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FISH!-ing for Positive Behavior

When children don’t know how to read, we don’t punish them. We teach them. Why not apply the same approach to their behavior?

“We’ve spent years punishing inappropriate behavior, often ineffectively," says Tamarah Myers, behavior intervention specialist with St. Tammany Parish Public Schools in suburban New Orleans, LA. "It's far more effective to teach and reinforce a replacement behavior. For our district, that behavior is The FISH! Philosophy."

The FISH! Philosophy, introduced in the video FISH!, demonstrates four simple actions anyone can apply to their work and life:
  • Be There—be emotionally present to strengthen relationships and communication.
  • Play–bring a spirit of enthusiasm, creativity and fun to everything you do.
  • Make Their Day–serve and celebrate people in meaningful, memorable ways.
  • Choose Your Attitude–take responsibility for how you respond to challenges and how your choice impacts everyone around you.

St. Tammany introduced the philosophy to its students and staff several years ago. "I watched the original video," Myers says. “I thought it captured what a great school looks like. Then I found out ChartHouse Learning had a new program for educators (FISH! For Schools). I took it and ran with it. We taught The FISH! Philosophy to everyone from teachers to lunchroom staff to custodians. It helped us create a caring, supportive culture.”

"A beautiful, natural fit with PBIS"

In 2003, the Louisiana legislature mandated that schools implement formal programs to improve behavior and safety. St. Tammany chose Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (PBIS), a research-based approach that emphasizes positive reinforcement instead of punitive discipline.

PBIS proactively teaches, reinforces and rewards desired behavior, rather than simply reacting to it. "You can't underestimate the importance of deliberately teaching behavior," Myers explains. "We can't just hope for the best like we used to, wait for kids to mess up, then address their behavior. So we don't just say, "Behave on the playground!' We take them to the playground and show them what we are looking for."

Schools using PBIS select their own behavior expectations to teach and measure. "A lot of schools choose expectations based on their motto or mascot," Myers says. "So if your nickname is the Bears, you might come up with an acronym like PAWS, each letter standing for a different behavior.

"But with FISH!, I knew we already had the perfect set of expectations for PBIS. Why reinvent the wheel? The four parts of FISH! are positive, powerful behaviors. FISH! has a language that's simple and easy to remember, even for young students. It fits so beautifully and naturally into the PBIS structure."

As part of PBIS, St. Tammany promotes The FISH! Philosophy in every aspect of school life. For example, at Mandeville Elementary School, staff and students gather each morning to share examples of how they live FISH!—like the first-grader who declined a dare to take something that wasn't his because that wouldn't make the owner's day.

At Fontainbleau High School, ninth-graders enrolled in a Freshman Academy learn the FISH! Philosophy along with how to deal with issues such as stress management, decision-making and goal-setting. The idea is to help them understand the high school's culture and prepare them to be successful members of a community.

Schools display the four FISH! practices in common areas such as classrooms, main hallways and the cafeteria. "It's not just a couple of small posters here and there," Myers says. "These posters are huge. They help define the behavior—like This is what Choose Your Attitude looks like in the cafeteria or This is what Be There looks like in the hallway."

Some teachers have written pamphlets on what FISH! behavior looks like at the movies, at home, at the grocery story. Others write extra notes on report cards using FISH! terminology to describing the student's progress in in character development. "I read a wonderful quote that said that we use our least creative moments to discipline our children," Myers says. "That's a shame, especially when we apply our creativity to other great endeavors. We should be just as creative in shaping our children's social competence. It's wonderful to see how our staff is doing that."

An essential part of the PBIS approach is recognizing and reinforcing behavior in the moment, Myers says. "We tell staff when you observe students living a FISH! behavior, don't just say, 'Good job.' Look them in the eye and tell them specifically what they did and how it fits with how we choose to live around here."

How to "walk in another's shoes"

Through PBIS, St. Tammany has applied The FISH! Philosophy to specific challenges such as tardies, which have decreased dramatically. They developed the Be There Project to tackle bullying. It's based on the premise, in the words of philosopher Edmund Burke, that "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

"Our mantra is that bullying flourishes when good people do nothing," Myers says. "Bullying isn't just about bully and victim, it's about the bystanders who let it happen. We said, 'Hey, we have to Be There for each other and say this is not OK!' We showed students what it bullying looks like. They've learned empathy, how to walk in another's shoes. We've done this for a few years and it's had a major impact on reducing bullying."

The more staff and students use and speak FISH!, it becomes more than just a model for behavior. It’s a state of mind. “Before a soccer game, a coach was talking about choosing our attitudes during the game today,” Myers says. “She didn’t even realize she was using that language. Language is critical in creating and maintaining a positive culture.

"FISH! gives students a common language they can take from class to class, the lunchroom, playground, home—every environment. It’s such a natural part of everyone—and everyone understands right away what it means."

Even the youngest students understand how to apply FISH!. "I was visiting one of our elementary schools and a girl named Winona greeted me so nicely," Myers says. "I said, 'I'm a little lost for a meeting. Could you tell me where Miss So-and-So's room is?' She replied, 'Not only will I tell you, I'll take you there.'

"When we got to the room, I bent down so we were eye to eye, and I said, 'Winona, let me tell you what I noticed about you. I so appreciate you being there for me because I'm not always familiar with every school I visit and and when someone says hello and offers to help guide me, that makes my day.

"Winona said, 'You were FISH!ing just now, weren't you?' That's the informal phrase we use to describe when someone practices a FISH! behavior. And I said, 'Yes I was.' Winona smiled and replied, 'I was too."

Offering students "internal" rewards

Recognizing students for living FISH! is an important part of the PBIS approach. Both elementary and high schools recognize positive behavior with everything from ice cream to tickets redeemable for prizes and movies. But for many students, the best rewards are internal.

One of the best examples happened during the 2009 homecoming at Fontainebleu High School. “Homecoming is huge around here,” Myers says. "The kids, on their own, started a campaign to elect someone they felt most exemplified the FISH! Philosophy, a student who is one of the most spirited kids in school, as queen."

At the coronation ceremony, the crown was placed on the head of Katie Brewster, a special needs student with cerebral palsy. As Katie—who had undergone 16 surgeries and still suffered seizures—beamed with pride, tears flowed freely among the crowd.

Katie's mother told the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, "A lot of times our kids can be invisible and I think she was so proud. I look back at pictures and video and the look on her face—I just knew at that moment she felt a part of everything."

At the homecoming dance later, the students continued to make Katie and other special needs students feel a part of the community, leaving their own groups to dance and spend time with them.

"The other members of the homecoming court understood they'd have more chances to shine in their lives," Myers says. "This was her special night. I remember Principal Johnny Vitrano telling me, tears in his eyes, 'This wonderful night happened because of the culture we have developed at our school.'"

Rewards that last a lifetime

PBIS expectations are carefully measured. The State of Louisiana's goal for each school is to score at least 80 percent on all its expected benchmarks. The St. Tammany district expects its schools to score 90 percent or better. Two schools, Mandeville Elementary and Fontainebleu High, have received perfect scores.

"With PBIS, you can look at a specific problem area, create an approach to improve it and measure it," Myers says. "One of our schools had a high rate of tardies. We applied our Be There project to address this and the school went from hundreds of tardies during a certain period to just seven."

FISH! also has decreased discipline problems. "We looked at research and found that out of 280 instructional days, without a systematic approach, you lose 71 of them to behavior problems–stopping class, redirecting students, sending students to the office. By teaching our students more effective behaviors, we are gaining back those instructional minutes."

Some benefits are difficult to measure but no less important, Myers says. "An assistant principal told me, 'It's hard to find statistics for how you feel, but now I get up and I'm excited to be at school. It just feels different around here."

The most important benefits are the longest lasting. "FISH! builds social competency," Myers says. "The earlier it begins the better. When a kindergartner has learned how to Be There, they take that skill and language into third grade, and they are so prepared to learn and contribute. By the time they reach high school, their social competence is huge. And these are the people who will become our doctors, our businesspeople, our leaders."

It starts with caring relationships

Myers cautions that adults who expect students to live FISH! must demand the same of themselves. "The other day I heard about a little boy raised on FISH! saying to his teacher, 'May I talk to you?' She was multi-tasking, not really being present for him, and he responded, 'I really need you to Be There for me.' To her credit, she immediately turned her full attention to him.

"But what if she hadn't? Can you imagine saying that to a teacher and getting in trouble simply because you asked for behavior from them that you are expected to display? What kind of impact would that have on the student? FISH! isn't just about adults telling students how to live. It has to be reciprocal. It has to be safe for children to practice these behaviors. We adults have to be so mindful of how we respond."

Ultimately, Myers emphasizes, even a proactive program like PBIS doesn't work without creating caring relationships. "I once filled in as the administrator of a school for students with more serious behavior issues for two-and-a-half weeks. I immersed them in FISH! the first day, and everybody really took to it. All except for one boy.

"For two and a half weeks, he rarely engaged or made eye contact with me. Still, I did my best to be there for him, to let him know I cared about him and was there if he needed me. I didn't know if he liked me. On my last day, he came to my office, saying he was having a problem with one of his friends. I thanked him for coming to me, listened carefully and, as is my rule when someone comes to me with a problem, asked him to come up with a solution.

"Suddenly he said, "I didn't really come here because of a problem.' I smiled and said, 'OK, why did you come?' He said, 'I came to tell you that I love FISH!' I was grinning ear to ear, and I asked, 'What do you love about it?' He looked me in the eye, for the first time really, and said, 'Because FISH! helps you hear me.'"

"I didn't do anything outstanding or special for that student. I just used FISH! behaviors to try to build a relationship with him and in the end, he felt I heard him. FISH! is so natural. It really strengthens relationships if you're willing to give it the effort it deserves."


Build positive behavior with these FISH! For Schools products:

Starter KitClassroom ExperienceGuided JourneyOn-site workshops