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:
- What is TAGteach?
- How to Get Started with TAGteach
- If you need additional information with lots of videos and examples, you can take my free online course.
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)
Once you know that behavior is composed of physical movements of the body, you can study how your child “moves” the parts of her body; in this case we are focusing on how she moves her fingers, hands and arms. A great way to do this is by filling out the free Child Observation Chart. While your child is getting dressed or playing, make notes of how she moves her arms, hands, and fingers. Note areas of strength and weakness.
Take note of these important fine motor skills: The Precision Teaching “Big 6 +6”
Big 6 +6
These discrete fine motor movements are the components of more complex skills. If you cast your eyes over this list, you can see that these skills are needed for dressing, eating, bathing, playing with toys, writing, and other activities of daily life.
Go back to your chart and see which of these fine motor skills your child can perform. Pick out one or two fine motor movements that the child is already doing fairly well, and start “tagging” and reinforcing those movements. Tag for only one of these in any one session. The goal of this is two-fold: to start at a point of success for the child, and to solidify her current level of abilities so that she has a strong foundation for building new fine motor skills.
For example, you may see that a child can squeeze a soft foam ball in her right hand, yet struggles a bit to squeeze with the left hand. My goal would be to strengthen the squeezing capability in both hands, and then move on to more fine motor skills. I would set these tag points: Squeeze Ball (Right Hand) and Squeeze Ball (Left Hand).
Once you have set the tag points, as described above, the next step is to increase the child’s ability to Squeeze Ball. How to increase behavior? The answer is: Fact 2.
FACT 2: Positive Reinforcement Increases Behaviors (physical movements of the body)
Here’s the rule about positive reinforcement:
“Behavior that is already occurring, no matter how sporadically, can always be intensified with positive reinforcement.” (2)
Positive reinforcement causes a behavior to occur more often. TAGteach is an excellent way to encourage and reinforce a child for performing a desired action. To work on squeezing, give the child a soft foam ball, set a timer for a certain amount of time (10 seconds or 15 seconds to start), and ask her to squeeze the ball. Tag and reinforce her for each squeeze and count how many times she squeezes the ball in that period of time.
Repeat this process a few times, and stop as soon as the child displays even the slightest flicker of fatigue or restlessness. The lesson is over. As the child gains strength in her hands by practicing Squeeze Ball, slowly increase the amount of time to 20 seconds or 30 seconds, tag and reinforce the squeezes, and count how many times she squeezed. Repeat the process. With time and patience, your child will build up her squeeze fine motor skill to “fluent” levels.
Build Fine Motor Skills to “Fluent” Levels
It’s important for a child to master fine motor skills to “fluent” levels. What does this mean? Fluency in the fine motor skill of “Squeeze” means that the child can perform at a rate of 200 to 300 squeezes per minute!
Why such a high rate of squeezing? Researchers in the Precision Teaching community have discovered that high rates of accurate skill performance are necessary for these skills to be retained and applied to new areas. It’s not enough to be able to do an action a few times, the child has to be able squeeze fast, and squeeze continuously, in order for squeezing to be a strong foundation skill that she can transfer to other areas of everyday living. Here is the research finding:
“In discovering the importance of fluency, not mere accuracy, as a definition of true mastery, Precision Teachers confirmed findings from a broad array of other fields about the relationship between automaticity or “second nature” responding and improved retention, transfer of training, and “endurance” or resistance to distraction.” (Binder, 1987, 1988; Binder, Haughton, & Van Eyk, 1990).(3)
Precision Teaching + TAGteach = a powerful learning combination
You may be unfamiliar with Precision Teaching and concepts of behavioral fluency. These are fascinating topics with tremendous potential for helping all children learn, including those with special needs. TAGteach and Precision Teaching are complementary methods; both are based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
By observing, tagging and reinforcing the Big 6+6 fine motor movements, and ensuring that your child can perform them to fluent levels, you will increase the number and variety of activities that your child can do. As she develops strong, fluent fine motor skills, she will be able to participate in many more self-care, academic and social activities.
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 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.
For more information visit the TAGteach website.
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(1) From Dr. Martin Kozloff, Educating Children with Learning and Behavior Problems (2) From Karen Pryor, Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training (3) Binder, C., & Watkins, C. L. (1990). Precision Teaching and Direct Instruction: Measurably Superior Instructional Technology in Schools. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 3(4), 74-96. A good summary of two evidence-based methodologies that should be used in all schools today.