It’s 9 a.m. Tuesday and every student in Dylana Garfas-Knowles’ fourth/fifth grade combined class is frantically tapping their pencils — some attack their desks, others prefer the sides of their plastic water bottles. One curly-haired boy in a fedora is going to town with two pencils, drummer style.
Had a parent wandered into Garfas-Knowles’ classroom at Walker Elementary during the 15 seconds her students were granted pencil-tapping privileges, they might have surmised Garfas-Knowles had simply lost control. In fact, the students were doing exactly as they had been told, and when Garfas-Knowles softly blew into a harmonica to signal the end of the activity, they stopped.
The students were reaping the spoils of a Pax Good Behavior Game, a classroom management tool which, according to Principal Tiffany Burns, has “taken our school by storm” since being implemented at Walker following winter break. Every teacher at Bellview and John Muir and roughly three quarters of the staff at Helman also went through the two-day training seminar in December — the classes were covered by an AllCare Health grant — and Ashland interim Superintendent Suzanne Cusick said she’s heard similarly encouraging results at the elementary principals meetings.
Based on research and developed by teachers, the program uses games which can be implemented during any lesson throughout the school day to stretch children’s ability to self regulate, remain focused for longer stretches of time and work together toward a shared goal — to win the game. They win by demonstrating Pax behaviors (Pax is Latin for peace) during the lesson — behaviors they identify immediately before the lesson begins.
Preparing to begin a Pax game during a spelling lesson Tuesday morning, Garfas-Knowles asked her class what Pax looks like during spelling. Fourth-grader Caris Randall raised her hand. “Listening and paying attention,” she said.
“Listening and paying attention,” Garfas-Knowles echoed. “Awesome.”
A few other students chimed in: "Being quiet." "Noise level zero." "No chair tipping."
Garfas-Knowles then set a timer for six minutes, said, “on your mark, get set, go” and jumped into the spelling lesson, which was no different than the sorts of spelling lessons she taught long before hearing the word “Pax.” Except now, while dropping spelling words into a narrative about the board game Monopoly, she’s also watching and listening for behaviors the students have already classified as either Pax or "Spleems," a made-up word for behaviors which are basically the opposite of Pax (chair tippers, beware).
When her timer sounds, Garfas-Knowles declares winners and losers. The class has been divided into teams, a strategy which makes use of positive peer pressure. In the case of Tuesday morning’s spelling lesson, everybody won, but that’s not always the case. Pencil-tapping was the reward Garfas-Knowles had fished out of “Granny’s Wacky Prize Bag.” The blue, book-sized bag, which resembles a soft lunch box, is filled with cards that name other prizes, such as arm wrestling, lying on the floor and (fourth-grader Gemma Johnson’s personal favorite) a mannequin challenge, which calls for the students to freeze like mannequins while one classmate walks around and watches closely for movement.
“And if they see anybody move then they’re it,” Johnson said.
Fourth-grader Freeman Roundtree said classes seem more productive since Garfas-Knowles began using Pax Good Behavior Games in early January, though at first he was skeptical.
“I didn’t think it was really going to make a difference,” he said. “I didn’t get the premise of it at first.”
“It makes the class more peaceful and quiet,” he said.
Fourth-grader Riley Canley agreed.
“Our class before, when we’d do our work, there’d be a bunch of talking,” she said. “But now everybody’s really focused on the Pax game to play Granny’s wacky prizes.”
The students’ observations are supported by the school’s own measurements. Garfas-Knowls tabulated a “spleem count baseline” during a 15-minute lesson on March 10 and counted about 60 spleems, down considerably from the 300 spleems she marked down during a similar 15-minute lesson before she implemented Pax.
Independent reviews by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, available at pubmed.gov, show even more impressive outcomes for students who are taught in classrooms in which the program is being used. Highlights include a 60 to 90-minute increase in teaching time each day, 75 to 125 fewer interruptions per hour, improved benchmark scores for standardized testing and a 30 to 60 percent drop in referrals, suspensions and expulsions.
“It’s like a night and day difference in terms of regulating themselves,” Garfas-Knowles said.
Jennifer Parks, who also teaches a fourth/fifth-grade combined class at Walker, said she was skeptical when she heard about the program, but decided to give it a shot. Local educators have asked for more training to help children with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), she noted, and Pax essentially targets that group.
“I have to admit,” she said, “I have routines and I’ve been teaching for a while. I know what works for me and I have a sense what works for kids. … And I think sometimes in Ashland we feel like our students don’t have ACEs. Kids have ACEs all over.
“Whatever it may be, for us to find more ways to address that as a classroom, as a school and as a district is really powerful. So we went (to the training) as the scout team, and when she first pulled out he harmonica I thought, ‘Oh no, I am not going to make a harmonica sound in my classroom.’ But for the two days we were there, the (trainer) was just a storyteller and she shared with us the data, and then she shared the stories about the effect that this work has had on kids in schools. And by the end, I was ready.”
Parks said she came back from winter break fired up to start the new program, and that excitement only increased after she implemented the games in class. The results, she said, were startling. Garfas-Knowles has been able to play a Pax game that lasted a whopping 25 minutes. Parks has hit 20 minutes in her classroom.
“The pride that I see in those kids,” she said, “the kids that really struggle to regulate their emotions, to regulate their behaviors. To see them go from being able to do it for three minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes. ... We want, ultimately, kids to be successful. We want them to win their games. We want them to be able to develop that executive functioning in their brains that allows them to go longer and longer being successful.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.