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

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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.

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Martha Gabler

Autism parent. Director, Kids' Learning Workshop LLC. Author of Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism.