Lesson 1 – Observing Behavior

Lesson 1: How to Observe Behavior

[membership_breadcrumbs style=”6″ omgpageId=”614″]


[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_size=”17″ width=”940″]In preparing this information for autism parents, I conducted a survey to find out what concerns and issues were pressing for parents. The responses gave me insight into parents’ concerns and goals for their children and family. One thing that I noticed right away is that most people describe their goals in emotional terms, such as less anger, and more empathy and happiness. My goal is to teach you specific skills that will help your child achieve these emotional goals. It is not possible, however, to teach “emotions,” and very difficult even to define or describe them–since they mean something different to all of us and they are ever changing.

The approach in these lessons is to guide you away from thinking in terms of emotions, and toward thinking in terms of behavior that you can define, observe and track. To take it a step further, I will show you how to look for productive behaviors, or physical actions, that you can define, observe, track and reinforce. When you reinforce productive behaviors, your child will perform more of them, and the unproductive behaviors will be displaced and, over time, become less frequent and less severe.

The teaching method that you will encounter in this course is called TAGteach (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance). This is a scientific method based on the same principles as those underlying Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). TAGteach provides a structured way to observe, break down and teach behaviors and gives a simple way to provide effective and timely positive reinforcement. We will talk about this in more detail later in the course.[/text_block]

What You Will Learn from this Lesson

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_size=”17″ width=”940″]When you have reviewed this lesson and completed the activities you will be able to:

  1. Understand the definition of behavior
  2. Observe your child and record observations of desired behavior
  3. Understand the function of the consequence and how TAGteach applies to this
  4. Apply TAGteach to improve the attention span in your child


Practice Activities

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_size=”17″ width=”940″]Activity #1 – Definition of Behavior  — Child Observation Chart

The first step in applying TAGteach to the process of teaching children with autism is to think, in detailed ways, about our children’s behavior. Here is the key fact about behavior:

Behavior is physical movement of the body.

When our children scream, have tantrums, refuse to do things, get upset at a change in plan, ignore attractive toys or turn away from relatives, they are behaving: they are moving parts of their bodies. 

They display these behaviors by moving their hands, legs, vocal chords, and torso in certain ways. A child who is jumping up and down, waving his arms, screaming and jerking his body is having a tantrum. Another, child who has both feet on the floor, his arms at this side, and is speaking quietly (or being quiet), is calm. We can see with our eyes and hear with our ears the difference between these two children.

Using the concept of physical movement, we can look at big, multi-component skills like “following directions” or “playing with toys” or “adapting to a schedule change”, and think of the physical movements necessary to achieve those goals.

Here is an activity to practice observing our children’s behaviors in terms of physical movements of the body. Please take five minutes to observe your child and take notes on the physical movements of his or her body. Write down what your child is doing with his or her feet, legs, arms, hands, torso, head and vocal chords.

There is a Child Observation Chart on the Chaos to Calm blog. Click on the button here to download it:​


    Download Observation Sheet   


The instructions for how to observe are on the second page of the form. Please fill it out. I will be interested to hear your comments on this observation activity.


[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_size=”17″ width=”940″]Activity #2 – Review the ABCs of Behavioral Science – the Consequence

The second step in applying TAGteach to autism, is to keep in mind the ABCs of behavioral science: Antecedent, Behavior and Consequence. Behavioral science tells us that the consequence of an action determines the course of that action in the future. If a physical movement results in a pleasant consequence for a child, the child will be more likely to perform that action again.

TAGteach is all about the consequence! TAGteach is unsurpassed in delivering precise, timely consequences — positive reinforcement.

If a child continues to perform a physical movement (whether we like that movement or not), that child is experiencing reinforcing consequences! We may not understand what the consequence is or why it is reinforcing to the child, but if the child keeps doing a physical movement he or she is getting something out of it. For this reason, the best way to reduce a difficult behavior is to reinforce and increase, another behavior. Giving the child lots of reinforcement for the even the smallest productive physical movements will create a foundation for new, functional skills.

To brush up on the ABCs, please take a look at the free download on Behavior Basics: A Primer for Autism Parents. You received a copy when you registered for this mailing list. Here is the link again in case you didn’t get a chance to download this.


Example: Suggestions for Using TAGteach to Improve Attention Span

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_size=”17″ width=”940″]Since a number of parents responded that they would like to help their children increase their attention span, here is an example of using TAGteach to increase “attending” behaviors.

“Attention” is defined as the ability to focus on something, and to maintain that focus in the presence of distracting stimuli. For the purposes of our kids with autism, we will start by observing very short episodes of attention, reinforcing them, and building them up into the ability to remain focused on more complex activities for longer periods of time.

This is your first chance to use TAGteach with your child!

If you are unfamiliar with TAGteach or you have not read my book or you just want to brush up on TAGteach best practices, I recommend that you enroll in the free online mini-course: TAGteach Fundamentals.



There is lots of information also available at my blog, particularly in the Resources section.

Here are some basic TAGteach definitions to help you get started:

Tag: make a short sharp click sound at the exact moment you see the behavior you wish to increase (a clicker works best for this – available at most pet stores – or just use a retractable ball point pen)
Tag point: the exact specific behavior that you are looking for
Reinforce: give the child something valued immediately after the tag sound (food treats work best when first getting started, but touch, praise, stickers etc can also work)

Here are suggestions for some beginning tag points to build “attending” behaviors. As always, these should be adapted to the individual child and each individual situation.

One of the first indicators of paying attention is noticing events that happen around us. Most of us raise our heads when the phone rings, the doorbell rings, or we hear or see something in our enviroment. This is an easy place to start. Observe your child, and tag and reinforce appropriate responses to stimuli in the environment. Here are some examples of paying attention to things in the home: the child turns head/responds to sound (doorbell, phone, microwave beeps, door opening, people talking, object falling, dog barking, sirens, etc. Choose one aspect of paying attention to work on at a time, so as not to confuse the child. For example, you might tag for “turning head towards object” until the frequency of head turning becomes more frequent and you notice that the child is actually starting to look at the object in question. The next step is to start tagging for “looks at object.” If the child starts reaching for the object, then you could start tagging the “reach,” and eventually move to tagging “touches object,” and then “grasps object”. Choose your first tag point as something that child is already somewhat aware of or is already doing. This will ensure success.

Just jump right in and try this. You don’t have to explain anything to the child. Pick something he is already doing, that you want him to do more of, tag and reinforce (press the clicker at the exact moment you see the behavior and give him a small food treat). He will soon catch on to the game and will start trying to get you to tag.

Here are some sample tag points to get you started:


    • Eyes on toy
    • Eyes on book
    • Eyes on person
    • Eyes on tree
    • Eyes on swing

Touches/handles objects

    • Hands on toy
    • Hands on book
    • Hands on clothing
    • Hands on food items (fork, knife, plate, cup, etc.

Reinforcing your child for these activities will teach him/her that noticing and responding to the sounds, sights, objects and people in the environment is a great way to get attention, praise and reinforcement from family members. Your child will pay attention to and explore more objects, sounds or places in the environment because he experiences success, reinforcement and emotional support.


Final Comment: Happiness

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_size=”17″ width=”940″]Parents expressed concern about their children’s happiness, and respecting the children’s emotions and needs. TAGteach, with its emphasis on breaking tasks down into small parts that the child can accomplish, and providing timely reinforcement for each task, is both successful in teaching and respectful of the child. TAGteach delivers success, praise and reinforcement to children. Kids like it because they accomplished something! They learned something, they were supported and encouraged during the process, and they could go at their own pace. When our kids feel successful and feel that they are learning, they are happy! The world is working for them instead of against them.

The simple, step-by-step TAGteach approach made a big difference in our lives. My son has severe autism and is profoundly nonverbal. In the early years, he was wild, chaotic and aggressive. Now he is perfectly willing to help out with chores and follow directions. We can talk to him and he understands. Most importantly, he is cheerful, lively and enjoys life. He is able to communicate his wants and needs and to show us his personality. Did it happen overnight? No, it took time and effort. This shows what behavioral science, and a great application like TAGteach, can do for a child — even a child with a tough diagnosis like autism.

Here is a short video of Douglas doing two things that he loves: listening to music and going for a walk:





[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_size=”17″ width=”940″]If you have any questions or any comments about what I have discussed here or any requests for me to cover other topics related to TAGteach and teaching functional behaviors please join the discussion below.

I’d love to hear about how you made out with the activities I suggested here.


[membership_breadcrumbs style=”6″ omgpageId=”614″]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.