Editor’s note: We are often asked why it is that TAGteach works so well and so fast, sometimes yielding behavior change or learning that seems magical. There is no magic involved, except that which goes on in our brains. TAGteach Faculty Member Luca Canever presented a fascinating webinar about how the brain learns and why TAGteach works so well.
By Luca Canever – TAGteach Faculty
The answer to the question in the title is this: They both learn the same way!
Working Memory and Cognitive Load
The TAGteach mantra “talk less, teach more”, seems counter-intuitive, but there is sound science behind this. The role of working memory is to catch things from environment to ensure our survival. We can think of the working memory like a window from which our consciousness looks at the world. Also the working memory creates the memories for the long term memory. If we overload the working memory with too much information it won’t be able to pass on the memories, and the learning will stop. Too much information it’s not good for the learning. TAGteach, indeed is.
Associative Learning: What a Caterpillar and Einstein Have in Common
Earth had 3 billion years of bacteria, before life discovered associative learning. Life had blossomed about 540 million years ago when the first multicellular organisms discovered associative learning. If you know (and you can remember) where you can find food, mating opportunities and where your predator is waiting for you, your survival chances will increase. Organisms have learned by association for millions of years, so the argument that TAGteachers sometimes hear from parents: “Don’t treat my child like a dog!” makes no sense. From the lowly caterpillar to the brilliant Albert Einstein, we all learn in the same way. What is different is the complexity in the brain. Recent findings indicate that our (human) brains are not brand new. On the contrary they use pieces and parts that already exist and adapt them to our new requirements.
Maps in the Brain – Why My Car is not Like Yours
In his book “Thinking fast and slow“, Daniel Kahneman says that each of us has his/her own, clear idea of what a car is. But if you ask two people to draw a car what you get is two different things. At the same time we can understand each other because we “share” the idea of “car” or “table”. We can develop a common language because my representations in my brain are similar to yours. The memories in the brain are not “single-folder” kind. Memories are maps in the brain with different pattern for everyone. TAGteach helps because application of the WOOF rules creates a crystal clear tag point that is clearly understood by both teacher and learner.
There was a time, when we had much less experience than we have now, that we suggested to people that they might use the word “good” or another verbal marker to signal success to the learner. In practice this has turned out not to work as well as using a clicker or other non-verbal signal. We have used taggers with elite athletes, tiny tot ballerinas, commercial fishermen, kids with autism, kids with Down syndrome, business professionals, prison inmates and medical students to list a few examples. Using the tagger absolutely works and it works with every population of learner that we have encountered.
The verbal marker becomes very repetitive and annoying very quickly. It seems condescending in a way to say “good, good, good” over and over especially to another adult. It’s also very difficult to keep the tone of the “good” the same each time. People tend to want to convey additional information with the verbal marker. They tend to vary the tone and give a more expressive “good” if there is a particularly good effort. It’s hard to avoid the big excited “YES” when they finally get it, or the desultory “yes” when you’re tired, hungry and have a headache.
My name is Martha Gabler. My husband and I are the parents of two boys. The younger one, now 22 years old, was diagnosed at age 3 as having severe autism and being profoundly non-verbal. He had all the common difficult behaviors typical of children with autism, including self-injury and aggression.
By sheer chance, I learned about TAGteach and realized instantly that this method for positive behavior change could be a huge help for us. This turned out to be the case. My son is now a delightful, happy teen who loves life and loves going places. He still has autism, but life is much, much better for us all.
Here is a video that shows my son Doug going for a walk with his friend Anne and listening to his music. I had to teach him the skills for safe walking and sitting still to listen to music; now he can apply these and gain enjoyment from them independently.
She never listens! He’s lazy. She’s not smart enough. He has ADD. She’s from a single parent family. He’s stubborn. She’s a Libra. He’s got special needs. She’s too smart. His dad’s a lawyer. Her mom is a feminist. He’s from Boston.
There are lots of labels and excuses to explain why people don’t do what you want or why they behave in certain ways. Let’s just put all those aside for now and think about the most important thing. Which of course is you getting what you want. Sometimes you need others to act in order for you to get what you want and sometimes it is you who needs to act.
The internet knows that the way to get stuff done is to set goals and work on one small thing at a time. Look it up. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and all that other irrefutable wisdom. Productivity experts agree that we need to break big tasks into smaller ones. Ironically the instruction “break it down” is itself ill-defined. It is particularly vexing for people with no training in behavior analysis to come up with goals that are easily achievable and upon success can be reinforced. This is the reason that most New Year’s resolutions have failed by the end of January (if not sooner). Most people want to do too much at once in order to save time, but the result is that everything takes longer, seems increasingly impossible and is more frustrating for all involved.
A topic that seems to come up with some frequency in our interactions with TAGteachers relates to the sound of the tagger and what kinds of sounds (or other stimuli) can be used with TAGteach. Here is a sampling of some of the concerns that have come up:
I work with children diagnosed with autism. They are very sensitive to sounds and will be upset by the sound of the traditional tagger (clicker).
I work with people who are hard of hearing. They won’t be able to hear the click sound.
I teach riding to children and adults and all my horses are clicker trained, so I don’t want to use the same sound for the people since the horses might get upset or confused if the hear the click sounds and don’t get a treat.
I teach people to clicker train dogs (or other animals) and I am worried that the animals will be confused if I use the same sound for them as for the people.
I would like to try peer tagging, but with so many taggers going off all over the place I don’t think anyone will know which tag is for them.
Let me preface this discussion by saying that in all the many years and many applications in which the TAGteach founders, faculty and experienced TAGteachers have used TAGteach, we rarely use anything other than the traditional box clicker (tagger) to make the tag sound. We have tried other things, but in the end they break, we lose them, or they didn’t work any better anyway. Even with children diagnosed with autism, noisy roomfuls of kids tagging each other and in the presence of clicker trained animals, we have had great success with the box clicker – as have others.
In trying to decide the best way to deliver the tag stimulus, a TAGteacher needs to consider the following:
Can the learners perceive the tag?
Does the learner like to get a tag?
Is the tag distracting other learners (including animals)?
The first two are easy to assess. All you have to do is ask the learners.
Does the Learner Perceive the Tag?
We have often been astounded that learners hear their own tag even if there are lots of other taggers and other noise going on. If they don’t hear their own tags, then you might need to spread out more, change the position of the person with the tagger so they are closer to or within the line of sight of the learner or take turns with tagging so that fewer taggers are going off at once. You will most likely find that once the learners become tag savvy, they don’t have any trouble hearing the tag that is meant for them.
Does the Learner Like the Sound of the Tag
Some learners find the tag sound aversive. This is more often true with adults than kids. They may dislike the sound for no particular reason, may experience physical pain (very rare) or may have a past negative association with the sound. Generally they will not suffer in silence and will be quick to let you know that you are causing them grave suffering. Sometimes this aversion can be remedied by associating the tag sound with a tangible reinforcer (candy, stickers, chocolate etc). Sometimes they get over it when they see others progressing well and the want to have some of that success for themselves. The tag sound has not been a problem for professionals working with children diagnosed with autism. These children seem to adapt well to the tag sound, most likely because it is associated with a primary reinforcer (popcorn, a sip of soda etc) and because they quickly learn that this is the sound of success and something that they can control in an otherwise largely uncontrollable world. This latter is just speculation, since we haven’t conducted any studies, but it has been a surprise to some to find that sound-sensitive children are not bothered by the sound of the tagger.
The tag sound is generally not distracting to other learners who are also engaged in the tag session. For example a roomful of gymnasts or volleyball players all tagging in pairs or groups will not disrupt the others. They get very good, very quickly at concentrating and hearing the tag that is meant for them. In a quiet situation in which a teacher is tagging one student for reading skills, while the others work quietly, the tag sound could be distracting, so muffling the sound or using something quieter may be best.
Many people are using TAGteach to teach animal-handling skills. In the majority of these cases the animals are clicker trained, or are being clicker trained and so the tag for the person could be distracting for the animal. Some people are concerned that the power of the click will be diminished if the animal hears a lot of clicking and doesn’t get a treat. People who teach group clicker training classes, train animals in a group situation or have multiple clicker trained animals at home know that animals very quickly learn that not every click is for them and not every clicker session involves them. They learn to read environmental cues, pay attention to where the trainer’s cues are directed and most importantly to where the treats are coming from and where they are going. Animals become very good at knowing when it’s their turn.
When animals are first learning about clicker training, or if the animal is likely to get excited and become a danger, then an alternative approach is needed. This may involve using a different sound or working on the human skills with the animal out of the picture at first. In some cases it may be appropriate to have the click and the tag be the same. For example, if you are teaching loose leash walking and the tag point is “leash hand at waist”, then both dog and person could get a click/tag at the same time. If the use of TAGteach for teaching animal handling skills becomes confusing and problematic, then you need to take steps to simplify. We always recommend that the animal be out of the picture until the person learns the skill.
But I Need an Alternative Signal!
Sometimes you really may need an alternative signal for the tag, whether it be a different sound or a different signal altogether. Here are some alternatives to the traditional box clicker (tagger) that have been used or suggested by TAGteachers:
i-click (quieter click sound)
Clicker+ (makes 4 different sounds – these are no longer in production)
Muffle the sound of a box clicker with a cloth, your hand or from inside a pocket
Car key fob (from the dollar store – makes the sound that your remote car door opener makes when you unlock your car)
Squeaker from squeaky toy
Click from ball point pen
Click from hand-held counter (also counts the tags, which can be useful)
Juice bottle lids that pop when pressed
Ding from triangle instrument
Sound from phone app
TAGteachers have also used non-sound markers with hearing impaired students and in other situations in which the tag sound is inappropriate or would be ineffective:
Flash of light
Tap of finger on shoulder or hand
Hold tagger against the learner’s back so the feel it, if they can’t hear it
Virtual tag – pretend to tag by making the tag motion without tagger
Slide a ticket or a block or other marker from one side of the desk to the other
Pull down a bead on a tagulator
Here is a video that shows a shoulder tap being used as a tag:
TAGteach and Precision Teaching go together like ice cream and apple pie. Each makes the other even more awesome. Add TAGteach to your Precision Teaching and watch your acceleration lines soar. Add Precision Teaching to your TAGteaching and you’ll see exactly what’s working and what tag points are the most effective.
If you’re a TAGteacher and you’re wondering “what’s Precision Teaching”, visit Chartlytics University for lots of free information.
If you’re a Precision Teacher and you’re wondering “what’s TAGteach?”, visit TAGteach Online Learning for a free course on the Fundamentals of TAGteach.
What’s a Tag Point?
A tag point is the goal behavior in a TAGteach session. The teacher tags (marks) the desired behavior with a click sound (tag) when the behavior occurs so the learner knows the exact moment that they got it right. A tag point has four criteria (WOOF):
What you want: the tag point must be phrased in positive terms
One thing: the tag point can be only one behavior
Observable: the tag point must be observable
Five words or less: you must be able to articulate the tag point in five words or less
By Roni Dunning, B.A., ABA M.Sc., TAGteach Level 2, Blossom ABA
The first time a child performs a skill that they haven’t previously demonstrated is always unforgettable! At Blossom ABA, we’ve been using TAGteach® to help our learners emit spontaneous behaviours in a number of different developmental areas such as imitation, play and social skills. While we use an audible marker, we tend to limit language to teach behaviours that we want to increase in frequency or behaviours that require a chain of steps.
How Does TAGteach Work?
TAGteach enables the teacher to mark a learner’s appropriate behaviour with a sound made using a handheld clicker (or tagger). The tag becomes a conditioned positive reinforcer through association with tangible rewards (access to a preferred toy for example) or praise if the learner finds praise reinforcing. At times, the tag sound can be combined with a small piece of a highly preferred food, a sip of a preferred drink or a token economy system, which helps learners who are being taught skills intensively to understand when they’ve finished that round of teaching and can access a preferred item or activity. We use the terms “reinforcement” and “reinforcing” when referring to things that increase the likelihood that a behavior will happen in future (Skinner, 1957). There is research evidence to support the use of TAGteach and its efficacy in teaching a number of skills, ranging from the teaching of every day tasks to children with autism, movements in sports and to teach surgical procedures to medical students (Jackson, P. A., 2014; Gabler, M., 2013; Fogel et. al, 2010; Levi et. al, 2015).
By Luca Canever, Elisa Casarini and Eleonora Galanti
Canever, L, Casarini, F. and Galanti, E. (2014) The Effects of Using TAGteach to Promote Earthquake Safety for Children in School. Presented at the 7th Conference of the European Association for Behaviour Analysis. University of Stockholm. Stockholm, Sweden. Sept 10-13, 2014. Read Abstract:http://www.europeanaba.org/events/submission/7/62
Obviously, the more you train the more skilled you get, or at least, you should get. We wished to find out if, given the same amount of training time, using an event marker (like the box clicker we use in TAGteach) could make any difference in terms of learning quality. We wished to find out if a marker based teaching could be a more effective way to improve learner’s retention, endurance and application of new skills.
Listen to this interview of TAGteach Faculty member Luca Canever with TAGteach cofounder Joan Orr on the topic of TAGteach in the Classroom. Luca tells us how he got started with TAGteach and tells about how he uses TAGteach in his classes. He talks about the following topics:
His applications of TAGteach in a typical middle school classroom in a group setting
His application of TAGteach with special needs students one on one
How the kids responded at first
TAGteach for math and reading
TAGteach for behavior management
Some challenges in working in a classroom environment
I want to introduce you to a fascinating and inexpensive piece of low-tech equipment that can help you effect magical behavior change in yourself or others. It’s called a tagulator. A tagulator is a specially strung string of beads that you can use to reinforce your own or someone else’s behavior. There’s something appealing and comforting about the way the beads slide down the string that makes everyone love to pull the beads.
The tagulator is a wonderful adjunct to the actual tagger and you can also use it without a tagger. Each pull of a bead is effectively a tag.
In Pursuit of Domestic Bliss
In pursuit of domestic bliss, TAGteacher Leslie Catterall turned to TAGteach and the tagulator to teach her husband to take the recycling off the kitchen counter and into the bins. “I explained my situation and my understanding of his. He told me that there was no malicious intent in his forgetting to recycle; he’d simply got into the habit of leaving the bottles there, a behavior that was hard to change when he was tired and focused on other things. What an eye-opener that was to me. And since then I am seeing more and more how much of the behavior with which we are dissatisfied stems from patterns of repetition that are hard to break simply through being told.” Leslie and Martin engaged in a mutually agreed upon experiment where Martin would tag his own behavior and pull down a bead on a tagulator mounted in the kitchen every time he took the recycling out to the bin. The experiment was a raging success and Martin quickly accumulated 67 tags recorded on a set of 2 tagulators. Asked why he still continues to do it he said, “it’s about presence of mind, committing to the whole process breaks the habitual behavior”. When pressed further he put it this way: “even though I’m the only one recognizing it, it gives me a nice feeling that I am being recognized for doing it.”
Here’s a video showing how you can use a tagulator in this sort of situation. The couple in this video each have their own tagulator placed in strategic locations to help promote desired behaviors that they have identified. Whoever finishes a tagulator first gets to pick the next movie or TV show.
How to Make a Tagulator
Here’s a video that shows how you can make your own tagulator.
Sometimes just pulling a bead down is enough reinforcement to strengthen a new behavior, but sometimes tangible reinforcers are required. Some learners need to have a candy or token or other tangible item after every bead, after every few beads or at the end of a tagulator. If you’re giving tangibles after bead pulling, you can make patterned tagulators to modify the rate of reinforcement. Here’s a video that shows how tagulators work with Skittles as reinforcement. There’s no specific behavior being reinforced in the video. This is just a demonstration of the tagulator mechanics. The sequence is teacher tags > learner pulls a bed > teacher delivers a Skittle. You can see how different bead patterns modify the rate of reinforcement with the Skittles.
Not Just for Errant Husbands
Tagulators are not just for adults. Kids of all ages love them too!
Here’s a video that shows how to introduce the tagulator to increase teaching efficiency. This child has up until now received a reinforcer after each tag. Sometimes it has been stickers, beads or melon pieces, but he’s most interested in Skittles. It’s often disruptive to the smooth flow of a lesson to stop and eat a Skittle after each tag. The tagulator provides a great way to reinforce without stopping to deal with the primary reinforcer. Lear is 4 and this is his introduction to the tagulator. Notice that he has no problem with the drastic reduction in the number of Skittles he’s getting. Formerly he was getting 1 Skittle per tag, now he’s getting 1 Skittle per 10 tags. Clearly it’s more about the game than about the candy for Lear now.
He sometimes wants to stop and count remaining beads to see how far he still has to go to get a Skittle, but he doesn’t object to the the 10-fold reduction in Skittles. The tagulator is fun too.
Note how matter-of-fact the teacher is here. She doesn’t cajole or ask him if he wants to use the tagulator, she just tells him that this is what we are doing now and then she does it. She has a good history of reliability with Lear and he likes and trusts her. He also respects her because she sets the expectations, she’s clear and she’s consistent. Lear is tag savvy and is very clear on the concept of TAGteach.
The Applications are Endless
People are using TAGulators all over the place. TAGteacher Amelia Bower posted on one of our Facebook groups recently:
“I had two lovely TAGteach-inspired moments this week and wanted to share.
1) At the ABA clinic where I work, we started a Direct Instruction program with a young learner. She seemed a bit bored by the instructions at first, but when I added a clicker and a TAGulator, her interest was piqued and the program ran very smoothly.
2) I also tried out a tiered reinforcement system, with staff members! I needed to increase the frequency of checking to see if workspaces are clean before leaving a session. I added a visual prompt, asked therapists to initial a poster before leaving the room clean, and I’m collecting initials and awarding puzzle pieces as we accumulate each week. When the puzzle is complete, management will provide a huge snack stash to therapists. We rolled out this intervention yesterday, and the feedback has been very positive!
I’m so glad I pursued this training!”
Veterinarian and TAGteacher Linda Randall told us about her use of the tagulator in the vet clinic:
“There is a tagulator by one of the telephones. My initial idea for this tagulator was to use it for myself. I wanted to slow down and truly listen to my clients rather than rushing to tell them what I wanted them to hear, then getting on with my day. When I relaxed my shoulder muscles as I listened, I would “pull a bead”. After 10 beads I would do something rewarding for myself. Soon this morphed into “pulling a bead” every time I overheard a staff member say something compassionate or service-oriented to a client when using this particular phone. Then anyone could “pull a bead” for anyone else for a client or pet-centered phone phrase. The tagulator became a team effort and we needed a second tagulator to mark the completion of the first tagulator so we could get pizza after 100 secondary beads! It worked, and is working, wonderfully.”
Employers are using tagulators in the workplace, therapists are using them instead of giving a primary reinforcer for every trial, parents and spouses are using them at home, sport coaches are using them and people are using them for self-tagging to help remember to eat healthy foods, choose not to smoke and adhere to exercise programs.
Share Your Tagulator Stories and Photos
Tell us in the comments what you use your tagulator for. Please post photos of your tagulators and stories about how you use them on our Facebook page.