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Perhaps you’ve heard of clicker training, a positive reinforcement-based training method that uses a neutral sound – a click – to mark the desired behaviour. It’s used to train every kind of animal imaginable, from dolphins to chickens. Proponents of clicker training say that absolutely any creature with a central nervous system can be taught using the principles of clicker training – even humans.

What’s interesting is that acoustic signals (for those who think that clicker training is too closely associated with dog training) can be used to teach everything from gymnastics to communication and business management. It can even be used to help children with autism.


The system for teaching humans is called TAGteach (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) and it was developed by Karen Pryor (a doyenne in clicker training), Theresa McKeon, and Joan Orr. It was initially driven by McKeon, who wanted a more effective way to train her gymnastics students. Clicker training was it.

The principle remains the same: a neutral sound (clicker) tags the successful action at the point it occurs, and the successful action is rewarded. The tag is a promise of a reward, and the reward can be anything, from food (even people will work for treats) to gold stars or 15 minutes’ worth of Wii. It all depends on what the student finds rewarding. According to TAGteach International, younger learners tend to be very motivated by the rewards but older students are often reinforced by the tag itself. They work for the tag point, the moment of success.

It’s important to define the tag point at the beginning of the training session, so students know exactly what it is that they’ve done correctly. For example, in gymnastics, the tag point might be the correct movement of the hips in a handspring, rather than the completed action. In this way, big actions can be broken down into tiny component parts, allowing students many little (easily achievable) successes. In essence, it takes the intimidation and frustration out of learning.

What’s more, because students are attuned to the tag, they focus more on what they are doing.

Special needs merit a special approach 

While tag points can be used effectively in every learning situation, they have proven particularly powerful when teaching children with autism. In fact, it’s so effective that Martha Gabler was compelled to write a book about it after she used the techniques with her autistic child. Gabler’s son is non-verbal and used to be out of control, which put enormous strain on her family. Tagging is a non-verbal education system, so she had nothing to lose by attending a TAGteach seminar.

It changed her life. In Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism, Gabler paints a clear picture of exactly how tagging can transform an autistic child, causing them to blossom in their unique way, while relieving parents’ frustration. Tagging provides an essential tool to help autistic children reach their potential, and it does so while building positive associations and relationships.

Katie Scott-Dyer is another firm believer in TAGteach’s effectiveness for people with autism, and she should know as she says she is on both the high and low functioning ends of the autism spectrum. Like Gabler, Scott-Dyer attended a TAGteach seminar which changed her life and which will change the lives of her students, as she herself is a teacher. One of the best things about tagging, according to Scott-Dyer, is its unambiguous simplicity. There is a goal, there is a tag when it’s been reached, and there is a reward.

Scott-Dyer believes that if tagging had been implemented in her education she would have been less anxious, less frustrated, more successful, and generally happier as a child. Strong words from someone who knows.

Tagging at a school near you?

While the system is scientifically-sound and undoubtedly successful, it still has some stigma to overcome. People still associate it with animal training, and they don’t like to think of themselves (or their children) as being treated like animals in any way.

However, perceptions are slowly changing, and more people are starting to see the benefits that tagging has in education, particularly when it comes to highly technical and skills-based courses, like TAFE and vocational training programmes.

In the meantime, you can practice tagging on your kids at home. Click and reward them every time they pick up with socks or take out the trash, and you could have a well-behaved teenager in no time.

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License: Creative Commons

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Jemima Winslow trains dogs using clicker training principles, and many is the time she’s wanted to turn the clickers on the owners themselves. Given the current information, maybe she will.