Friday 30 September 2016

It's a wacky classroom world - and it works

A behaviour game that allows pupils to jump about increases learning time

Published 07/10/2015 | 02:30

New rhythm: Breda Tomkins, teacher at St. Joseph's National School, Coolock with air guitarists Conor Ryan, Jessy Williams, Emma Deegan and Scott Lynch. Photo: Conor Healy.
New rhythm: Breda Tomkins, teacher at St. Joseph's National School, Coolock with air guitarists Conor Ryan, Jessy Williams, Emma Deegan and Scott Lynch. Photo: Conor Healy.

It's not long since the maths class started and teacher, Breda Tomkins invites the pupils to jump about strumming their air guitars.

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They do for about 30 seconds or so, and then it's back to business. And it really is back to business.

The children earned their moments of wackiness thanks to a new programme called the Pax Good Behaviour Game (GBG) trialled in 21 first and second classes in Ireland earlier this year, with impressive results. There were 387 pupils across all the classrooms.

The game promotes desirable behaviour, by teaching young primary pupils to take responsibilty for their actions, and it brings immediate rewards with on the spot breaks from studies. That's when the class might erupt into some air guitar strumming, or something equally wacky for the typical classroom, such as a wriggle on the floor, or a giggle fest, before knuckling down again.

The feedback from both pupils and teachers is positive - many teachers said it was the most effective intervention they had ever used in the classroom.

PAX GBG has also been supported in a study by Professor Mark Morgan and Dr Margaret O'Donnell of St Patrick's College, Drumcondra. In the 12 weeks of the pilot study, the St Pat's researchers noted a significant reduction in children's off-task classroom behaviours, the sort that interferes with the learning of all students.

Internationally, it has been shown to gain an extra hour of quality teaching and learning in the classroom time each day that would otherwise be lost to minor distractions.

PAX GBG has been developed using 30 years of research, and it works by teaching students self-regulation, self-control and self-management. Pupils themselves draw up the rules: they agree what they would like to see, hear, do and feel more of and also what they would like to see, hear, do and feel less of in the classroom.

The game has its own language and the things children would like to happen more are given the name PAX. The things they would like to happen less are called spleems - named so it could be said with a smile on your face, rather than the sort of expressions that might be associated with more the traditional language of censure. The PAX language also includes tootles, positive messages that children write for each other, as opposed to tell-tale tattles.

A PAX or a spleem may differ depending on the activity, for instance, whether the class is doing silent group work , music or PE.

Depending on numbers, a classroom typically has three to five teams, frequently rotated to ensure that pupils mix between groups.

Through regular mixing of children between teams, they help each other succeed.

For young children, a game might last anything from 30 seconds to a few minutes, and is played at least three times a day, while normal classroom work continues.

There is no winner takes all; every team can win if it has three or fewer spleems, and, according to teacher Breda Tomkins, it very seldom happens that any group is excluded from the reward activity - known as Granny's Wacky Prizes - because it had too many spleems.

She teaches at Bonnybrook National School, Coolock, on Dublin's northside, one of the 21 involved in the pilot project and is very enthusiastic about it.

Ms Tomkins gives an example of how it works. The children are set a task and, while engaging in it, the game starts with Ms Tomkins acting as umpire. An observation such as "I see a spleem in Group 4", is enough to stop a distraction in its tracks, and discourage others, with the bonus of not identifying any individual child.

Denise Carter, who teaches at Our Lady Immaculate Junior National School, Darndale, also in Dublin, says she went from having a challenging class to having highly motivated children. "Every single child got the PAX programme and was engaged. We started to get much more done with far less disruption and time wasting. Class line-ups can be done in seconds rather than minutes by using the game," she says.

The PAX pilot was conducted in schools under the umbrella of the Northside Partnership in Dublin and the Midlands Area Partnership, which work to support communities suffering disadvantage. It was co-funded by the Department of Children's Area Based Childhood programme and the Atlantic Philanthropies.

While PAX has the biggest effects on children with most disadvantages, even in classes where students are doing well, it has been helpful in virtually every case. Most of the research has been on younger primary pupils, but PAX has been shown to work from infants all the way through to post-primary.

Dr Denis Embry, founder of the PAXIS Institute, Arizona, USA, who helped to bring game to Ireland, says the benefits can endure for a lifetime. He says by dealing with issues such as impulsivity and poor peer relations at an early age, it prevents children developing problems than can lead to bullying, mental illness and suicide.

A further 80 Irish teachers are undergoing training this autumn/winter to enable the programme to be delivered in 100 classrooms.

Training and equipping a teacher costs about €1200.

Off-task behaviour cut

Over the 12 weeks of the study, the St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, researchers found an overall 44pc reduction in off-task behaviour by students.

Some 29pc of pupils scoring with the most challenging behaviours before the programme moved into the normal range. While all children benefited, the children with more difficulties benefited most.

Teachers counted an average of 110 Spleems over 15 minutes in the period before the study, which reduced to 62 after the 12 weeks. An average 5.7 Spleems per student was reduced to 3.5. There was reduction of Spleems in 20 of 21 classes. The changes noted were similar across gender, age group and in both rural and urban classrooms.

The study concluded that PAX GBG improved pupils' self-regulation skills, improved relationships and increased opportunities for enhanced learning outcomes.

Irish Independent

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