BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — Upshur County will soon be the third county in West Virginia to offer elementary schools a program that helps to instill positive messages in kids in hopes of improving behavior in school.

The PAX Good Behavior Game, created by Arizona-based Paxis Institute, reinforces positive behaviors while inhibiting unwanted behaviors. Studies have shown that the program, now in its 50th year, reduces lifetime drug use and increases graduation rates.

“For a state that leads the nation in opioid overdose deaths and leads the nation in depression, it makes sense that we reinforce positiveness, we build self-regulation, we try to protect our children from the negatives of the world, and we try to make them happier and more productive people,” said Dr. Kevin Junkins, psychiatrist for Community Care of West Virginia.

Community Care of West Virginia adopted the program last year, by making Braxton County Schools a pilot program.

“We’ve seen reductions in the amount of (disruptive behavior) that are in those classrooms,” Junkins said. “The teachers that are using it are very satisfied. It’s catching on more and more. It’s a different intervention than they’re used to, so it takes some time to grow but the administrators are very happy with it. They’ve become very good advocates, and the school systems like it as well.”

In fact, two Braxton County teachers who were considering retirement decided to continuing working because the program made them excited to teach again, he said.

“This year we rolled out into Lewis County Schools, and next year we’ll be doing Upshur County Schools. We hope to further expand to other counties as well,” Junkins said.

Dr. Dennis Embry, president of the PAXIS Institute, said that classrooms in grades Pre-K through 5 will typically play the game three or more times each day while doing their regular studies.

“They could be doing math, they could be doing art, they could be doing physical activities in the gym, they could be doing writing or reading,” Embry said. “The teacher goes about his or her business, helping the kids, talking, teaching, maybe helping to solve a problem.

“It doesn’t matter in any way, shape, or form what the nature of the teaching is,” he said. “The kids are learning. They’re on teams so that they have to learn to work together. That’s an essential thing of humans.”

The positive behaviors that PAX promotes are peace, productivity, health and happiness.

“When the timer rings, if we have three or fewer (disruptive behaviors) we win,” Embry said. “If we have four or more, we don’t win.”

While a class with zero disruptive behaviors would be ideal, Embry said that would be an unbelievable achievement.

“It’s just a fact of life that people will make mistakes. But it’s not about learning not to make them, it’s learning that if you don’t win, it’s okay,” he said. “You’ll do better next time. You’re learning that it’s okay to fail at something in a moment of time and then be more resilient the next time.”

At the end of the allotted time, the winners are then treated with special activities.

“We might get to do 10 seconds of drumming on the desk with our pencils and figures. We might get to do a fun activity because we probably need to stand up and get a little physical activity,” Embry said.

But PAX is about more than something for the teachers to do to not have disruptive behavior in the classroom.

It has lifelong lasting effects.

“Children in first grade who do this very well, their standardized test scores in third grade will be much better in both math and reading. And there was never any change in the curriculum,” Embry said.

Further studies at Johns Hopkins University, where Embry also serves as a clinician, follow those children onto the age of 25. Thus far, approximately 1,000 people have been studied in randomized comparative effectiveness trials.

“For girls, there’s a 52 percent increase in college attendance and a 25 percent increase in high school graduation by girls because they didn’t get pregnant,” Embry said.

Graduation rates for boys increased by 19 percent.

In both genders, violent crime was reduced by roughly 30 percent, alcohol abuse reduced by 35 percent, psychiatry services by 20 percent, and suicidal thoughts by more than 50 percent.

“The return on investment is 70 to 1 so every dollar spent on this, the students, teachers, schools, communities, state, the nation, save a hell of a lot of money,” Embry said.

The science behind those changes stems from two factors — peer influence and academic achievement.

“First is having peers in your early years who reinforce bad behavior,” Embry said. “Those kinds of behaviors accumulate over time, and they do a couple of things. They reduce positive peer influences, and then children essentially play the game of ups. I will be badder than you are bad to get attention.”

Embry said that behavior not only drives children toward delinquency, but it also makes them more likely to aggregate into a community of other children who are doing all of those same things.

“And that leads to significant peer pressure and peer involvement with using drugs, tobacco, it doesn’t matter what it is,” he said.

Remarkably, there are no lessons about drugs, suicide, depression, teen pregnancy or the other social concerns that PAX helps to reduce.

“But it affects all of that because now the children are not attracted to deviant behavior, nor are they pushed into deviant behavior,” Embry said.

Stopping those behaviors before they even begin is what Junkins feels will be most effective in combating the state’s opioid epidemic.

“When you think about addiction, depression and mental health in general, in no other medical condition in the United States do we wait until it becomes a problem before we address it,” he said. “We have vaccinations, we have preventive strategies, we have ways to combat those things. But with addiction in this state, I don’t think we do a really good job of working to prevent these things from happening and that’s what the PAX Good Behavior Game offers these children.”

Learn more about the PAXIS Institution and the PAX Good Behavior Game here.