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As the suicide prevention coordinator for the Missoula City-County Health Department, I think about preventing suicides full time. The daunting reality in Montana is that we have the highest rate of suicide in the nation. I work with a coalition of dedicated community organizations to tackle this problem from many angles. Whether we’re training community members in suicide intervention or advocating for laws that will keep people in crisis safe, we’re working hard to help support those who are already in crisis.

But what if there was something we could do to prevent people from becoming suicidal in the first place? What if there was a way to teach our kids how to get along, how to relate, so that they felt more secure and connected to their peers? Could we change the trajectory for a child who is likely to end up in trouble, before that trouble begins?

There is such a program: The PAX Good Behavior Game, and with the help of grants from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and Providence Hospital, Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) is training elementary school teachers in this classroom management system which has proven to significantly reduce aggressive and disruptive behavior in the classroom, and increase their emotional regulation and social skills. Further, research has shown the long term effects of the Good Behavior Game (when those in the program have reached 19-21 years of age) to be significantly lower rates of drug and alcohol use disorders, smoking, antisocial personality disorder, incarceration for violent crimes, suicide ideation, and use of school-based services among students who have played the GBG than those who had not.

It’s brilliantly simple. The PAX Good Behavior Game is a classroom management tool, where kids are encouraged to work in collaborative groups. They are rewarded as a team for working well together, and kindly reminded when their behavior doesn’t meet classroom standards. Behavior is taught as a skill. Instead of being an additional classroom lesson, teachers integrate PAX into their lessons as a way of managing, encouraging and rewarding the students as they learn.

MCPS has trained kindergarten through second-grade teachers in the Good Behavior Game, so parents of early elementary students will be hearing more about this as their kids enter the next academic year.

Carol Ewen, student wellness coordinator at MCPS, has really championed the effort to bring PAX GBG to Missoula students. She says: “The PAX GBG is part of our MCPS Suicide Prevention Strategic Plan. But the good news for teachers is not only does it have positive long term effects, it helps increase pro-social behavior and self-regulation resulting in better academic outcomes. It is so important that educators teach the whole child, which includes social emotional learning.”

Montana’s Addictive Mental Disorder Division is extremely interested in expanding PAX GBG statewide and is currently working with federal agencies to identify funding streams that will ensure the program’s expansion and sustainability.

My hope is that we as a community support this effort that can truly have a positive ripple effect in the lives of those students and their families. Parents, when the school reaches out to you in the early fall with information about the Good Behavior Game, please take some time to digest the ideas and tips you can use at home. Because we all know that students learn best when they have consistent and positive support at home. Together we can give our young students the skills they need to be resilient and thrive.

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Nancy de Pastino is the suicide prevention coordinator for the Missoula City-County Health Department.

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