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Bullock visits Ponderosa to discuss PAX

Gov. Steve Bullock visits a classroom to observe a demonstration of the PAX Good Behavior Game Sept. 11 at Ponderosa Elementary School. Bullock then fielded questions from the second-grade class.

Montana elementary students are playing a game that could save their lives years from now.

The PAX Good Behavior Game was introduced in some Montana public and private schools several years ago. It has grown recently so that it is part of the school day in all 22 Billings public elementary schools and dozens of other grade schools throughout the state.

“This is the closest thing we have to prevention,” Karl Roston, the state’s suicide prevention coordinator, told an audience at the Montana Hospital Association conference in Billings lasts week. Rosston, a licensed professional counselor, wants PAX in every Montana school.

All the other strategies against suicide involve treating depression, other mental illnesses and reducing risk factors for suicide. The PAX Good Behavior Game actually has been shown to reduce depression, suicide, chemical dependency, violence and victimization in young adults who played the game in primary grades.

PAX is a classroom management tool that provides immediate feedback on good behavior and helps students learn to recognize inappropriate behavior. Students learn their role as students is to be part of a classroom community.

PAX started out in Kansas in 1969 with students who were tracked for 30 years, Rosston said. The most dramatic benefits were documented in males who had been aggressive and disruptive at the beginning of first grade. Those who were in PAX classrooms were much less likely to have behavior problems in subsequent school years or as adults.

“The GBG (Good Behavior Game) was developed to help teachers manage classrooms without having to respond on an individual basis each time a student disrupted a class,” according to the American Institutes for Research, which participated in a large trial of the program that began in 1985 in Baltimore, Maryland, with 41 first- and second-grade classrooms. Unacceptable behaviors are called “spleems.”  The teacher and students will identify a spleem when it occurs and continue on with the lesson in progress.

PAX benefits have been documents in decades of research in Colorado, Nebraska, Houston, Texas; Washington, D.C.; the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

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As of last school year, students in 47 Montana schools already had been trained on the Good Behavior Game. A federal grant of $2.21 million announced in May has expanded the program to three dozen more elementary schools. Funds will be used for training school personnel delivered by the PAXIS Institute, the organization that developed the program. Grant funding will also pay for continued program evaluation performed by the University of Montana.

So far, the data indicates that PAX is a positive tool for managing children's classroom behavior, said Ryan Tolleson Knee, PhD, of the Center for Children, Families and Workforce Development at the University of Montana.

“It will be critical to follow these children over time to determine if Montana’s PAX program is consistent with national studies and participants are able to acquire the skills needed to prevent problems associated with mental illness, substance abuse, and suicidal thinking,” Tolleson Knee said.

Schools currently using the program include Absarokee, Belgrade, Billings, Bozeman, Browning, Canyon Creek, Clancy, Cut Bank, Dillon, East Helena, Fromberg, Gardiner, Heart Butte, Helena, Joliet, Lakeside, Livingston, Manhattan, Missoula, Shepherd, Twin Bridges, Wibaux, and Wilsall.

Gov. Steve Bullock visited Ponderosa Elementary earlier this month to tout the expansion of PAX. "You can't start when they're in high school," Bullock said while visiting a Ponderosa classroom. "You have to build these behaviors from the beginning."

"It's difficult for people to own education, much less behaviors," School District 2 superintendent Greg Upham said. "This is an extremely proactive approach."

The widespread adoptions of PAX is good for students now, and research indicates it will benefit them for life. Montanans demand much of their children's schools and teachers must pack a lot into each class day. The PAX projects show that our teachers and administrators are making changes for the benefit of our children. Congratulations for helping Montana children learn to self-regulate their behavior. It is an essential skill for success in life.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.