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Clicker Training Teaches Impulse Control

It's a lesson in non-judgmental teaching 101.

Lynn Loar, a California-based social worker, asks a recent violence prevention workshop in Whitehorse what task the learner, who is waiting outside the meeting room door, will attempt through clicker training.

It's agreed the learner will be taught to sit in a specific chair.

Loar walks over close to the door. The learner enters and takes a few steps towards Loar, who clicks and hands her a chocolate to indicate a correct movement. Another few steps and no click. The learner backs up and tries a different direction. With another correct action, another click and a chocolate. Soon she has a pocketful of candy, and empties it to continue. When she reaches the chair, she attempts to move past it, receiving no click. Every step away results in silence. Finally, she sits down and the workshop audience claps for a successful completion of the task. Afterwards, the learner said the applause provided a feeling of achievement.

Loar said she watched the subject's breathing to determine her stress level.

The trainer doesn't want to lead the learner along; rather the learner must volunteer her own movements. Loar said she could see the subject thinking about her actions. When kids are the learners, 30 clicks in 60 seconds mean a large amount of candy and a feeling of accomplishment, she said. In an interview afterwards, Loar said she uses clicker training in her work with families in shelters. She shows up with a goat, a pig and a couple of dogs and proceeds to teach the people how to train them. Children and adults learn separately, then together, she said, which allows parents to see their children succeed and children to see the adults struggle. While these families teach dogs proper behaviour, they're also teaching themselves coping strategies without losing face, she said. They learn impulse control, which enables them to live in housing. People construct a sense of how the world works from their experiences, she said. In a violent, negative family, the world works by bullying and force. Clicker training helps to construct a different reality and sense of values. Clicker training was started by Karen Pryor, an animal behaviourist, who used it for dolphin and animal research. When Loar met with Pryor to discuss its applications, Pryor said she had been waiting for someone to use it with humans. Loar said the clicker shapes behaviour because it allows learning to be broken into small increments, making the task more understandable for the learner. The clicker is an independent, artificial sound without value or tone of voice so there's no judgment on the learner's actions, Loar said. Additionally, trainers are able to respond faster with the clicker than their voices. Clicker training provides results traditional therapy doesn't.

"I see tangible success I and they (clients) can describe and (we) know what to attribute it to," she said, adding that often in traditional therapy, the therapist and client may not agree on the results. One of Loar's 10-year-old clients was being disruptive in school so she arranged for a meeting with him and his teacher. Loar noticed that the teacher tended to provide negative comments to the boy. When she asked him what he was doing wrong, he broke his actions down into increments, describing what was happening. Loar negotiated an agreement between him and his teacher to reward him for positive behaviour. The teacher declined to give treats but the boy suggested she write helpful comments on post-it notes, which he could stick on his desk, allowing him to see a record of his good behaviour. Loar then turned her attention to the boy's responses to the teacher.

"I said to him, 'It's a two-way street. How are you going to reinforce her behaviour?'" Lore said. The boy agreed that would be fair, and said he could say thank you and communicate his thoughts to the teacher more. Since then, his behaviour has improved, Loar said.

An example of clicker training for families involves the task of asking the child to put socks into a clothes hamper. Loar said the first click would be given when the child picks up a sock. As the youngster moves towards the laundry hamper and finally places it in, more clicks and treats are given. For the second sock, she said she may click and treat when it's picked up, then again in the middle of the trip and give a "jackpot" of chocolates when it's in the hamper. She said after a while the parent can ask the child to do the task and afterwards the reward could be spending time together enjoying a cupcake and a glass of milk. Loar said often people complain that she hands out too much candy but she believes it's similar to how adults are rewarded. "Who goes to work and doesn't want a paycheque?" she asked.

Parents will say that a paycheque is different but the kids say what's a paycheque to you is the same as candy is to me, she said. Clicker training can affect how we think.

"The world changes when people stop harping on the negative and begin reinforcing positive behaviour," she said, adding that once people realize this, it's a view they don't back away from.

The Working Together to Prevent Abuse Workshop
was held at the Gold Rush Inn June 6-7.
This story ©1997-2002 The Whitehorse Star

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