Good Behavior More Than a Game

BCBSMT, American Chemet Partner to Bring Proven Mental Health Tactic to East Helena Schools

The hum of a harmonica signals to Olivia Condon’s kindergarten class that the game is starting. Children sit down cross-legged and all eyes focus on Mrs. Condon as she begins a math lesson.

From their designated Pax spots on the floor, children count dots on a domino. Mrs. Condon asks a student which domino has eight dots on it, and excitedly she gives the right answer. In the midst of this numerical lesson, Mrs. Condon notices one student whose hands are down on the floor.

She reminds the student of his Pax position, and he quickly pulls his hands back into his lap. Instruction continues, as does the game.

Moments later, students sit down at their desks to complete a math assignment from a workbook. Once they finish, Mrs. Condon checks their work. Occasionally, the chatter at one of the tables gets a little loud, or a student forgets to raise their hand before asking a question. Without breaking stride, Mrs. Condon lets the table know they need to add a spleem token to their cup.

Eleven minutes later the harmonica hums again, bringing an end to the math lesson and the game. Both were a success, as all the students finished their math assignment and a few tables had spleems. Mrs. Condon pulls out a reward from the granny wacky prize bag. Three minutes of giggling ensue, and then it is off to recess for the 5- and 6-year-olds.

Spleems, Pax positions and granny wacky prizes don’t sound like part of a usual math lesson. However, for teachers in grades kindergarten through third grade in the East Helena School District, these are common themes woven throughout their instruction since the start of the school year.

It is all part of the PAXIS Good Behavior Game, a program implemented by the East Helena School District at the start of the school year. It’s designed to reduce behavioral and mental health issues through a scientific teacher-implemented intervention program. The program was made possible through grants provided by American Chemet and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana (BCBSMT).

“I love East Helena. We all took it on and we are all in,” Mrs. Condon said. “For my class, they will have this for four years, and these strategies to self-motivate and be aware of what they’re doing will be there. For four solid years, when you’re learning your most and absorbing so much, it will be so powerful. I am excited to see where these kids are 10 years down the road.”

East Helena School District Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said the district was seeking ways to not only meet the academic needs of students, but also to support and strengthen their ability to cope with the social, emotional, and behavioral challenges to improve their lifelong mental well-being. The district chose this program from recommendations and because it has proven results as an effective  way to address these critical needs at an early age. That way,  the district could influence student suicide resistance much later in life.

For my class, they will have this for four years, and these strategies to self-motivate and be aware of what they're doing will be there... it will be so powerful.

Whitmoyer believes that by using this program, the district can make an impact on kindergarten, first-,second- and third-grade students. This includes strengthening their resiliency to resist suicidal thoughts later in life, after they leave the school district.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that from 2005 to 2014, suicide was the No. 2 cause of death in Montana for children ages 10-14, adolescents ages 15-24, and adults ages 25-44. East Helena families and the community are sadly familiar with the impact of teen suicide. Several youths have taken their own lives over the last four years.

“For these reasons, we reached out to American Chemet and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana for resources to address the significant concerns we were having with addressing suicide long before the critical period of a child’s life was reached,” Whitmoyer said. “The district would not have been able to bring this program to our district without our community partners. Thank you to American Chemet and BCBSMT for this tremendous gift to our kids and community.”

A critical aspect of the program in Mrs. Condon’s mind is that it focuses on kids at such a young age. The earlier students begin to learn something, the easier it is for them to absorb and retain it.

Plus, they’re learning in a way that is fun and interactive.

Mrs. Condon asks her kids throughout the day if they are they going to be a “go Pax” or a “no spleem.” Pax games are done throughout the day. She incorporates them during core instruction time, such as math and reading. She said her students are beginning to understand when they are the ones “spleeming,” or not following directions. They recognize that and get back on task. That is a behavior that will only help them when they reach middle school and high school.

The granny wacky prizes are fun, especially because they are things students normally would get in trouble for during the day. Students can’t tap their pencil loudly during instruction. But they can with the granny wacky prize. Pencil tapping, pax-pax-tootle, giggle fest, arm farts, air guitar, dance-dance-freeze, and who let the dogs out are all possible awards for Mrs. Condon’s class. Once they get that energy out, the class calms down and focuses on the next lesson.

“I’m seeing self-motivation. They don’t need constant reinforcement. They are trying to follow the expectations of the class,” Mrs. Condon said. “These kids are willing to do something they might not want to do because they are trying to better themselves and the class as a whole. That mentality, as it moves forward, will be very powerful.”

By the time this class completes third grade, these students will have been in the program for four years. Radley Elementary third-grade teacher Katy Hauer can already see a difference in her class after three months.

She’s noticed that after doing the Pax game, her students have more self-regulation and can work more independently compared to previous classes. They are developing strategies to stop and start in different environments. That is a skill she feels will help them work through different parts of their lives.

One of the most popular features of the game for Mrs. Hauer’s class is the Tootles notes. Students write positive notes to each other, which are then posted on the Tootles board. It is a fun exercise and causes students to look for the good in each other. It raises self-esteem and helps students realize what others like about them.

“I hope that they realize that there are things that their friends admire about them, which will help them see the value in their lives,” Mrs. Hauer said. “Focusing on the positive is a good mindset to have rather than on the negative and that, hopefully, will continue to carry over with them.”

American Chemet and BCBSMT, two of the major employers in the Helena area, collaborated to bring the program to the school district and the community.

“What’s happening in our community is heartbreaking. We all have a responsibility to do everything we can to break this tragic cycle,” said John Doran, Divisional Vice President of External Affairs and Chief of Staff at BCBSMT. “We applaud the East Helena School District for taking such a proactive approach. Together, we can make a difference.”

American Chemet President and CEO Bill Shropshire, who participated in the school training day in June of last year, echoed those sentiments.

“American Chemet is proud to be a part of bringing the Good Behavior Game to East Helena schools,” Shropshire said. “East Helena schools are showing great initiative, dedication and careful decision-making in bringing this great program to the kids of East Helena.”

Since 1999, the Good Behavior Game has been implemented in 32 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces, reaching more than 105,000 students in more than 650 schools. The intervention also has been used by several tribes in the United States and First Nations in Canada, as well as in Ireland.