Dennis Embry uses his phone to capture students' work on display in the hallway at Bellview Elementary School. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]

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.

The good behavior game is a technique that teachers — or anyone in charge of children, from parents to Sunday school teachers — can weave into class time to help kids "self-regulate" during any activity. The first step is for kids to imagine an ideal classroom and name what they would see, hear or feel there. They then do the opposite by naming behaviors they wouldn't see.

The undesirable behaviors are written up in a list of "spleems," a made-up PAX word. The teacher counts spleems in the classroom, at times reminding students that too many will prevent them from getting to pull from "Granny's Wacky Prize Bag" for a fun activity at the end of a scheduled one. During Van Dyke's class, the prize drawn out was 30 seconds of jumping jacks. The activity ends at the chime of bells or a low tone on a harmonica.

The names seem goofy to some, but Embry and the other school administrators say kids respond to them. Another aspect of the PAX good behavior game is writing "tootles" for good behavior — teachers also encourage students to write them for each other.

"When we focus only on compliance, a child will not learn to navigate their situations," Embry said. "We're teaching them a good way of life — how to be a good learner."

Sallie Johnson, principal of Washington Elementary in Medford, said when her first- and third-grade teachers rolled out the PAX game, they told her they didn't know how they taught before using the game, a sentiment expressed in other schools and districts.

"And these are veteran teachers who have been teaching for 20, 25 years," Johnson said.

The school plans to roll out the PAX game in kindergarten and fourth grade next year. Other schools are also expanding the program.

Principals, district officials and Embry say the PAX approach helps diminish difficult behaviors. In the last year, districts have paid increased attention to the impact of "adverse childhood experiences" on classroom conduct and academic achievement, starting at the lowest grade levels. These experiences can include divorce, drug abuse, or sexual or physical abuse.

The Medford School District has sent professional staffers such as teachers and principals, as well as classified staff such as janitors and playground monitors to be trained in awareness of ACEs.

District spokeswoman Natalie Hurd said Measure 98 funds went toward the ACE training. AllCare Health has paid for PAX training and materials.

"It helps you kind of understand the effects and how those experiences affect your brain and ability to learn," she said.

Johnson said many students at Washington Elementary are dealing with ACEs, so the school has an opportunity to mitigate their effects from first grade onward by teaching them to "self-regulate" with PAX. She used an analogy she credited to Medford Superintendent Brian Shumate, that education is like buttoning up a shirt, where getting the first buttons wrong can set the whole process off track.

"Graduation rate is not a high school problem. We all impact graduation rates from kindergarten up," she said. "We're the bottom button."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or Follow her on Twitter at

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