Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and       Related Disorders [Mary Lynch Barbera]

Monday, June 11, 2012

Chicken Camp: What it is, Why I Went, and What I Learned!

I recently went to Seattle and, while I was in beautiful State of Washington, I went to Chicken Camp.  Since posting a few pictures on Facebook of me holding a chicken, I’ve been getting tons of questions.  This blog will cover the answers to three main questions:  What it is, Why I Went, and What I Learned!

1) What is Chicken Camp?  As many of you know, I’m a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and work with children with autism using the science of behavior, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).  ABA is based on operant conditioning which is a theory formulated by BF Skinner in the 1930s.
BF Skinner and his colleagues studied animals (mostly rats and pigeons) and discovered the basic principles of behavior; most importantly that positive reinforcement could increase behavior in all animals, including humans. 

Beginning in the 1960s, Karen Pryor began using operant conditioning principles with animals and developed a technology called Clicker Training.  With Clicker Training, a clicker, whistle, or bell is used to audibly mark a behavior as correct and is immediately followed with a reinforcer.   

In the past decade, TAGteach (clicker training for humans) developed out of Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training, which is an excellent technology for teaching children a variety of skills as well as adults. 

Terry Ryan, an Internationally recognized expert in the field of animal training runs chicken camps.  Chicken camps are 2 or 4 days long and are held either at Legacy Canine Training Center in Sequim, Washington or on site around the world when Terry is brought in to speak to small groups of about 20.  Terry doesn’t travel with chickens though so for the training opportunities outside of Washington, the hosts need to work with local 4-H Clubs or farmers to supply the chickens. 

Terry has worked and continues to work closely with Karen Pryor and is also TAGteach certified.   The first two-day chicken camp is basic in nature with lecture, videos, and hands-on activities with chickens; incidentally the chickens are raised on the premises.  Many people attend chicken camp to get better at training their dogs but, increasingly, managers and human trainers have been attending to sharpen their people-training skills.  Our 2-day chicken camp was an advanced training since all twenty of us (who worked in pairs) were BCBAs (or had advanced ABA knowledge) so our camp was tailored to meet our unique needs.

2) Why did I go to chicken camp?  Like chickens, many of the children I work with including my 15- year-old son with autism, do not understand complex human language.  Since becoming certified as a Level 1 TAGteacher in 2010 and after reading “Reaching the Animal Mind” by Karen Pryor around the same time, I have become convinced that the key for me to become a better Behavior Analyst was to learn more about animal training. 

I don’t own any pets, so in an effort to get some animal training under my belt, I was directed to look into Terry Ryan's chicken camp.  I found out that Terry's organization was located in Washington State just 2 hours from Seattle.  Because so many Behavior Analysts were scheduled to go the ABAI conference in Seattle in May 2012, I inquired with Terry about setting up an advanced ABAI 2-day chicken camp immediately prior to ABAI.  

While Terry has previously conducted private chicken camps for groups such as the FBI and for managers from a Fishing Boat Company, she had never hosted camp for a room full of eager Behavior Analysts.  I didn’t know if the idea would be appealing to other BCBAs but was happy to sell out the workshop 2 months prior to the end of May.

3) What did I learn? My chicken camp experience was excellent!  While I was initially nervous to handle the chickens, I soon learned the skills needed and felt successful in every way.  Here are a few specific things I learned or were reinforced during the 2-day camp: 
  1. When teaching people, it is important not to jam too much information in every minute.  During chicken camp we took a 10-minute break every 50 minutes.  When we took our first 2 breaks (50 minutes after we got started and then another one hour later), I was thinking that these constant breaks were excessive.  By the afternoon of the first day though I became to appreciate the frequent breaks, which led to excellent networking, a relaxed training environment, and happy “campers.” 
  2. Reinforce early, not late.  This is especially important for new/difficult behaviors.  When we were first teaching our chicken to peck the red chip, for example, we were instructed by Terry to click as soon as her beak was going toward/almost touching the chip.  I applied this in the past week when I was working with a 3-year-old client.  We were having a difficult time “pairing up” the intensive teaching table so as soon as he started to approach/walk toward the table, I directed the therapist to turn on the iPad video.  In the past, I might have waited until he was sitting to reinforce and we wouldn’t have been as successful.
  3. Don’t assume you know what the extraneous variables are to which the chicken or child may be responding.  Since returning from chicken camp, I feel that I am much more aware how difficult it is to evoke target behaviors and reinforce immediately since we work in uncontrolled settings with multiple variables operating at all times.
  4. If you suddenly are not getting target behavior, the animal may need to rest, may be full, or may need to lay an egg.  As a nurse and a behavior analyst, I am keenly aware that most of the kids we work with sometimes have physiological issues in addition to autism, which can be a factor. 
  5. Short sessions are best to keep everyone on his or her toes.  In addition to the humans taking breaks every hour, we also were careful not to overwork the chickens.  With the chickens, we targeted a behavior for 30-60 seconds at a time, then picked up our chicken and re-grouped.  We only repeated the short intervals for about 10 minutes then the chickens were put back in their cages for a drink and a rest.  The chickens were not the only ones who needed a break every 30-60 seconds, since the instructors needed time to analyze what went right/wrong and to plan for the next interval.
  6. Don’t over-prompt by physically trying to move the chicken or by “luring” or “baiting” the chicken to do the task.  For instance, to get the chicken to go around a cone, don’t put the food out so the chicken just moves for the food.  Instead, reinforce head or leg movements in the right direction with a click (indicating the behavior was correct) followed by a food treat.  In general, children with autism are physically prompted and “lured” too often.  Since camp, I’m more aware that reinforcing successful approximations is a much better way to go!
  7. If the chicken is making repeated errors, the skill is too high and/or the reinforcement is too low.   If the chicken/child is stuck on a program, he or she doesn’t have the prerequisite skills or you haven’t figured out how to teach the skills he/she needs.  If you are not getting the target behavior, increase the reinforcement, reduce the field size, give a better prompt, or somehow look to make the task easier.  Once the chicken/child is successful, you can ramp up from there.  The idea that the chicken/student/child/trainee is never wrong was heavily reinforced during our 2-day chicken camp.   If they don’t “get it” you are not “teaching/training” them correctly

Here is a 3-minute video with some highlights of our chicken camp experience: 
If you are interested learning more about behavior analysis and directly improving your own shaping skills with animals, please email Terry at or check out her web site: for more info about chicken camp.  To learn more about using ABA to teach children with autism, read my book “The Verbal Behavior Approach:  How to Teach Children with Autism and Related Disorders” or visit my web site  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I Wrote a Blog on that Autism/ABA/Verbal Behavior Topic!

It’s been over a year since I wrote my last blog but I’m officially re-starting writing my blogs today! During my blog-writing hiatus, I finished up a PhD in Leadership with a dissertation entitled “The Effects of Fluency-Based Autism Training on Emerging Educational Leaders.” My dissertation is now available through the UMI system and also through the resource page of my website:

During my blog break, I presented in a lot in great places including Hawaii, Florida, Maine, Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia, and Brisbane, Australia. I am also excited about a few upcoming speaking engagements including Western PA in April, Seattle at a Friday all-day ABAI workshop in May, and in Paris, France in July.  Check out my web site for details on these workshops.

Every time I speak or consult with a school or family, I find myself constantly saying “I wrote a blog on that!” in response to a question from someone in the audience or when I’m reviewing programming recommendations.

Now that I’m resuming my blogs, I wanted to make sure you all are aware of the blogs I’ve written since 2009 as they all still apply. In addition to helping individual parents and teachers, I am aware that my blogs have also been used to stimulate discussion during staff training sessions and during undergraduate and graduate courses in ABA and special education.

To read any of these blogs, go to the “Blog Archive” button at the top of my web site.  Here is the direct link to access the blogs below!

2010 Archive

2009 Archive

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Teaching Children and Adults with Autism to Answer “Yes” and “No”

The ability to respond “yes” or “no” to questions is a very complex skill involving different operants. It has been my experience that a child needs to master yes/no mands (Answering yes or no to “Do you want a cookie?”) before you should attempt to introduce yes/no tacts (Is this a bed?) or yes/no intraverbals (Does a cow say quack?). Assessing yes/no within each operant is a good place to start.

I've done a lot of work with teaching yes/no mands to my son with autism as well as several other children. Teaching a child to say “no” or to respond with a head shake NO can be taught early to replace problem behavior such as crying or pushing items away but teaching a child to say “yes” should not be done until important prerequisites are in place.

I recommend not teaching "yes" mands until the child is spontaneously manding for dozens of items in and out of sight and manding for several actions too. I've see many children who have a defective yes mand because someone taught them to answer “yes” too early. The main issue is that they say "yes" when someone offers them something (Do you want candy or Do you want a tickle) but they cannot ask for those items (candy) or actions (tickle) spontaneously by using the item or action name. This often leads to problem behavior.

Once children can spontaneously mand for many items and actions out of sight, this is how I start teaching yes/no mands. First, I gather three things the child loves (and will almost always mand for or take) and three things they don't like and would usually push away (raisins or another non-preferred food item and certain videos). I then use these items during short (10-15 minute) yes/no mand sessions. I ask “Do you want a ___?” while holding one item and prompting yes/no and doing a transfer trial. For some children I have used textual prompts which are the written words "yes" and "no.” Textual and/or verbal prompts need to be faded carefully though by using transfer trials.

Here is an example of a prompted trial followed by a transfer trial:

Hold up a raisin (non-preferred) and say “Do you want a raisin?” prompt NO verbally, with a head shake and/or the word NO written on an index card. The child needs to say or head shake “no.” Then immediately complete the transfer trial by taking away the textual prompt (if used) and asking the question again “Do you want a raisin?” The child says “no” without any prompt and the item is removed.

I create many contrived situations, alternate between things they want and don’t want, and take trial by trial data during these short yes/no mand sessions. Once this skill is solid with the 6 items (3 items they like and 3 items they don’t like) in sight, I then specifically work on generalizing to other items and moving mastered items out of sight.

You also have to be careful about not accepting sloppy responses such as "pretzel, yes." The answer has to be yes or no when teaching yes/no mands. Be careful also not to overuse yes/no questions outside of these yes/no mand sessions when the child is just learning this skill. Otherwise, the child may lose the ability to spontaneously mand for items.

Yes/No tacting (answering “Is this a pen?” or “Is this blue?” or “Am I standing?”) is a much harder skill and should not be introduced until the child can indicate yes/no for mand items out of sight (Do you want ketchup on your hot dog? Or Do you want ice cream?). He or she also needs a solid tacting repertoire for items, features, actions, etc.

For children with the ability to respond yes or no with manding but who have yes/no tacting difficulty, I have had success with teaching yes/no tacts within the mand frame. When my son was learning to tact yes and no and would mand for cheerios spontaneously, I pulled out cheerios and asked "Are these cheerios?" He said "yes" and then got the cheerios. Once he had this skill solid I pulled out a different box of cereal when he manded for cheerios and said "Are these cheerios"....then he said “no” and I pulled out another box and asked "Are these cheerios?" and he said “no” then I finally pulled out the cheerios. Eventually (and in random order) the answer was “yes” and he received the cheerios. I then moved on to presenting yes/no tacts with flash cards without a mand component. When I started with flashcards I used “Is this an apple?” as the only question and had a mixed pile of apples and other things that were very different from apples. Once yes/no tacts are mastered (Is this a bed?, Is this a car? as you present random pictures), you’ll need to also teach children to respond to yes or no to tacts involving feature, function and class (“Does this have wheels?” or “Can you eat this?”).

For yes/no intraverbals, it is important that the instructor know the answer to the question they are asking. For example, asking “Have you ever been on a boat?” is not a good question if you don’t know whether the student has ever been on a boat. There are many children and adults with autism who answer “yes” often (and incorrectly) because they don’t understand complex language. For this reason, I usually don’t focus on teaching intraverbal yes/no responses. I directly teach yes/no mands and tacts and let the intraverbal yes/no responses develop more gradually (and only teach basic, functional and important yes/no intraverbals).

For more information about improving verbal behavior in children and adults with autism, go to my web site:

Friday, September 3, 2010

Programming for Happiness in Clients with Autism

I attended a Keynote presentation last fall at the Autism New Jersey conference where Dennis Reid, PhD, BCBA spoke about the importance of programming for (and measuring) happiness in clients with autism.

During one of the activities, the participants spent 3 minutes writing down every choice we made that morning prior to arriving at the conference. We had the choice of whether to hit the snooze alarm, what to wear, what we wanted to eat and drink, whether we wanted to bring a jacket along, where to park, where to sit, etc.

Basically he made the point that we have many choices throughout our days and that choices lead to happiness. He also pointed out that our children and clients with autism have few choices.

As Dr. Reid suggested, I have now begun to measure and count behaviors such as smiles and laughs and I give more choices than ever before.  I, of course, continue to focus heavily on pairing and manding as well as reducing problem behaviors in my effort to program for happiness.  Since seeing this presentation, I feel strongly that we need to provide our clients with many choices throughout the day and should consider happiness as an important (and attainable) goal.

For more information about pairing, manding and measuring behaviors, go to and read my book:  The Verbal Behavior Approach:  How to Teach Children with Autism and Related Disorders.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Mia’s Journey with the Verbal Behavior Approach

I am happy to announce a series of you tube clips that I posted a few days ago that may make getting started with the Verbal Behavior Approach a little easier for both parents and professionals! There are now three short (6-8 minute) You Tube clips on the assessment and beginning ABA/VB intervention for Mia, a 2 year old lgirl recently diagnosed with PDD-NOS.

I have permission from Mia's parents to post these clips on you tube so that others may benefit from my work with Mia. Hopefully these clips will be the first three in a series of videos that I will post as Mia makes progress!

Clip #1 shows Mia's problem behaviors and poor instructional control at baseline. Clip #2 demonstrates for parents and professionals what to do to help Mia and Clip #3 shows me reviewing Mia's VB-MAPP and Barriers with her mother. All three clips were filmed during a 3-hour initial assessment in June 2010.
Clip #4 was filmed in July 2010 and shows progress in 3 weeks.
Here are the links:

Clip #1/Mia's Baseline Problem Behavior:

Clip #2/ABA/VB Interventions to Start Immediately:

Clip #3/VB-MAPP:

Clip #4/Progress after 3 weeks:

I’m looking forward to watching Mia progress on her journey with ABA/VB! For more information about the Verbal Behavior Approach, go to:

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

TAGteach and Autism

Last spring a friend of mine asked me if I had ever heard of TAGteach. When I said that I hadn’t, she asked me if I knew anything about clicker training for animals. I was familiar with the concept of using audible markers with animals, thinking mostly of the whistle blowing at Sea World to signal to the dolphin that the move was correct and that the dolphin would be receiving reinforcement soon. My friend explained that TAGteach used the same principles of positive reinforcement, conditioned reinforcement and shaping as clicker training. She also told me that TAGteach was being used at her son’s school for children with autism. I was intrigued by the concept and assumed that the “A” in TAG stood for autism but I was wrong.

The acronym TAG means Teaching with Acoustical Guidance and was used first with gymnasts, not children with special needs. It all started when Theresa McKeon purchased a horse in 2005 and had difficulty training it. She went on-line and learned about Karen Pryor’s clicker training technology. Theresa used clicker training until the horse was calmer and then sold it. In the process of using clicker training with her horse, Theresa, a national gymnastics coach, decided that clickers might be very helpful to her young students. When a gymnast had difficulty with a handstand, for instance, the skills of the handstand could be broken down and each skill could be taught separately. When one of the students got her feet to the 12 o’clock position or put her arms over her ears, the coach could click to signal that the position was correct.

In her book, Reaching the Animal Mind, Karen Pryor describes her experience in visiting Theresa’s gym for the first time. After the parents of the gymnasts complained that they didn’t like the use of animal clicker training with their children, Theresa and  Joan Orr (the co-founder of TAGteach) made the decision to change the name to TAGteach instead of clicker training when the technology is applied to humans. This simple semantic change worked to ease the concerns of the gymnasts’ parents and TAGteach began to spread to dancing, golf, other sports and eventually to special education. To view videos of TAGteach from Karen Pryor’s Reaching the Animal Mind web site, go to:

Dr. Julie Vargas (BF Skinner’s daughter) also wrote an excellent book, Behavior Analysis for Effective Teaching, which highlights some applications of TAGteach to children with autism. In addition TAGteach has a great web site (, a Yahoo group, Facebook page, and an excellent e-learning program I completed last summer. I highly recommend the e-learning program and/or a live 2-day TAGteach seminar to anyone and everyone!

In preparation for a symposium on TAGteach at the ABA International Conference in Texas, I used TAGteach to teach my son, Lucas, how to tie shoes.  It took about 1 ½ hours in total over a few weeks and I will be presenting data and this video in Texas. Here is a you tube video as a sneak peak:

To learn more about TAGteach, check out the books listed above and/or For those of you who will be in Texas for the ABAI conference over Memorial Day Weekend, you can learn more about this technology by attending the TAGteach symposium #379 held on 5/31/10 at 10:30am where I will be presenting on TAGteach and Autism.

Visit my web site: for more information about me or my book and/or join The Verbal Behavior Approach Facebook fan page:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Teaching Children with Autism to Indicate When They Are in Pain

I recently received a question related to my last blog on the importance of looking at medical issues before treating problem behavior. The question a few weeks ago was “How do you teach children with autism and severe language impairments to indicate they are in pain and to tell you where the pain is coming from?” I remember asking a very similar question to Lori Frost (co-creator of the Picture Exchange Communication System – PECS) years ago when I attended an introductory PECS workshop. Lori’s response was to make sure you label and preferably have your child label (with speech, PECS, or sign) when he has something visible that is obviously hurting him. In other words, when your child has a skinned knee or when he gets a bee sting, make a big deal out of labeling the pain for him. This is an important step with the goal that eventually your child will be able tell you he has internal pain which you can’t see such as a head ache or belly pain.

For a non-vocal or minimally vocal child, you might try -- Boo Boo (with a Band-Aid picture card or the words) on my ______________ or my _________ hurts and have your child fill in the body part by speaking or choosing a picture of a body part from an array. Even if your child is speaking, he or she might need added visual supports to learn this concept. To teach the labeling of pain, I would also recommend you try to put a real Band-Aid on a large picture of a boy (on various body parts) and have your child fill in the blank --boo boo on the boy's ___________ or the boy’s ________ hurts. You could also use the same idea to teach this concept with a simple talking device and/ or with sign language. I have found that receptive body parts and tacting body parts are usually prerequisite skills for labeling pain so I would also recommend working on these programs when your child is not in pain.

I believe the ability to label pain is an important skill which can and should be taught. For more information including details about my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and Related Disorders), check out my web site: