less “messing around, lonely people, crying, fighting, yelling, distracting sounds, pushing” and they want to feel less “sad, depressed, angry, frustrated and scared.” The wanted behaviors are the PAX behaviors and the unwanted become “Spleems,” a funny little word Embry made up and the kids seem to love.

“I wanted a novel word that made the adults and children slightly smile, and not to use a word like ‘bad,’ ‘rule’ or ‘foul.’  … Those other words pucker a face in perceived anger, which can trigger defiance or anxiety in kids,” Embry said.

Plus, saying “spleem” kind of forces a slight smile, Embry said.

Granny’s Law

While there are dozens of modern

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Jerome Espinoza and his classmates get to make funny faces for 10 seconds as a reward in Mary Proue’s third grade class at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Santa Fe.  (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

psycho-, neuro- and sociological research principles built into PAX, Embry says it’s actually a generations-old idea that makes it work so well in bringing more love and kindness into class. PAX just gives everyone a common vocabulary and a refresher course in being kind.

“Rewards teach that hard work can lead to positive results rather than constantly telling them what not to do,” he said. “We call that Grandmother’s Law.”

And in grandmother’s honor, the kids earn one of hundreds of Granny’s Whacky Prizes.

Picture a classroom of 8-year-olds given 30 seconds to wallow on the floor, howl like wolves, crawl like babies, or make a train around the classroom.

And imagine they stop this zany behavior in an instant once their teacher blows a mellow note on a harmonica then hop right back to work.

This is PAX in action, ideally, and it’s a reality for some who use it.

Positive changes

Proue said PAX’s “whole child” mindset has changed her students, her classroom and her school for the better.

“It’s anti-shaming. Too many times they are being shamed at other places in their lives, and school needs to be a safe place,” she said after dropping off her 22 students in the cafeteria.

She says built into the PAX game are best practices for teaching, like the “brain breaks” provided by the prizes.

Proue said that as PAX has become more widely implemented at her school, the student body has been calmer and, it seems to her, happier.

She said another part of the game, the Tootles, are important.

Tootles, the opposite of Tattles, are little notes written by students to their friends or teacher, or by a teacher to students, or between adults.

One student this year, she said, has responded so well to the positive incentive of the Tootles and prizes that she has seen a dramatic change in his willingness to participate in class, interact kindly with his friends and try hard.

Lea Leyba, a teacher at Chama Elementary School in Chama said the PAX system is a “huge shift in thought.”

She said PAX helps teachers, especially new teachers, in classroom management to actually make time to “create a bunch of little thinkers.”

“That’s how we make progress in the world,” she said, following a PAX training session in Española.

In New Mexico

Leyba was among those at a recent training Embry held near Española, one of the nation’s counties hit hardest by prescription and street opioid addiction and overdose.

Its training like this and the kits sent home with teachers that have been purchased with the federal grant money.

This push is an expansion, bringing into the PAX fold in some schools in Sandoval, San Juan, Rio Arriba, Grant, Luna, Santa Fe, Socorro, Sierra and Quay counties.

State behavioral health staff in charge of the implementing PAX say there is also a version created for indigenous students, so kits and training are slated for schools on seven pueblos.

It’s possible other schools are using the program on their own.

The PAX program is in use around the nation as well. It has been designated as an effective program by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And Embry said teacher colleges are starting to take notice of the program as states conduct research on its effectiveness.

“With all the focus on tests, we’ve lost track of what kind of person are we creating,” Embry said. “For teachers, this is the heart work they’ve been missing.”


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