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While student attendance rates in West Virginia’s schools has been a problem for years, the West Virginia Department of Education is looking at the problem of high rates of teacher absenteeism in some counties.

HUNTINGTON — As local officials work to develop a long-term plan to curb opioid abuse in the area, a psychiatrist says a program already used in some West Virginia schools can go as far as reducing the chance of children being incarcerated or developing substance use disorder later in life.

Community leaders in Cabell County released a “Resiliency Plan” at the beginning of the year, which envisions a pathway to the end of the substance use epidemic in the country. While giving money for rehabilitation programs and law enforcement are obvious parts of the plan, some more in-depth outlines include interventions to help children avoid behaviors that lead to the abuse.

PAX’s Good Behavior Game, which has been in use in elementary schools in north central West Virginia, helps students learn to self-regulate, giving them skills at an early age that reduce the chance of them turning to self-destructive behavior later in life by focusing on positive behavior rather than the bad.

Kevin Junkins, a psychiatrist working with Community Care of West Virginia, said he spoke with the state senate’s education committee about its success with hopes it will be implemented statewide, as have several states, such as Ohio.

“The kids have ownership of it and are setting the vision of what they want to see in the classroom,” Junkins said. “The Good Behavior Game works on enforcing the positive. It doesn’t work on shame or guilt. It works on re-enforcing the positive and using peer pressure to help the classroom be better.”

Decades of research forms an understanding

The idea of PAXIS Institute’s Good Behavior Game started in the 1960s when a teacher saw that disruptive behaviors by students were reinforced by peers and others. The teacher explored the idea that the same could be with positive behaviors via using competition.

Many institutions have studied and developed the idea further, including the University of Kansas and Johns Hopkins University.

Those programs followed students over decades and found students who participated in the game had decreased chances of having disciplinary problems, juvenile delinquency, incarceration and substance abuse later in life.

Over the decades of research, studies have shown the game reduced disruptive classroom behaviors in schools by 50% to 90%, giving teachers up to 25% more time for teaching and learning. The reduction leads to children being more engaged and a reduction in teacher stress levels.

Playing the game

The PAX Good Behavior Game program is less of traditional board game and more of a classroom setting.

It is a set of strategies created to help students learn self-management skills and collaboration needed to make a classroom a better learning environment. It centers on the Good Behavior Game, which was created by a youth violence prevention program called Peacebuilders.

Teachers and students create a word map of expectations for the year and behaviors they want to see more, or less, of throughout the school year. The map is posted and revised over time to keep it relevant. Children are tasked with self-regulation of the map. While teachers might step in to point out when a student is not following the list, they are taught to not nag or scold a specific student on the behavior to prevent giving attention to negative behavior.

They are taught to give a motor and verbal response when hearing a harmonica, that way their eyes and attention are to the teacher. Beating a timer for completing tasks is another idea.

It’s designed for first-graders but can be applied all the way to middle school classes.

The actual game ties it together. The class is divided into teams, and the teacher tasks students with finding out what bad behavior is occurring among their team.

“They will have to say there’s a (issue) on team one, and those kids will have to reflect on that and the kids will have to evaluate their behavior,” he said. “Some kids don’t have the ability to know these things. If there are kids who continue to (have issues), maybe they need extra intervention, maybe that helps to use early intervention.”

At the end of “game time,” the teams with three or fewer bad behaviors get rewarded with a “wacky” prize activity, such as dancing, singing or some other activity for a short period.

Schools seeing success in short periods

Kevin Junkins, a psychiatrist working with Community Care of West Virginia, said it works because it allows children to define their own classroom, which causes them to be more active and invested in making change. It lets them be a part of something bigger than themselves, which oftentimes they never would receive otherwise.

“If we are causing a positive place at school, maybe the kids will start thinking maybe this isn’t a bad place,” he said. “When before they were thinking ‘why do I want to go to school when the only thing that happens is that the kids bully me and the teacher is always riding my back.’ ”

That positivity goes home to the parents, too. While children who misbehave are used to getting negative notes sent home, the program encourages teachers to send the positive.

“It might sound marginal, but to that family this is a really good thing,” Junkins said. “Sometimes the parents need that as much as the kids do. Now the parents are thinking, ‘Maybe my kid isn’t a bad kid.’ ”

Tristan Gray, principal for Tennerton Elementary in Buckhannon, West Virginia, said his school of less than 300 students has one of the highest rates of grand families in the state, which are typically formed when parents are unable to take care of their children and can lead to disciplinary programs.

Gray said when the school had training on the program two years ago, he was sold.

“I guess in some ways when you know, you know,” he said. “When you have been around it long enough to know some things are going to work and some things aren’t. You just get the feeling. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

Gray, who has more than a decade of experience in his position, said attendance increased and the need for disciplinary action decreased after they implemented the program. Overall, the school has been a happier and more inviting place, he said.

Is the cost worth the outcome?

The program breaks down to about $400 per teacher, which includes materials needed. Ultimately, it’s about $23 per student, Junkins said. Comparatively, teachers are seeing increased productivity throughout the day because of fewer class distractions.

Junkins called it a mental vaccination that will last a lifetime.

“We can give these kids hope to have a better future because we can get folks healthy in the workforce,” he said. “If you are creating folks that have self-regulated and who worked together, that’s the employee you want in the future.”

Gray said $23 was well worth it.

“You can’t guarantee you can rehab someone,” he said. “There is no promise in that, but there is a possibility you can ‘prehab’ someone. If you can put in preventative measure with a program that pushes positivity, who knows.”

Junkins said teachers have jumped on board completely in the past year.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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