I love clicker training! Over the years I’ve used clickers to train chickens, dogs, fish (using a visual “click”), and even students in the classroom. My first experience using a clicker for shaping was back in 1999 when I attended a two day workshop by Bob Bailey and his wife, Marian Breland Bailey. I learned to teach a chicken how to discriminate between and peck colored discs. In the 1940s, Marian and Keller Breland, both former students of B.F. Skinner, trained animals for animal acts.
A clicker is a device with a metal strip that when pushed, makes a “clicking” sound. The most common form is the box clicker you would find at the checkout counter at PetSmart. See the picture above to see some examples. These days, animal trainers and teachers can buy all kinds of clickers (and accessories) as well as receive clicker newsletters, attend seminars, books and other training materials. Do a search for “clicker training” on Amazon.com and you can see for yourself.
How does the concept of shaping work? Shaping is a procedure based on the principles of operant conditioning. To use behavior analytic terms, we say in clicker training that an unconditioned stimulus, such as food, is paired with a neutral stimulus (the click), and the neutral stimulus eventually becomes a conditioned stimulus. In plain English, you pair the click sound with giving the learner a treat so that eventually the “click” becomes something that is desired because it is always associated with getting a treat. But that is only the beginning.
Shaping is a process of systematically reinforcing successive approximations to an end behavior. Actions displayed that are not approximations to the end behavior are ignored and not reinforced. Through these experiences, the learner acquires the new behavior. So if I was trying to teach someone to sit in a chair, I would click and reinforce behaviors that brought her closer to the chair until eventually she sits in the chair. (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007)
If you’ve never done clicker training, you can easily get warmed up by playing the Shaping Game (also known as the Training Game) with a group of friends or students. You’re going to use a person as your “animal”. You’ve probably played this game before in another form. Remember the Hot and Cold game? The shaping game is similar to the old kid’s game where something would be hidden for a child to find. As the child got closer to the hidden object, someone would say, “You’re getting warmer.” Functionally, “you’re getting warmer” is like the click that tells a learner he is doing the right thing. We actually did this with some special Christmas gifts for our kids. I’ve used a variation of this game, as well as clicker games, in the classroom to teach my EBD students awareness of the response consequence chain. See below how you can play the Shaping Game in the classroom.
The Shaping Game
1. Have one person agree to be the learner (the person whose behavior will be shaped), and have the learner leave the room.
2. Whoever is left in the room will choose a behavior that will be shaped. For example, you may want the person to come in, walk to a particular table in the room, and pick up a glass. Know what you want the learner to do BEFORE you start! Choosing a behavior is important in playing the shaping game. You want to be a humane trainer, and people may be reluctant to do something considered socially inappropriate (like hugging someone they don’t know or who doesn’t like to be touched). Participants are also unlikely to try a behavior they simply can’t do and will result in embarrassment if they try.
3. Now that the desired behavior has been determined, have the learner reenter in the room. She does not know what the behavior is.
4. As the learner starts moving in the right direction, click the clicker. If she goes the wrong way, say and do nothing. Click each time she is approaching or moving toward what you want her to do.
Don’t have a group of students to work with? That’s okay, ask friends or family members to help you practice shaping. This is also a great icebreaker and a fun staff development activity for teachers in behavior support classrooms for EBD and Autism.
Check out Karen Pryor’s site for tips and variations on the shaping game:
See TAGTeach use shaping strategies to teach humans and animals alike.
Cooper, John, & Heron, T., Heward, W. (2007) Applied Behavior Analysis Second Edition. Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ.