Wednesday 13 December 2017

How a new classroom game is changing the way pupils behave in and out of school

A new classroom game from the US is helping Irish teachers to regulate pupils’ behaviour and create an ideal learning space in schools

Denise Carter, teacher at Our Lady Immaculate JNS, Darndale with pupils taking part in the Good Behaviour Game which has been found to reduce off-task behaviour in the classroom by 43%.
Denise Carter, teacher at Our Lady Immaculate JNS, Darndale with pupils taking part in the Good Behaviour Game which has been found to reduce off-task behaviour in the classroom by 43%.

All of us are familiar with the archaic teaching method which refers to ‘sparing the rod and spoiling the child’.

Thankfully, those days are well behind us, but while the current style of education doesn’t involve physical punishment, most teachers will discipline their class verbally in order to keep things running smoothly.

But Dr Denis Embry (pictured below) has undertaken a revival of an old classroom ‘game’ first devised in the 1960s. It is taking the US by storm and has recently been implemented in several Irish schools.

“The ‘Good Behaviour Game’, as it used to be called, was established in 1967 and involved helping children to regulate their behaviour by trying to create the ultimate classroom environment,” Dr Embry explains.

“It is a very kid-friendly idea which firstly encourages the vision of what a great school would be like to each child. This doesn’t involve teachers telling them what they should be doing or thinking, but rather what they see themselves as the ‘perfect’ classroom or school.

“Positive elements or actions are referred to as PAX and this doesn’t just mean ‘peace’ but the children are taught that PAX refers to peace, productivity, health and happiness — and very quickly, they begin to recognise what makes something a PAX and also what they can do to create this themselves.”

Once the children have established what a PAX is, they then learn to recognise the opposite, which are referred to as ‘spleems’.

“A spleem is something which negatively impacts the environment or a child’s learning capacity,” says Dr Embry. “So if a child is staring out the window instead of looking at his book, that is a spleem.

“Another example would be if someone wasn’t being kind and caring to their fellow classmates or disrupting the lesson. Again, after a very short time, children begin to recognise what a spleem is and they can begin to play the game.

“This is started initially with a very short session where children are divided into groups and must work together to try not to gather many spleems.

“The teacher will blow a harmonica and set a timer to start the game and will then award PAX or spleems accordingly to groups.

“Once the short game is over, each group who had three or fewer spleems get a reward (and this is almost always every team as each spleem is usually followed rapidly by a PAX).”


These are no ordinary rewards either as they simply involve doing something which is normally banned in the classroom.

“The rewards are referred to as Granny’s Whacky Prizes and comprise of little out-of-the-ordinary actions like being allowed to sit on the desk for 20 seconds or roll on the floor for 30.

“They all involve the kids getting out of their seats and there is usually a whole lot of giggling going on (both from the children and the teacher) before normal lessons begin again.

“As the children get used to the game, the length increases and because the teacher is not spending time telling them off for misdemeanours (she uses the harmonica to signal spleem which is awarded to a team rather than an individual child), the day is a lot more productive and the atmosphere is much more positive.”

Dr Embry, who founded the PAXIS Institute in the US, is senior scientist and a co-investigator at Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention and Early Intervention.

He says research has shown the PAX method vastly improves children’s behaviour as well as various mental, emotional and behavioural disorders.

“Evidence-based research has shown that PAX reduces children’s off-task behaviours by 43pc and transforms the classroom for both children and teachers,” he says.

“It has also shown to significantly reduce mental and emotional issues, with pilot schemes in the US revealing large numbers of children with serious or moderate behavioural issues going down to normal within 12 weeks.

“It is a very simple approach which doesn’t require therapy or medication and is showing hugely positive results. It is a system which has been around for decades and we are only just coming back to it — in fact, when I talk to indigenous people about this method, they listen carefully and then inform me that this is very similar to the way they have always brought up their kids.

“There is a growing interest in this globally and I have found people in Ireland to be very responsive to it, so I do hope it can eventually become a regular part of the school routine.”

According to Noel Kelly of PAX Ireland, the cost of PAX training works out at approximately €1,200 per teacher to include three days training, materials (each teacher gets a PAX pack with everything they need costs $300 plus Vat) and coaching supports (a coach visits each classroom four or five times in the 12-week period after training).

For a class of 25 children, the cost works out at €48 per child, however, as the teacher will continue to roll PAX out in subsequent years, the cost reduces after five years less than €10 per child, and after 20 years, less than €2.50 per child.

These costs are based on bringing US trainers to Ireland: when Ireland  develops its own Irish trainers and move to scale, it is expected that costs will be reduced by at least 50pc per teacher.

For more information on PAX, visit www.paxireland.ie and www.paxis.org

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