TAGteach for Autism: How the Science of B.F. Skinner Helped Our Family Gain Happiness

doug martha beachArticle originally published in Operants, the newsletter of the B.F. Skinner Foundation

I am the mother of a nonverbal teenage boy with severe autism. I’d like to tell you a little bit about my family’s journey with autism, and a lot about the wonderful method known as Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAGteach).

I will describe how TAGteach meets the three essential conditions for effective teaching, as delineated by Dr. B.F. Skinner, why this simple method is so effective for learners with autism, and how it can be a boon for autism families and autism professionals. At the end, I hope you will be inspired to try TAGteach for yourself!

Our autism journey

I love ABA now, but came to it by chance, not choice. The day my son was diagnosed with autism was the day that the world turned upside-down for us. It also ended up being the day that eventually brought us to ABA. After that fateful day, we had to deal with a devastating diagnosis, try to get services, find out that the best services (ABA) were out of reach, and then, figure out a way to move forward.

We moved forward first with ABA and Verbal Behavior, and eventually learned about Direct Instruction and Precision Teaching. Each of these made a huge contribution to my son’s progress. I was amazed by these effective scientific methods for teaching, and was astounded then (and still am) that they remain unfamiliar, under-utilized and often inaccessible for most families.

A huge stroke of luck came when I stumbled onto Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAGteach). My son had many difficult behaviors; as soon as I read about combining an event marker with positive reinforcement, I realized I had found a way to teach him helpful skills. This turned out to be the case.

autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcementWhat is TAGteach?

TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

TAGteach enables extremely precise positive reinforcement of behavior by using an acoustical signal to “mark” a behavior – at the precise moment the child performs the behavior! The acoustical signal is a short, sharp click sound made by a handheld device (the “tagger”). When the child performs the correct action, the parent/instructor immediately presses the button on the tagger and hands over a treat (candy, treat, token, praise, social recognition, or money) as a reinforcer.

The TAG is a Conditioned Reinforcer

After a few experiences of hearing the tag and receiving a reinforcer, the child quickly learns that the tag means good things are coming. He starts to look out for the sound, and more importantly, starts figuring out what caused this nice event to happen. The child then relies on the tag to tell him to do that good action again. At this point, it is possible to shape new behaviors in the child quickly and efficiently. TAGteach is so reliable because it meets the three essential conditions for effective teaching, as described below.

The Three Essential Conditions for an Effective Teaching Program

Over fifty years ago, Dr. B.F. Skinner described the three essential conditions of an effective teaching program. They are:

  • Immediate feedback
  • Moving at the child’s pace
  • Learning in many small steps

Let’s see how TAGteach meets each of these requirements.

autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcementImmediate Feedback

When learning a skill, immediate feedback on whether your response is correct or incorrect is essential to effective learning. Why? Because, when you know instantly that you did something right, you feel success! You will do that good thing again, and you will be willing to try the next step because you have a history of success.

In contrast, delays in feedback lead to delays in learning. If you’re not sure, or if you feel uncertain, you won’t know which action was correct.  You won’t feel confident when another task is presented.  The delay results in confusion and dismay, which negatively affect learning.

How does TAGteach deliver immediate feedback?

With the “tag,” the acoustical signal marks the correct action at the exact moment the child performs it!

In a TAGteach setting, the child (perhaps a child with autism or another disability) performs an action. If the child performs a desired action (for example, putting a puzzle piece in place, saying his name at an appropriate vocal level, or rolling a ball), the parent/instructor immediately “tags” the action with a tagger (the key acoustical signal in TAGteach) and follows up with a reinforcer (a treat or reward to the child’s liking).

Since the child receives the acoustical feedback (the “tag”) at the split second she performs the action, she knows exactly what she did that is right!  This is exhilarating for any child, but especially a child with autism. The “tag” signals success!  “Yes, you did it!”  She feels happy, confident, ready to repeat that great action, and emotionally ready for the next step.

Thus the tag provides immediate feedback to the learner, and TAGteach delivers on the first of these three essential conditions.

autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcementMoving at the Child’s Pace

Dr. Skinner emphasized the need for students to learn at their own pace.  Learning at her own pace is crucial for a child with autism. These children have so many sensory and emotional issues that the teaching process must respect their need for time to respond to, and understand new stimuli.

Since children with autism often have problems with pre-cursor learning skills such as eye contact and imitation skills, it is important to teach these. Yet, eye contact, for example, can be a difficult task for a child with autism for a variety of reasons.

How does TAGteach allow the child to learn at her own pace?

By observing the child and waiting for her to act.

In a TAGteach environment, the focus is on observing the child and waiting for her to perform the desired action. In the teaching goal discussed above, the solution is not to force eye contact, but to reinforce it whenever the child performs it. Eye contact, by its very nature, is a fleeting behavior. It is often just a flash and then it disappears.

TAGteach, with the quick “tag,” captures each flicker of eye contact whenever the child chooses to perform it. If the child performs it only once a day or once a week, it will be reinforced at that rate. As the child gains comfort and performs the skill more often, it will be reinforced more often. TAGteach respects the child’s ability to perform this behavior, and allows the child to build it at her own pace.

The TAGteach practice of observing and waiting for the child ensures that the child learns at her own pace, the second of Dr. Skinner’s essential conditions.

autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcementLearning Organized in Small Steps

The third essential condition for effective learning is a carefully constructed program where the skill is taught in many small steps. The reason for this is to ensure that the child experiences success in the learning progression. Many successful small steps result in a confident, motivated learner.

How does TAGteach deliver learning in small steps?

With the “tag point” process.

The tag point describes the exact physical movement which will earn the “tag” and reinforcement. The tag point must meet four criteria:

  • What I want
  • One Criterion
  • Observable
  • Five Words or Less

Also, the first tag point must be set at the “point of success.” This means that you start reinforcing a child for performing a behavior she can already do.

Let’s go back to the example of teaching eye contact. We tend to think of eye contact as two people locking their eyes in a mutual gaze. Yet, this girl may not be able to do that; in fact, she may keep her head turned away from people. The first tag point would not be “Looks at me,” but may be, “Head turns ¼ to front.” So, every time she moves her head slightly towards her mother or an instructor, she earns the “tag” and reinforcement.

With time, practice and patience she will regularly turn ¼ to the front, then slightly more, until she is comfortable facing people directly. Once she is comfortable facing people, the tag points can be set for a progression such as “Eyes on my neck/chin,” “Eyes on my cheek/nose,” “Eyes on my eyes.” After she is comfortable with the “Eyes on my eyes” tag point, you can work on duration, until she is comfortable with maintaining eye contact. These many small steps take a child from avoiding eye contact to being comfortable with appropriate eye contact, thus mastering an important learning readiness skill.

With the tag point process, any parent or instructor can start teaching a child a new skill. Start out with something the child can already do. When that is mastered, add one very tiny step to the process and reinforce that until the child is comfortable. Keep building from there.

TAGteach, with the acoustical signal from the “tag,” delivers on all three of the essential conditions outlined by Dr. Skinner. This is the reason for the success of TAGteach.

In summary, with TAGteach it is easy to reinforce behaviors precisely and quickly. The immediate, accurate feedback and positive reinforcement result in the child performing the correct action more often, and for longer periods of time. With immediate feedback and learning tasks broken down into small steps, children can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.

Why is TAGteach Ideal for Children with Autism?

The acoustical signal gets around the common problems of sensory processing and speech processing in children with autism, and offers precise, instantaneous reinforcement in place of slower, traditional verbal reinforcement.

TAGteach gets around Sensory and Speech Processing Problems

TAGteach is ideal for children with autism because it gets around the sensory problems commonly associated with autism. Recent research tells us that children with autism perceive physical actions as happening faster than they do in reality, and process speech sounds much more slowly. This places high sensory demands on the child because he has to try to coordinate fast movement with slow words—quite an obstacle to learning.

TAGteach cuts through the confusion. TAGteach uses one consistent sound (the “tag”) to deliver one consistent message, “Yes! You are correct. Now you are getting a reward.” This clear and simple information makes a huge impact. The child quickly learns that the sound means reinforcement is on the way! He learns to look out for it and pay attention to what causes the reinforcement. When he is engaged with his environment and looking for reinforcement, you can start shaping behaviors.

TAGteach lets you deliver reinforcement on time

Slow, late reinforcement causes delays in learning. With TAGteach you can mark a behavior instantaneously and reinforce it promptly. This speeds up the learning process.

Karen Pryor, author of Don’t Shoot the Dog, has a beautiful description of why an audible sound is much better at “marking” a behavior than our spoken words:

“… [P]lease note that the human voice is a very poor marker signal… too long, too slow, too variable, carrying too many confounding messages (your sex, your age, your mood, your health, etc.) and it also almost always late. Furthermore, you can’t distinguish when you are a mini-second late with your voice, but you CAN tell at once, without experience, when your click is late. (Karen Pryor, Penn State Listserve System, Standard Celeration Society, 18 May 2005.)

For these reasons, TAGteach is effective in increasing skills in children with autism.

TAGteach has great potential to help autism families

To teach a child with autism, it is imperative to know about the use of positive reinforcement to build skills, and the use of reinforcement schedules to maintain skills.

The beauty of the TAGteach method is that it takes this body of scientific knowledge and simplifies the teaching protocols to the point where non-experts can implement them, including grieving, overwhelmed, exhausted autism parents. TAGteach gives parents a way to put their keen observational skills to good use and help their children learn functional skills. Everyone wins.

TAGteach has great potential to help autism professionals

There is so much potential to teach so many things with this beautiful method. TAGteach can be a wonderful complement to ABA and VB programs: every time the child makes the desired response, tag and reinforce. The accuracy and clarity of reinforcement can speed up the learning process.

TAGteach is outstanding for working in the natural environment. As the child walks around, it is easy to mark and reinforce even the tiniest muscle flinch of touch, play, eye contact or vocalization behaviors.

autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcementFor teaching social skills, there is tremendous potential, especially with the “peer tagging” approach. In peer tagging, each participant in a small group is given taggers to mark and reinforce the target behaviors of that particular session.  As they observe and reinforce each other for the desired behaviors, they learn them faster, and have a good time doing it.

I could go on, but will stop here. I hope you share my vision of how TAGteach can help children, parents, instructors, aides and professionals in the autism community.

There are so many creative applications possible, I’ve listed only a few here. We are limited only by our imaginations, so let’s unleash them and get going!

More Information About TAGteach

TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

TAGteach enables extremely precise positive reinforcement of behavior by using an acoustical signal to “mark” the behavior – at the precise moment the child performs the behavior! The acoustical signal is a short, sharp sound made by a handheld device (the “tagger”). When the child performs the correct action, the parent/instructor immediately presses the button on the tagger and hands over a treat (candy, treat, token, praise, social recognition, or money) as a reinforcer.

With TAGteach, it is easy to reinforce behaviors precisely and quickly. The immediate, accurate feedback and positive reinforcement result in the child performing the correct action more often, and for longer periods of time. With immediate feedback and learning tasks broken down into small steps, children (and adults) can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.

autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcementTAGteach International website.

TAGteach taggers available here.

Book by Martha Gabler about TAGteach for Autism.

More information, ask here.

Martha Gabler’s Mailing list sign-up here.







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Dear Special Needs Parents, Pay attention to these numbers: 21 and 2,000

autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcement

I’d like to talk about two numbers: 21 and 2,000. We need to be very aware of them.

My son is a teen now, so I attend a lot of Transitioning Youth meetings. The last meeting I went to was incredibly depressing because there were parents there with adult children in their early 20s, who had no access to benefits. They all had 21 or 2,000 problems, or both.

The 21 problem

Age 21 is the age of diagnosis, and these families missed that deadline. For a variety of reasons, these adult children did not have thorough diagnosis paperwork from before the age of 21. It is incredibly difficult to get services for an adult child if a diagnosis was not made before age 21. It is crucial, vital, and absolutely necessary to get full documentation of all disabilities affecting a child before age 21. Make sure every diagnosis is included. Build a solid paperwork trail. Keep track of all the important documents throughout the years: diagnosis, evaluations, reports, IEPs, etc.

The 2,000 problem

Some of the adult children had assets worth more than $2,000. In some cases, the families had purchased a car or a condo for the adult child, and put the asset in the child’s name. This is a huge, horrible mistake. If an adult child has assets over $2,000 he or she is automatically ineligible for benefits; this is federal law. So, review your child’s financial assets. You may think your child has no assets, but watch out for the sneaky things:  Grandma buys a $100 Savings Bond every year for your child’s birthday, or Uncle Bert plans to leave $5,000 to your child in his will. These assets will make your child ineligible for disability benefits.

Get legal advice!

There are ways to build up assets for your child legally via a Special Needs Trust, and the ABLE Act is now becoming available in many states. Educate yourself, stay on top of your paperwork and your child’s financial situation. Remember 21 and 2,000. On the flip side, the parents at this meeting whose children had been diagnosed before age 21 and who monitored the $2,000 issue had full benefits for their children: Social Security, medical assistance, housing vouchers, vocational training, and so forth.

It is so important to get the benefits. If your adult child does achieve financial independence, his or her benefits will be reduced, but the child will retain ELIGIBILITY. So, if the adult child is laid off, the benefits can quickly be reinstated. It is a flexible system that responds to changes in the adult child’s situation.

One troubling development I’ve noticed is parents of younger children who report that schools try to dodge the autism diagnosis and go for something else. This is an incredibly painful situation for the parents. Insist that the full diagnosis be included in all the paperwork. It’s easier to fight this battle at age 4 than at age 21.

P.S. These rules apply in the U.S. Other countries have different rules.



The author, Martha Gabler, is the mother of a nonverbal teen son with severe autism. To help him, the family focused on scientific methods for working with a child with autism. Many parents know about ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). In addition to ABA, Martha found out about a less well-known method based on ABA: Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAGteach). She realized instantly that this easy, inexpensive method for positive behavior change could be a huge help. This turned out to be the case. Her son is now a delightful, happy teen who loves life and loves going places.  He still has autism, but life is much better for the family. She tells her story on her website, Chaos to Calm.

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TAGteach. Do you wonder how it actually works? What kids think of it? How instructors react to it? Here are 6 minutes of video that answer your questions.

TAGteach! What the heck is it

You’ve heard about the acoustical support, TAGteach (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance). You may be wondering how it works in a real life teaching situation with real kids and real instructors. Here are three short videos, totaling 6 minutes, that show the “how” of TAGteach magic in action.

Video #1:   The Lesson: TAGteach Parkour: Lazy Vault — Coaching Past Fear (2.47 minutes)

In this video, a young woman is learning to do a vault. She is dispirited and fearful. Her coaches observe and end up developing the following series of tag points:


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Got autism? Want to communicate with your child? Use TAGteach so you and your child can “talk” without words.

How to communicate

As autism parents, many of us find ourselves raising children with communication and language challenges. How do you communicate with a child whose use of language is atypical, or a child like mine who is profoundly nonverbal?

There are alternative communication approaches: picture symbols, sign language, communication devices. These are all excellent.

A new way to “talk”

There is yet another option for communicating with our kids. It is based on behavioral science. It is the TAGteach combination of observation, the acoustical support, and positive reinforcement.

(To learn about the basics of the TAGteach method, Teaching with Acoustical Guidance, please visit the Resources pages on this site:


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Got autism? Want your child to exercise and have fun outside? Use TAGteach to increase gross motor skills.


This article focuses on gross motor skills, and how to use the always helpful and easy TAGteach method (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) to encourage your child to get out, move his body, and have fun outside.

Physical activity and exercise offer many benefits to children with autism, including improved muscle tone, improved social skills, and stronger attention skills. Exercise and outdoor activities are important for the health of adult individuals with autism. We can increase our children’s physical skills and their comfort in exploring new physical environments with the right tools and facts.

FACT 1: “Behavior” is “movement”

Here’s the rule about behavior:

Behavior is movement, physical movement of the body. (1)


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TAGteach: What is a “tag point”?

TAG Point Criteria

Have you ever asked, “What’s the point?”

In TAGteach, we ask, “What’s the tag point?”

In TAGteach, the “tag point” is the absolute part of a behavior that, when performed, will receive the audible mark (tag). It is a specific physical movement that we want a learner to do.

For example, if a child is learning to climb up the stairs, we might set a tag point, “Foot On Step.” When teaching a child to write the letter V, the first tag point might be “Pencil on Top Line.” The tag point is the specific physical movement that will be tagged by an audible marker and that will result in reinforcement for the learner.

The child will hear the tag sound, know that he did the behavior correctly and will try to do it again correctly the next time.

autism, tagteach, ABA, positive reinforcementThe tag point is what we look for and reinforce

The tag point is the crucial component of TAGteach. TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).


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Martha Gabler BAM Radio Podcast

BAM radio logo


Martha was a recent guest on BAM Radio, talking to host Sharon Plante about TAGteach and helping kids with autism learn at their own pace.


Click to Listen

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Got autism? Want to increase a child’s self-care skills? Use TAGteach to increase fine motor skills.


This article focuses on fine motor skills, and how to use the effective, scientific TAGteach method (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) to help your child build these skills.

If you are not familiar with the basics of the TAGteach method, please visit the Resources pages on this site:

Why work on fine motor skills?

Recent research has shown that an important factor for success for individuals with autism in adulthood is the level of self-care skills: individuals with higher levels of self-care have higher levels of employment and needed fewer supports. This fact alone is an important reason for focusing on these crucial skills. Self-care skills also make for a less stressful, more smoothly running and ultimately happier household. We can increase these vital skills with the right tools and through understanding certain facts.

FACT 1: “Behavior” is “movement”

Here’s the rule about behavior:

Behavior is movement, physical movement of the body. (1)


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TAGteach: Task Analysis and Tag Points

Task Analysis hand washingTAGteach is an excellent method for teaching children, especially those with autism, because of the precise positive reinforcement of desired behaviors.

In addition to timely and effective reinforcement, it is also important to think about the details of a task, and how to set tag points. This post will address both of these issues.

Task Analysis

A task analysis describes the many small steps that go into performing a single activity. For example, we often tell children to “wash your hands” when they come home from school. It seems simple to us. For a child with autism, it can be a complex task. The child has to:

  • take off a coat
  • hang it up
  • walk to the bathroom
  • open the door
  • go to the sink
  • stand still
  • turn on the faucet
  • grasp a bar of soap (or hold one hand under the nozzle of a soap dispenser while pushing down on the pump with the other hand)
  • place hands under the water flow
  • rub the slippery soap over his hands
  • continue holding his hands under the water flow until the soap is rinsed off
  • turn off the faucet (with wet hands)
  • reach for and grasp a towel
  • rub the towel over his hands
  • replace the towel on the towel rod
  • walk out of the bathroom

This everyday task has at least sixteen steps involving the legs, torso, arms and hands! There could be many more steps if you were to break it down even further.


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Okay, TAGteach. How do I get started?

Congratulations on your decision to use TAGteach to increase functional behaviors in your child with autism. Here are some suggestions for how to get started. Once you have tagged your child a few times, you will find it easy and natural to do.

We are frequently asked how much background and explanation is needed before getting started with tagging. The answer is: as little as possible. Just jump right in and start tagging! Your child will figure out very quickly that the tag is followed by a treat and that his actions are causing you to tag. This gives your child an unprecedented degree of control and he will be excited to play the game. If your child needs some explanation, just use as few words as possible to explain that the tag sounds means he did something right and he will get a treat after each tag.

1. Gather your materials: A tagger and reinforcers

autism, TAGteach, tagger, positive reinforcement, ABAA TAGteach tagger is a small plastic box clicker; available here. You can use any object that makes a quick, sharp click sound: a ballpoint pen, a flashlight, or if need be, a spoon to tap.

Reinforcers are any items that your child values. Get some treats that your child likes: very small pieces of candy, pretzel pieces, cereal pieces, tic-tacs, or anything similar. Put them into a small container that you can hold in your hand. A desired item can by anything: candies, treats, a chance to play with a toy, tokens for special treats or privileges, or money; social praise or recognition can sometimes serve as a reinforcer.

For more ideas about reinforcers, do a Google search on “reinforcers for autism”. The key point with a reinforcer is that it must be something the child likes and will work for. The easiest way to start is with food or drink – so unless this is impossible, we suggest that you use an edible treat for your first attempts at TAGteach.

2. Think about what you want

Each child with autism has a unique profile of skills, sensory issues and behaviors. Each family has a unique combination of people, responsibilities and resources. Take a few minutes to think about your priorities:

What issues are at the top of your mind right now?

What functional skills or behaviors would help your child with autism, and/or help your family situation?

Take a few moments to jot these down. Be sure to write these in positive terms so that they are statements of what you want your child to DO (as opposed to what you want to stop or prevent).


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