MOUNT VERNON — On a recent morning at Centennial Elementary School, students in Adele Barborinas’ third grade class were dancing as obnoxiously as possible.

The dance party — a reward for the students’ good behavior — lasted 30 seconds and, as soon as the timer went off, the students quietly sat down and got back to their schoolwork.

Teachers in the school this year are the first in the district to take part in the PAX Good Behavior Game, which focuses on incentivizing good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior.

The game, however, isn’t a dance party or playing tag; the game is the actual learning.

“It’s the game that sets up the environment for them to do the learning,” said Assistant Principal Julie Sager, who has been coordinating the training for the teachers. “It’s a set of tools to use in the classroom to promote positive behavior and and help kids self-regulate.”

To play the game, the students must first designate positive behaviors to have in their classroom and what they think are negative behaviors.

The game then starts when the learning starts, with students exhibiting the good behaviors they established as a class for a duration of time designated by their teacher — maybe five minutes, 10 minutes or longer.

By making the game progressively longer each time, teachers are expanding the students’ attention spans.

“That translates into their ability to be productive when they get older,” Barborinas said.

If, during that time, the teacher observes one of the negative behaviors, the student’s whole group — not the individual student — receives what’s called a “spleem.”

When teachers give out spleems, they do so in a neutral manner to avoid giving attention to bad behavior, Barborinas said.

“They’ve learned to just move on and ignore it, but think about, ‘Was that me? How can I avoid it?’” Barborinas said. “It’s not designed to be punitive.”

Three spleems disqualify groups from participating in the fun activity for that round of the game.

Then, the game starts all over.

“The kids feel empowered to do great and to work as a team,” Sager said.

The school is piloting the program as part of the district’s involvement in MV HOPE — a partnership between Skagit County Public Health, schools, law enforcement and other organizations to address and prevent drug use.

“Across the board, the (game’s) outcomes are phenomenal,” said Danica Sessions, coalition coordinator for MV HOPE. “It’s successful because it’s not a curriculum. It’s not something where you get a manual and you have a certain number of classes or topics to teach. It’s integrated into just the everyday classroom.”

Funded by a state Community Prevention and Wellness Initiative (CPWI) grant, MV HOPE is one of three such groups operating in the county.

The Concrete School District has been playing the PAX Good Behavior game in its elementary school for several years, Sessions said.

“It’s really fantastic to see,” she said. “They’ve got some great data.”

The goal at Centennial, Sessions said, is to train a small group of teachers and then expand at the school.

The program easily adaptable outside the classroom, she said. For example, it could be used by bus drivers.

“Before you know it, you want a school district that’s trained,” she said. “It’s meant to be used by everybody in the school, in every which way you could possibly use it.”

Playing the game has been proven to decrease the likelihood of substance abuse and risky or violent behaviors, and decrease dropout rates, Sessions said.

“When you’re looking at substance use prevention you can’t just look at substance use; you have to look at the child as a whole or the person as a whole,” she said.

Abigail Reyna, 9, said the game has taught her to be more peaceful in class, and the more peaceful environment has helped her learn.

“I like that it’s quiet,” she said.

In August, Sessions said MV HOPE will sponsor another group of teachers to attend training for the PAX Good Behavior game, with the intent that the game will expand.

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141,, Twitter: @Kera_SVH,

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