The Shaping Game: Clicker Training in the Classroom?

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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.

Resources:
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.

References:
Cooper, John, & Heron, T., Heward, W. (2007) Applied Behavior Analysis Second Edition. Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ.

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Response Journaling – Give Them Something to Write About

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This is shortly after starting a response journal with one of my high-risk cases. This student went from high frequency aggression and drawing violent pictures during morning transition time to near zero levels in about a week. Response journaling was one of the activities we used to engage him during that time. (getting a little compliment from a student is always nice)

Response journals can be a great way to get your students to write. Many of the students I support display avoidance behaviors when writing tasks are assigned to them. One recommendation I often make to my teachers is to use response journaling.

Using a journal you engage in continuous dialogue with the student using writing. You can engage them in topics of their liking while still prompting them to expand of topics of your choosing at the same time. Over time you can shape their writing skills with corrective feedback. Using the same language they choose in their writing, for example, I would respond to this using some of the same words (spelled correctly and highlighted in a different color so the word stands out visually.

As I stated earlier, the conversation continues as long as you maintain it. When a student returns the journal you simply respond. All of the students I work with look forward to my responses and then responding in turn. They often let me know if I’ve gotten behind. Even some of my most ardent writing protesters willingly chose to write in their response journals. Here are some sample response journal prompts:

Write a brief story and ask the student to finish it.

Ask about what they like to do most.

What social skill do you like the most? What social skill do you hate the most?

What is your favorite emotion? Which is your least favorite emotion?

What do think about the last homework assignment I gave you?

Write a compliment about the student.

This is also a good activity for parents to do this at home. Think of it as a fun way to talk and be creative with your kids. Whether at home or in school, response journals are a great way to keep in touch with the social emotional needs of your kids while teaching and modeling an important lifelong skill.

Darwin Learns the Limbo!

The third installment in my Fish Academy series. My precision in delivering reinforcement continues to improve. Factors such as location and time of delivery are very important to consider in training sessions. If I deliver a reinforcer too far away from where the trick is performed, or if I deliver too long after the trick is performed, the fish can associate an incorrect behavior or an incorrect form of the behavior with reinforcement. When reinforcement is delivered with precision, the benefit is that learning becomes more efficient for the learner. See how it helped Darwin learn this trick extremely quick!

Darwin the Goldfish: Extended Tunnel

Training is going extremely well. Darwin is making quick progress (and he has the belly to show it). We’ve gone from swimming through a hoop to swimming through a short tunnel to swimming through a longer tunnel. It’s neat to see how both fish have their own personalities and temperaments. They are debunking the myth that a goldfish only has a 3 second memory!

Some notes: Both fish perform tricks swimming away from the light. Therefore I will need to work harder on shaping the behavior of swimming in both directions, or modify (soften) the light source. Also, in order to maintain the EO (desire to eat) I need to be mindful of maintaining the feeding/training schedule and avoiding too many trials in sessions. Otherwise the fish get full (satiate) and food is no longer valued as a reinforcer.

(Fish) School is in Session!

Darwin, my fantail goldfish is taking to training like a duck, errr fish in water. Today he performed his first trick, swimming through a hoop (which you can see in the video below). In fact, he loved it so much, when it was Sisco’s turn, he kept sneaking underneath the curtain to get more chances! We couldn’t stop laughing because he wouldn’t stop. Sisco on the other hand, is not taking to training as well. I’m using softened and cut pellets. He definitely seems to be more of a flake food type of guy. I’m finding that yes, even fish have reinforcer preferences! I’ll try to post more videos as training continues. Enjoy!