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

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:


  1. Hi, Mary,
    I had a great talk with Theresa McKeon at the beginning of the year about TagTeach and children with autism. I think it is great to have a "mixed bag" of approaches in working an ABA classroom with children, but I just can't coordinate using a clicker with the 6 year old I'm working with now. Our Therapy dog is written into her IEP, and I just don't have enough hand s to work the clicker ! With the constant thought of this child bolting, even from a sitting position, I don't think I'll be using the clicker !

  2. I'm going to sound like I'm shilling for a product, but I like the
    i click
    because it's easier to use than the traditional "box" clicker, and you can turn it over if you have a relatively hard floor and tag with your foot (helpful, when I've had to have 2 hands free). A loud "tap" on a surface with a coin or similar has worked well for me (I learned that trick from Richard McManus at the Fluency Factory), as long as it is audible and consistent. FWIW, I didn't anticipate it, but my ASD child likes the sound of the "click" and it seems to have reinforcing properties.
    The use of the tagger/clicker as a conditioned reinforcer in TAGteach is great because it's fast and TAGteach emphasizes systematic positive reinforcement (accentuate the positive) not punishment as a behavioral change agent, and that gets a thumbs up in my book, besides your and other reports that it may be more efficient than relying on trial and error with corrective feedback.

    The process as I understand it is behavioral shaping by successive approximations, which B.F. Skinner demonstrated in his experimental work. It's nice to see it expanded to good use with students.

    Thanks for the shout out on your symposium Mary, I'll try and swing by.

  3. TAGteach works. For people on the autistic sprctrum with cognitive issues, it forces me to break teaching a skill into the most fundamental steps. I introduced a client to TAGteach today in a speech and language therapy session. He LOVES the sound of the loud clicker! I introduced the clicker to him by letting him click it first. Once he was comfortable with the clicker, I introduced use of the clicker with a reward to reinforce vocalization. He caught on fast.

    Because I use lots of music (songs and the Autoharp), both my hands are usually occupied. When working with a client who requires full attention, it's helpful to have a parent or aide or even another learner work the clicker for TAG points.

    For my daughter, on the severe end of the spectrum, I recently began tagging her during voice lessons for staying focused and following the teacher's coaching. Usually she spends half the lesson with self directed, rote language about preferred topics, usually Disney movies. The voice teacher had tried to use TAGteach herself, but she has both hands busy playing the piano with her attention focused on Kerry. Having me sit in to TAG and to redirect her attention worked miracles!

    The presentation you posted yesterday, Mary, is wonderful. I sent the link on to friends.

    Cathy in MA

  4. @Jeannie;

    We hear all the time that people cannot master handling the clicker, and so they drop the method. I am a dog trainer, and I work with a wide variety of students and dogs and they have varying degrees of talent when it comes to using the clicker and I can tell you a number of things about this problem.

    The first thing I can tell you is that clicker training and TAG teaching is NOT the box, or the coin tapping the table, or the chirp of a whistle. I will use clicker training because this is what I am most familiar with-but the concepts apply to TAGteaching too.

    Clicker training is about marking the behaviour you want. With a deaf dog we might use a finger flash (close your fist and then point and make the fist again really quickly), and with a whale we might use a whistle because of the ability to carry the sound below the water, and with dogs we most often use the clicker. So what you need to do is to find a method of marking the behaviours that your student is doing that you like. So stop worrying about the clicker itself and find something that works for you-an accomodation if you will to your inability to use the clicker, with the child and the dog in hand.

    The next thing I can tell you about clicker training is that it is a mechanical skill; and once you have mastered the skill doing it while you are standing on your head is actually no big deal; been there, done that, so to speak. The problem is that you need to practice on someone OTHER THAN your therapeutic subject-I really think we need to take care not to learn our techniques on the dogs and humans who need our help the most. So if you are interested in learning TAGteach, learn it, and then apply it.

    The final thing I can tell you about people learning to clicker train. It is as much another way of thinking as it is a method. It is a way of learning to look at training problems and take them apart and to put behaviours back together, and use that acquired behaviour. And the people who master this are the people who are willing to learn to look at problems in a different way. If you are the kind of learner who wants to build your skills one by one, and not challenge your brain to reach and put together unconventional ideas that don't seem to work together, then you may find that learning clicker training is a bit tough. I encourage you though to explore this. It is a powerful tool in the tool box and can be really helpful.

  5. This is really nice info.Thanks for such a wonderful post.

  6. Thank you so much for publishing this article. I just found out about clicker training and tag teach this week from a dog breeder's website who sent us to clicker We have a son on the Autism Spectrum and were thinking about getting a dog for him next year when we move into our new house.

    He's currently doing some ABA, but we are still working on skills like getting dressed, tying shoes, verbal perseverations, etc. I think we could do a LOT with this method to help motivate him to learn these things that aren't intrinsically motivating for him to do.

    I jut bought a clicker and put two of Karen Pryor's books on hold at the library (on clicker training). I am interested in the TagTeach program, but at $300, even the online course is a bit expensive for me. I may try to "figure it out" on my own based on the dog training methods.

    Do you think that is reasonable, or am I missing something big? I'd love to take the course, but Autism is SO EXPENSIVE, that we just don't have a lot of wiggle room in the budget for extra's...

    Thanks for a great article!