Direct Instruction: It even works for kids with autism

happy studentSeptember 19, 2013

I sent this letter to the Commissioners of a Review Committee within a State Board of Education. The Commissioners were considering whether to approve a set of Direct Instruction curricula for use by school districts within the state. Please note that Direct Instruction curricula align with the new Common Core Standards.

What is Direct Instruction?

For those who may not be familiar with Direct Instruction (DI): this is a body of academic curricula for teaching reading, writing, math, spelling, language and language to students in grades K-8. What makes Direct Instruction unique is that it is based on scientific principles of human learning, the same principles that we see in ABA programs; these principles include use of positive reinforcement, shaping, cues, signals, prompting, and fading. But there is more.  According to the Association for Direct Instruction:

“(T)he real power of a DI program comes from the careful analysis of each skill taught. The skill is broken down into its component parts, then each component skill is taught to mastery. Afterward, the skills are combined into a larger context where different skills are utilized across settings, resulting in generalized fluency.” (See

Direct Instruction programs are designed for typically developing children. However, I found them to be so powerful that I was able to use them to teach my severely autistic and profoundly nonverbal son. He learned reading, math, spelling and language with these programs.

The Letter

Dear Commission Members;

The purpose of this email is to ask respectfully for your support for including Direct Instruction curricula for use within the state.

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I want to use the clicker, but I can’t get started. Part 1

view from plane with door open, ready to parachuteA reader sent me the following question:

Imagine a person who has never parachuted out of an airplane. They stand at the door, but are almost paralyzed with fear. I think many families of children with autism may feel that way. They know they must do something right now, and they have some tools (teaching methods), but they are afraid to take the first step.

How did you feel before you took the first TAG step? What was your first move with your son after you’d learned some concepts and methods? How would you advise families?

Each of these questions is a perfectly natural question to ask, so I will take them in turn.

Common fears

As to being afraid to take the first step, for many families the first step might mean completely different things. The first step may be the decision to use TAGteach, or the decision to buy clickers and treats, or dealing with doubts and questions about this method. Information is the key to addressing these fears.

More information

Let’s talk about the fear of using TAGteach. If you are afraid of hurting or damaging your child in some way, you will not do so if you use TAGteach properly. TAGteach is based on the Science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and relies on the use of positive reinforcement to build desired behaviors, along with an event marker signal. With the marker signal (click) used in TAGteach, you provide specific information to your child that he has done something right; then you provide a treat (reinforcer) as a reward. Providing information and reinforcement to any child is a good thing. It is a scientifically-validated method of building desired behaviors. It will help your child learn and can eventually build up a mutually trusting and interactive relationship.

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I want to use the clicker, but can’t get started. Part 2

young boy with stunned look on his faceA reader posed the question, “How did you feel before you took the first TAG step?

I felt nervous. But, before I took the first step I had already done the following: read about TAGteach, purchased a clicker and prepared a handful of candy treats. From an intellectual standpoint, I understood that marking and reinforcing a behavior would work in increasing that behavior. From a personal standpoint, I wasn’t sure how this was all going to work with my child in my living room.

The Tantrum

The first morning I had my clicker and treats and came downstairs, my son started to tantrum, for no apparent reason. With the clicker in my hand, I had to think about what to do. I knew I should not try to cajole him out of the tantrum. I knew I had to find something positive to mark and reinforce. But what? So, I watched him. Within a minute or two I realized the obvious: he was jumping and running around and screaming. What did I want? It flashed into my mind: Quiet Mouth and Still Feet.

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I want to use the clicker, but can’t get started. Part 3

boy jumping looking excitedA reader posed this question. “What was your first move with your son after you’d learned some concepts and methods? How would you advise families?

Think about behaviors you would like to see

After learning about concepts and methods, the next step was figuring out what behaviors I wanted. For autism parents, that is an amazing concept, to think that you can work on behaviors you would like to see in your child. There are two ways to go about TAGteach: with a specific behavior goal in mind, or general marking and reinforcing of any behaviors you like.

What family activities are stressful with your child?

I spent a lot of time in the beginning using TAGteach to reinforce and build Quiet Mouth behavior. I was also desperate to get out of the house and go for a walk in the neighborhood. Going anywhere with my son required extreme vigilance to make sure he didn’t dart into the street or into oncoming traffic. Going to the grocery story was also a stressful event that required lots of vigilance. Waiting in the line at the store was equally difficult. So my next projects were teaching Nice Walking, Going to the Grocery Story, and Waiting In Line. I worked on these behaviors because I wanted to get out, go for a walk and buy food without all the stress and trauma we usually experienced.

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What do you do when your child with autism is driving you CRAZY? (Tantrum de-escalation)


You cautism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcementan do something RIGHT NOW!

Here are actions you can take right now to deal with screaming, tantrumming, anger, running around the house, or any other chaotic behavior. You are going to start reinforcing (rewarding) your child for any tiny physical movement he makes that is even remotely positive. First I’ll explain what to do, then I’ll explain why this works.

Gather your materials — about 5 minutes

Step 1: Find something in your house that makes a quick, sharp click sound: a ballpoint pen, a flashlight, or if need be, a spoon that you can tap on the wall or a table.

Step 2: 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.

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When in doubt, check it out at the Association for Science in Autism Treatment

asat logoWhen parents first receive that dreadful diagnosis of autism for a beloved child, the first impulse is to get the best possible treatment for their child. When parents start looking into treatments, they find themselves in a vortex of websites, blogs and articles, all purporting to have the information they need. Some of these sites are worthwhile, many are not.

For parents considering a specific treatment for a child, I recommend that they review the information presented by the Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT). Here is information from the ASAT website:

“ASAT is a not-for-profit organization of parents and professionals committed to improving the education, treatment, and care of people with autism. Since autism was first identified, there has been a long history of failed treatments and fads, levied on vulnerable individuals as well as on their families. From the scandal of the “refrigerator mother” theory, to the ongoing parade of “miracle cures” and “magical breakthroughs,” history has been dominated by improbable theories about causation and treatments. 

Many of these treatments have been too quickly adopted by professionals, too readily sensationalized by the media, and too hastily embraced by hopeful consumers – well before supporting evidence or reasonable probability existed for their effectiveness or safety.” 

Get the facts, not the fads

ASAT provides summaries of scientific research on interventions on autism, including the psychological, educational and therapeutic interventions, and the biomedical interventions. When in doubt, check it out.  See the Association for Science in Autism Treatment at You can send them an email at



Picture Pages for a Happy Car Trip

picture page groceryCar trips are sometimes stressful for a child with autism.  In addition to marking and reinforcing good car behaviors (Quiet Mouth, Feet Still, Hands Still), another thing that helped my son was picture pages relating to either the destination or something of interest to him. He enjoyed picture pages of the places we were going to visit because he knew where we were going and what was in store for him.  Plus, we could point to the pictures and name the people, places and objects.  Fortunately, with the advanced cameras and picture editing programs now available, families can easily make picture pages to suit their child.

Some Examples

A common family excursion is a trip to the grocery store.  Place a picture of the store at the top of the page and add pictures of the items from your shopping list.  It is easy to find pictures on internet sites and download them or to take pictures in your own kitchen.  With all the technology tools available now, it is easy to organize the photos on a page for printing or for loading onto a tablet or other technology device.  If you print the page, it is handy to slip it into a plastic sleeve.  If you have another child coming along on the trip, that child could ask the sibling with autism to point to the bread or point to the apples, then mark and reinforce every time the child responds correctly.  This is a simple and easy way to get other children involved in teaching and reinforcing the child with autism.  Let the child who is in charge earn points/tokens for privileges by working with the child with autism. Read More

Want your child with autism to learn new skills? Here’s everything you need to know about TAGteach taggers.

TAGteach is all about using a “tagger”tagger, tagteach, autism, ABA, positive reinforcement

So what exactly is a tagger?

To the right you can see pictures of the two most commonly used taggers.

Taggers are used to “mark” a desired action at the precise moment the child performs it.

The tagger is all about good news

tagger, tagteach, autism, ABA, positive reinforcement When you press on the metal plate inside the tagger, it makes a short, sharp sound. The sound is good news! It tells the child he has done something correctly, at the precise instant he performs the action! The follow-up reinforcement tells him that this is a great behavior to perform because he will get more treats and praise.

Wow! Precise, on-time, in-the-moment information for the child and some nice treats to follow-up. Think how great this information and reinforcement is for a kid with autism. This makes it so much easier for the child to focus and learn.

The tagger is easy to use

Kids, both with autism and without, quickly figure out that the tagger is giving them great information and success. Who doesn’t like success? Our kids with autism don’t always have a lot of success, but they love it just as much as anybody else. Taggers make is easy for parents and instructors to deliver lots of success to kids with autism. Isn’t that great? Instead of feeling helpless in the face of difficult behaviors or learning challenges, you can break it down, mark each small step and reinforce your kid’s actions. Instead of feeling like a failure, a kid with autism gets lots of success and praise for what he can do.

The tagger is low-cost

Small plastic taggers/clickers are widely available at stores and via the internet, and come in different shapes, sizes and colors. Prices are low, running from $.89 to $1.50. A pack of 5 TAGteach taggers costs $7.50 on the TAGteach International website.  You can see two types of taggers in the pictures above. The taggers on top are known as iClicks; they are smaller and quieter. The taggers on the bottom  are standard box taggers. While a tagger is an ideal device, in a pinch, other items can be used, such as ballpoint pens, flashlights, or even hand claps or finger snaps.

autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcement

 Keep it handy!

Taggers are small and easy to drop or misplace. Attach yours to a cord or lanyard and loop it around your belt or wrist. This way, you’ll always know where the tagger is, plus it is easier to find if it is dropped. Have your tagger ready at all times. The treats, or reinforcers, can go into another pocket. With a tagger and treats stowed away, you can be ready in a split second to reinforce desired behaviors.

 What about sound sensitivity? Don’t worry.

In the beginning, I worried that  the sound of the box tagger might be too loud for my son. He had auditory sensitivity and I didn’t want to aggravate that. If you are worried about that, use the iclick tagger, pictured above; it has a softer sound. If all you have is the box tagger, you can mute the sound by pressing it while it’s in your pocket. The fabric muffles the sound. As it turned out, my son didn’t mind the sound of the tagger at all. He learned very quickly that the tag meant that a treat (reinforcer) was coming, so it quickly became a pleasing sound to him.

The tagger lets you capture those fleeting moments of great behavior

When you have the tagger that is right for your learner, it is easy to mark and reinforce your child for desired behaviors. Even if the behavior only lasts for a split second, you can tag at that exact moment and give your child a treat to their liking. Soon you will see that the behavior you have tagged occurs more often and for longer periods and the undesirable behavior fades away.

 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.

For more information visit the TAGteach website.

Join the free TAGteach Yahoo Group.

TAGteach taggers are available here.

See Martha’s book about TAGteach for Autism or feel free to ask me a question (with no obligation).

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