This is a fair question. On the surface, Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAGteach), a method where you use an audible event marker signal (a click) and a reinforcer to teach a human a behavior, sounds very similar to the popular and effective clicker training method used with dogs, dolphins, killer whales and other animals. From a scientific and technical standpoint, the methods are similar.
Both methods are based on the scientific, research-validated fact that a behavior that is reinforced will occur more often. TAGteach has been used successfully in many teaching and training applications with humans, including elite level gymnastics, orthopedic surgeons, fishing boats in the Bering Sea, speech therapy, professional golf instruction, main stream classrooms and special education classrooms, among others. Turns out, TAGteach is also a wonderful way to teach kids with autism.
The TAGteach work with orthopedic surgeons was featured in the Scientific American blog and published in a major orthopedic surgery journal. In other published studies TAGteach was found to be effective for teaching adult golf, high school football players and children with autism.
TAGteach is recommended by many leading experts as an effective and science-based approach for teaching children with autism. TAGteach research results have been presented at the Association for Behavior Analysis conferences 48 times between 2004-2016.
Parents of typically developing children can teach their children with verbal instructions and modeling: “Put your socks on first, then your shoes,” “This is how you slice a sandwich.” These children watch, listen, copy and learn. They understand language, they speak, and they respond to verbal praise. It’s wonderful and magical to see how much they can learn at an early age.
Kids with autism
Our kids with autism are different. They have language, communication, and sensory problems, to name a few. Even those children who can speak, often do not comprehend instructions, or they cannot respond appropriately to the instructions. (more…)
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Hello! If you travel to another country, it helps to know a few words in the native language. It makes getting around so much easier and builds relationships with local residents. But, having a few words takes you only so far. To really communicate, you need to make a study of the local language.
Now let’s look at kids with autism; they seem to live in a different world from ours. Their condition is often characterized by deficits and delays in language and communication. How do you communicate with a kid who cannot endure the sound of human speech? How do you find out what is bothering a child who is hitting or biting, if he can’t explain? We could not communicate with our son and had very hard times during the early years.
Over time I learned that there is a language, or more specifically, a form of communication in which my son excelled: he was brilliant at comprehending positive reinforcement. Bingo! We achieved communication.
The Language of Positive Reinforcement
The method I stumbled upon is called TAGteach, or Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and involves the use of positive reinforcement to achieve behavior goals. The unique aspect of TAGteach is that it combines positive reinforcement with an audible event marker signal. The marker—the key communication tool used in the system—makes a distinctive “click” sound to mark a behavior at the time it occurs. The mark (or “click”) means YES, YOU DID SOMETHING GOOD, and the absence of the mark means TRY AGAIN.
With my event marker (sometimes referred to as a “tagger” or “clicker), I was able to “tag” my child every time he did something good. “Good” things were behaviors like Quiet Mouth, Both Feet On The Floor, Hands Still, or Eye Contact. The procedure is: Observe child, “tag” (press clicker) when child performs Quiet Mouth, reinforce child (give a treat or token).
When I started doing this, I was amazed by all the good behaviors my son was able to deliver. Tantrumming? Tag Quiet Mouth and Both Feet On The Floor; thetantrum was over in 12 minutes with no exertion on my part. Bolting? Tag Walks Next To Parent. Toe walking? Tag Heel On Ground. My son’s world changed. Previously, it had been incomprehensible to him. With the tag and positive reinforcement, he understood precisely what he was being rewarded for, and he responded by producing more of the desired behaviors.
Now we’re talking the same language!
The more I communicated with him via tags and positive reinforcement, the happier and better behaved he became. Despite the lack of speech, despite the sensory issues, the tag rang loud and clear and told him he had done something good. He loved that and responded brilliantly. My favorite moments were when I would tag him for something, and a look of total comprehension flooded across his face, “Oh! So that’s what I’m supposed to do!” We all like knowing what to do, and we all like the feeling of success. With TAGteach, I communicated with my son by giving him lots of success.
We found the right language and made a study of it. It is called positive reinforcement with an event marker signal. Tag!
Doug is the subject of the book Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism, by Martha Gabler. Martha explains step-by-step in the book how she methodically taught Doug many simple and then more and more complex behaviors necessary for life in a busy family. She used TAGteach, an approach based on the science of behavior, to teach new behaviors to replace screaming, running around, self injury and other chaotic behaviors with which many autism parents struggle on a continual basis. All Martha’s teaching used positive reinforcement to strengthen desired behaviors. Now Doug is 17 and his self-stimulatory behaviors are almost non-existent. He chooses to exhibit behaviors that he has learned and that have become more reinforcing for him than the chaotic and sometimes violent behaviors in which he engaged during what Martha refers to as “the dreadful early years”. Doug at 17 is happy, affectionate and cooperative. He loves his math and reading lessons and he loves outdoor activities.
This summer Doug went to Shadow Lake Camp for a week and his counselor was my daughter Anne Wormald who is a level 2 TAGteacher. Martha came prepared with a tagger and some treats that Doug likes and left him in Anne’s capable hands. Anne had read Chaos to Calm, so she knew many of Doug’s tag points. The other staff at camp looked after Doug while Anne was on break and they too learned to use TAGteach with Doug. He had the whole camp trained by the end of the week!
Here is what one of the other counselors said about Doug:
“He’s so cute and well-behaved! When you first gave me the tagger I was kind of unsure, but once you told me about how he was before and I used it, it became obvious that it really works. I really want to read the book!”
Doug’s experience at camp is a testament to the power and effectiveness of TAGteach and the skill of Martha as a teacher. Martha was able to hand over her son, a tagger, some treats and some basic tag points and he was able to enjoy himself immensely at sleep away camp for a week with strangers.
Anne kept in touch with me by text during the week with Doug. Here is a transcript of those messages:
A bold statement but true nonetheless. I recently attended a 2 day TAGteach Primary Certification seminar in Bristol UK and it has revolutionized my thinking and strategies for coaching my own learners. Why? Because it cuts out all the blurry stuff, all the fluff and fuzz that can easily lose the learner in the fog of information.
Clear goals in teaching
This means that learners can have a clear goal or tag point, which is marked with an audible distinct sound such as the word tag or a clicker. This can be applied to any learner, be it human or animal. The instructions are finely sliced, the tag point is delivered in 5 words or less and gives immediate feedback of success to the learner at every tag point stage. It’s clear and simple learning with positive reinforcement, which can be tracked with a tagulator (beads on a string) that can be collected for a primary reinforcer or just the immediate success acts as a reinforcer for the learner. The science geeks among us know this as operant conditioning. OK so why the hooha about it changing my life?
On the spectrum
I am on the Autism Spectrum. I’m both high and low functioning but have achieved a level of integration in ‘normal’ or neurotypical society because of my higher functioning attributes. It has been a difficult path to walk alone though.
If TAGteach had been around when I was a kid I may have a had an even more successful, less frustrating, anxiety ridden childhood and been a higher achiever than I currently am.
Plus I can still find it difficult to communicate clearly and effectively, even on relatively high functioning days. In class you can imagine the confusion which can arise from not delivering instructions efficiently to the learner. TAGteach will now be incorporated into my classes and has already been adapted into my coaching with measurable success. Having a tag point, clear determined goal which the learner can self select to personalise and even tag the teacher and each other is very empowering, makes the learning environment cooperative and progressive which can only be a good thing, right!
My gratitude to my TAGteach coach Theresa McKeon BA is infinte and I will always be indebted to the seminar organiser Sara Roberts KPA-CTP. Thank you ladies, my life will never be the same again! And being in the same room as some of the best animal and people trainers was inspiring too.
Learning never stops, I have a brain which mostly works but needs steering in the right direction at times so my aim is achieve Level 1 TAGteach certification. I had better crack on and get some TAGteach experience under my belt…
Here’s a link to the TAGteach International website, so you can see for yourself what I’m blathering on about:http://www.tagteach.com/
What 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” 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, quickly, and intensively. 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.