illustration of children, one is standing on his head, while others look on.

The Good Behavior Game: The Game that Keeps on Giving

A simple classroom management strategy pays dividends for a lifetime.

By Alexander Gelfand • Illustrations by Anna Godeassi

It’s a mild October morning in northeast Baltimore. At Govans Elementary School, a tidy brick building nestled in a cluster of equally tidy brick bungalows, 25 kindergarteners are sitting at tables bearing variously colored book bins. 

Their teacher, Mrs. Nemeth, suddenly makes the peace sign with her right hand while gently blowing a chord on the blue plastic harmonica that hangs from a lanyard around her neck.

The children instantly grow hushed.

“We are going to play the Good Behavior Game,” Mrs. Nemeth announces, referring to a classroom management tool that has been studied by researchers at the Bloomberg School for more than 30 years. 

Often referred to simply as “the game,” it is remarkably effective at tamping down aggressive and disruptive in-class behaviors such as fighting and yelling. Its long-term benefits are even more impressive: A series of longitudinal clinical trials initiated in 1984 by Sheppard Kellam, MD, now a professor emeritus in Mental Health, and currently led by Professor Nicholas Ialongo, PhD, have demonstrated that exposure to the game at a young age can dramatically reduce a child’s risk of everything from drug abuse to suicide later in life.

The children, of course, are oblivious to all of this. To them, the game is just a game. And that is what makes it so effective.

“While we play our Good Behavior Game, you are going to be reading,” Mrs. Nemeth continues. She then asks the children for examples of behaviors that might earn their tables demerits—behaviors that are defined with input from the children themselves, and which are known by the fanciful word “spleems.” 

“Making funny faces at somebody,” says Claudia, a little girl with elaborately braided hair.

“Not reading your book,” says Tyrell, a little boy wearing a bright red shirt.

Mrs. Nemeth reminds the children that any table that racks up more than three spleems will lose the game. She then sets a digital timer for five minutes. 

“Our Good Behavior Game starts now,” she says, blowing an arpeggio on her harmonica.

For the next five minutes, Mrs. Nemeth walks around the classroom, calling out violations. 

“Red table, that’s a spleem. Green table, that’s a spleem…”

To an uninformed observer, it’s hard to see what the children, who seem remarkably compliant, are doing wrong.

“Can you guys tell me why you might’ve gotten spleems during this game?” Mrs. Nemeth asks once it has ended.

The children correctly surmise that some of them did not have their books lying flat on their tables, while others simply weren’t reading at all. But not a single student was called out for talking, or making faces, or otherwise disturbing their peers.

In the end, every table comes out a winner. And now it is time to choose a reward from a list of activities that would, were the game still underway, qualify as spleems.

“Nevin, what would you like to do?” Mrs. Nemeth asks a tiny boy.

“Under the table!” he blurts.

And quick as a flash, 25 children disappear under six low-slung tables, crowding behind their miniature red plastic chairs like delighted participants in an indoor round of hide and seek. But there is no seeker. Just lots of smiles, plenty of giggles—and the prospect of brighter futures for all.

Positive Peer Pressure

The Good Behavior Game was first described in a 1969 paper in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis by the eminent psychologist Montrose Wolf and two of his graduate students at the University of Kansas, Harriet Barrish and Muriel Saunders. 

The origins of the game remain unclear: According to one source, Barrish may have seen a teacher playing it in a classroom; according to another, Wolf came up with it himself. (He had already invented the timeout, a disciplinary technique well known by the parents of unruly children.) In any event, the game is simple enough that more than one desperate educator might well have improvised something like it over the years. 

“I’m sure there are many teachers who have played a version of the game without realizing that it was the game,” says Kelly Schaffer, MS, a research associate in Mental Health who coaches teachers to play the game and gathers data on its use through classroom observation. Schaffer herself first encountered the game 12 years ago while teaching second grade. Like many educators, she was skeptical at first. “My initial response was that my kids may not do this,” she says, but the game quickly won her over.

On the face of it, the game looks like a straightforward example of operant conditioning, a form of learning in which behaviors are strengthened or weakened through reward or punishment. The theory behind operant conditioning was first elaborated by the famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner nearly 80 years ago, but the concept is far older. Any parent who has ever told a child that they can’t have dessert until they’ve eaten their vegetables has employed operant conditioning. So has every dog owner who has offered their pet a treat in return for sitting and staying. 

There is a twist, however. While demerits are given for infractions by individual students, their consequences are collective: Little Claudia might be the only one on her team whispering or making silly faces, but everyone sitting with her will lose their chance to dive under the table. 

Thus, while the game reinforces positive classroom behaviors, it does so through group-based prizes that reward individual inhibition, effectively yoking the success of the team to each child’s ability to manage his or her behavior. 

Psychologists call this group-contingent reinforcement. Everybody else calls it peer pressure. Whatever it’s called, it gets results. When Muriel Saunders played the game in a fourth-grade classroom loaded with misbehaving kids, the incidence of disruptive behavior declined by 80 to 90 percent. 

Additional small-scale studies of the game conducted in the 1970s and early 1980s showed similar in-class effects. It was not until Kellam discovered it, however, that the game’s preventive properties became evident.

Benefits for Life

In the early 1960s, Kellam and a couple of colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago established a community mental health center in Woodlawn, a low-income African-American neighborhood on the city’s South Side. At the time, only half of the community’s students completed high school, and Woodlawn’s residents were especially interested in giving their kids a good start in school. 

Kellam and his associates focused on behaviors that signaled when first- and second-graders were struggling with the demands of the classroom, from punching their classmates to not paying attention. Longitudinal studies of the effects of these behaviors identified aggression as a significant early risk factor for problems ranging from poor academic performance to criminal behavior.

In 1982, Kellam came to Johns Hopkins, where he became founding director of the NIMH Hopkins Prevention Research Center. (The latter eventually evolved into the Center for Prevention and Early Intervention, which Ialongo currently directs.) Building on the Woodlawn studies, he sought to answer two fundamental questions: Is it possible to reduce aggressive behavior as early as first grade? And if so, what might be the impact later on? 

When Kellam and his team searched for an intervention that specifically addressed aggressive, disruptive classroom behaviors, they came across the Good Behavior Game.

A colleague translated the original 1969 research paper into a protocol for implementing the game within a large-scale randomized clinical trial. And with the support of the Baltimore City Public Schools, Kellam and his collaborators conducted a study that ultimately involved more than 2,300 children in 41 first-grade classrooms spread across 19 schools in five urban areas that were primarily low- to middle-income and mostly African-American.

Some of the kids played the game, some got a different intervention aimed at helping them learn to read and some got neither. All were assessed at the outset to see how they were adapting to the classroom environment, with follow-up assessments and interviews in third grade, in middle school and at ages 19 to 21. 

The researchers quickly found that the game markedly reduced aggression. But the first sign that something else was going on appeared in the late 1990s, when Kellam and James C. Anthony, PhD, now an adjunct professor at the School, discovered that children who played the game were less likely to take up smoking—as much as 87 percent less likely, depending on their gender and initial level of aggression.

Subsequent analyses revealed that the game had all manner of preventive effects. 

Although the game’s protective influence varied by gender—it exerts a greater effect on boys than girls, who display fewer disruptive and aggressive behaviors in class to begin with—those who played it were half as likely to think about or attempt suicide later in life, and less than half as likely to suffer from antisocial personality disorder, a condition associated with drug abuse and serious violent and criminal behavior. They were less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior; required fewer services for problems with emotions, behavior, drugs or alcohol; and were more likely to graduate from high school. (Linda Taylor, the principal of Govans Elementary, points out that students who are better behaved spend less time in her office and more time in class, receiving instruction.)

“We were overjoyed,” says Kellam.

Those same studies revealed that the game worked most powerfully on the kids who needed it most: highly disruptive, aggressive boys. Astonishingly, the most aggressive boys who played the game saw a nearly threefold reduction in their risk of drug use disorders.

By the time those results were in, Kellam and his colleagues—including Ialongo, who came to the School in 1988—had already embarked on subsequent generations of trials that combined the game with other interventions, such as programs to help kids deal with bullying and depression, or to help parents support good behavior at home. Not long afterward, they began using a version of the game called PAX GBG (pax is Latin for peace) that was developed by psychologist Dennis Embry, PhD, who is now an investigator for the Center for Prevention and Early Intervention. (Having trained at the University of Kansas, Embry had long been aware of the game, but he only discovered its long-term benefits in 1999, thanks to Kellam’s research.)

Now Ialongo and his team are comparing the individual and combined effects of the game and an intervention that teaches children conflict resolution.

Abstract illustration of a child's emotional growth.

A Universal Intervention

Ialongo is currently following up with trial participants who now have children of their own to determine whether playing the game early in life affects one’s parenting style as an adult. And he and his colleagues continue to mine their mounting trove of data to better understand the mechanisms that drive the game’s long-term effects—mechanisms that appear to operate on a number of levels.

In the short term, the game helps students manage their behavior and regulate their emotions. After achieving self-regulation in that setting, those same children are less likely to travel down a potentially dangerous road. 

Aggressive, disruptive kids often struggle academically, are disliked by their teachers and schoolmates and find themselves associating with similarly deviant peers. Over time, such individuals are at greater risk of failing school, abusing drugs, engaging in antisocial behavior and committing suicide. 

The game effectively short-circuits all of this.

“Generally speaking, kids who are persistently aggressive early on have this profile of outcomes. And when you alter early aggression, it alters the profile,” explains Kellam, who notes that the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar spent providing the game to first-graders generated more than $65 in benefits such as improved earnings and savings due to lower crime rates and health care costs.

Kellam and Ialongo’s work has enabled a group of current faculty at the School to expand prevention science even today. Recent genomic studies, for example, revealed that children who possess specific mutations to a gene called BDNF (for brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which has been linked to aggression and impulsive behaviors, are especially likely to see their levels of aggression and impulsivity decline in response to the game—a finding that points to a biological underpinning for the game’s effects.

The beauty of the game, however, is that it represents a universal intervention—something that can easily and cheaply be administered to all children, regardless of individual risk level, in order to ward off future problems. Ialongo would like to see it taught in teacher’s colleges as a standard classroom management strategy. And Kellam thinks something like it could be applied at other stages of life and in other contexts, such as the adult workplace. 

For now, however, they have their hands full just trying to persuade more public schools to give the game a shot. Embry estimates that for every 10,000 students who play the game, roughly 1,300 fewer young people will become addicted to drugs or alcohol, 1,100 fewer will contemplate or attempt suicide and 1,400 more will graduate high school. Yet the game is currently played in only 650 schools in 32 states—a small fraction of the 130,000 public schools across the country.

For one thing, the game must compete with a plethora of other school-based programs that claim to boost academic performance and improve the classroom environment. For another, training isn’t free. The PAX GBG training, for example, costs several thousand dollars, and classroom materials several hundred more. Most importantly, say Ialongo and Schaffer, school administrators—even those whose schools are eligible to receive free training and materials as part of the Johns Hopkins trials—often argue that there is no time for additional teacher training, while teachers themselves are often loath to add another item to their already lengthy to-do lists. 

But Ialongo isn’t giving up. He continues to lobby Baltimore schools to participate in the School’s ongoing studies. Once the game is in place, he says, the element of fun makes it painless. In fact, teachers typically find that students ask to play it—even if they, and their adult minders, remain largely unaware of the broader dividends it can pay.