Building positive relationships – the whale done way

Phyllis Farias

Anurag often beats children in class and out of class.

Tanishka has on occasion thrown her classmates’ things out of the classroom window.

All teachers have faced similar and many other kinds of behaviour problems, and are often at a loss on how to help the child and himself/herself.

Let me share this wonderful philosophy I read in a book entitled “Whale done!” written by Ken Blanchard with three other authors. The book talks about the principles and techniques employed in the training of killer whales at Sea World, Orlando.

Whales and People! Can the same principles and techniques be applied to building powerful relationships with people? I believe so, whether it is parent-child, teacher-students, in fact any type of relationship. The key principle used in working with the whales is for them to know that the trainers mean them no harm, and so the trainers do everything possible to build trust with each of the whales. This is done by accentuating positive behaviour, by paying attention when the whale performs a task correctly. But what happens when a whale does not perform a task or does it incorrectly? The trainers ignore what the whale did wrong and immediately redirect its energy elsewhere.

In other words what they do is –

  • Build trust
  • Accentuate the positive
  • When mistakes occur, redirect the energy

How do we get this philosophy to work in building positive relationships with students?

Let us begin with the ABCs of Performance –
A – Activator – whatever gets the performance going
B – Behaviour – the performance that occurs
C – Consequences – our response to the performance

A – Activator
What activators can teachers use?

  • A set of instructions communicated with clarity
    For example, a teacher was not happy with the tangrams her students had made. It so happened that she had provided each student with pieces to make two tangrams. The children put all the pieces into one design. Apparently the instructions were not clear.
  • Students love activity and teachers should plan activities as an experience for joyful learning.
  • The best activators are goals. All of us need goals; I had to give myself one to get started on this article.

B – Behaviour
After you activate or motivate the performance, it is very important to observe the ‘behaviour’ that follows. If the observation is lacking then one cannot take advantage of the third and most important step in managing performance, i.e., C= consequence – our response to the performance.

C – Consequence
Here are 4 kinds of consequences –
• No response
• Negative response
• Redirection
• Positive response

Which of these is most popular in our interactions with students and our relationships?

If we are really honest with ourselves, it is the ‘no response’. Think about it, most children or even we adults who are in the middle part of the bell jar graph are ignored as this is considered to be normal behaviour.

Could Anurag and Tanishka have been at the receiving end of a ‘no response’ to begin with?

Now, which of the consequences do we – teachers, parents, principals, and co-ordinators – really pay attention to? Obviously, when the behaviour is not what is expected – from tardiness, to talkativeness, indiscipline, incomplete homework, or classwork. And, then bang! The negative response – an angry look, raised voice, sarcasm, and punishments.

Anurag and Tanishka are getting plenty of negative responses and what is being accentuated is the negative behaviour.

The third response is a powerful response to address undesirable behaviour. The intention of redirection is to set up behaviour for a positive response.

Here is the redirection response process

  • Describe the error or problem as soon as possible, clearly and without blame.
  • Show its negative impact.
  • If appropriate, take the blame for not making the task clear.
  • Go over the task in detail and make sure it is clearly understood.
  • Express your continuing trust and confidence in the student/s.

Take the example of the tangrams and apply the redirection process. All the ‘steps can be’ applied beautifully.

The fourth response, i.e., positive response, really needs no explanation. All of us want to continue the behaviour that is appreciated and recognized. This can take many forms – praise, special badges, a high-five … all it needs is the right attitude and creativity to think up ways to say “well done”! A word of caution, please do not wait for the perfect behaviour before the positive response. As another beautiful line from the book says;
‘Praise Progress,
It’s a moving target.’

And finally – which is easier, catching people doing things wrong, or catching them doing things right? Catching people doing things wrong is easy – is that not what we do when we correct notebooks or test papers? Look for mistakes and the moment a mistake is caught we liberally use the red ink in a GOTCHA response – a ‘Seagull Teacher’.

Catching people doing things right is important and that is why the book is entitled – the WHALE DONE response. This response is much harder because it takes patience and self-control. It also includes several steps…

The WHALE DONE response

  • Praise immediately
  • Be specific about what they did right or almost right
  • Share your positive feelings about what they did
  • Encourage them to keep up the good work

Will this philosophy work with students like Anurag and Tanishka? Try it.

The author is an educational consultant, trainer and counsellor and can be reached at