Home » Library » Learn » Karen's Articles

Clicking with Kids

Filed in - Karen's Articles

In the last three years, as clicker training has become more and more widespread in the dog and horse worlds, many people are learning to do it with children, normal or with deficits. Some are parents; others are professionals, who are using their new shaping skills with students or clients.

Clicker training makes sense for individuals with mild to profound retardation; for stroke victims and others in need of physical and neurological training; and for many autistic children. Verbal and social reinforcers may not be operative, and the click bypasses that problem. It is also much easier to shape behavior with a marker signal and a reinforcer such as food than it is with words, which are often ignored, or not understood, and which completely lack the timeliness of information that's intrinsic to the click.

The clicker itself is not crucial; what is crucial is the use of some kind of abrupt, brief signal that stands out from the general environment; in the case of a deaf subject, a flashlight blink or a brief touch or tap may work well. (For several reasons, a spoken word is not nearly as effective.) Sometimes in a clinical setting or schoolroom one can use a pushtop pen that makes a soft click. Some teachers click a penny against the table to mark the behavior they want (and then reinforce with the penny.)

Clicker training teaches us a lot about good parenting in general. As one new clicker-training father put it, "I stopped jerking my dogs around. And then I realized what I was still doing to my kids." Whether you prefer a special praise word such as "Great!," or the clicker itself, using an informative marker signal and positive reinforcement works wonders with kids.

Operant conditioning with a marker signal has been in general use in the dolphin training community for nearly 40 years. However, using the same technology in families and with children is new; there are no published research papers yet to support it. For general information on applied behavior analysis for educational and clinical uses visit the home site of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies at www.behavior.org.

About the author
User picture

Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

Toilet learning

 Would this be valuable in toilet training? 

TAGing a new pencil grip script proposal

One of the biggest frustrations of parents is that proper penmanship isn't emphasised in school.  Seeing my teen nephew holding his pencil with a death grip made me wonder if TAG could help him establish a better pencil grip.

Here is my proposed script for TAGing a proper pencil grip.  Can anyone comment if it might work?

1) clicker, as used for home versions of gameshows, can be found at most petstores.
2) pencil and paper and table
3) child who is somewhat motivated to learn a new pencil grip and explore this new way of learning a physical skill.
4) Parent who is willing to run through the following trial, and give feedback as to how it went.

Tell child that you will be giving directions, and that you will click every time the child follows the directions correctly. Your directions have to be 5 words of less. If the child does anything other than correctly follow the directions (called TAGs) then remain calm but do not click.

Say: The first TAG is: 'Pick up the pencil with your thumb and first finger, like this (demonstrate)' Go ahead, try it.

Observe the child. If they pick up the pencil with their thumb and first finger, click. Then direct the child to put the pencil back down on the table. Repeat 3 or more times until the child seems comfortable and smooth.

Say: The next TAG is: 'Pick up the pencil about an inch below the point, like this (demonstrate)'

Observe the child. Click if they pick up the pencil in about the right spot. If they use their thumb and first finger, then you can go on to the next TAG after several clicks. If they pick up the pencil some other way, during the session, go back to first TAG, but without acting like they failed. It idea is to simulate an active learner who learns from the environment rather than a passive receptical for the teacher's instruction, so deviation from the path isn't a problem, it adds to the feeling of reinforcing the target.

If the child seems enthusiastic, continue, if not, drop the project for today (or forever)

The next TAG is: 'Pick up the pencil,swing it back and forth like a pendulum.'

Observe the child. If the pencil is picked up with the right fingers, at the right place, and swung back and forth - click. Continue a few more tries or go back to the parts that aren't correct and TAG them a few more times. When you feel like that child might be able to swing the pencil around without the pencil flying across the room, you are ready for the next step.

Say: The next TAG is 'Pick up the pencil and swing it all the way around until the pencil is laying over your hand, like this (demonstrate)'

Observe: Click everytime the child does this correctly.

Say: The next TAG is 'Pick up the pencil, swing it over, and add your pinky, ring and middle fingers for support, like this (demonstrate)'

Observe: Click if the child brings their fingers into a correct tripod pencil grip. Repeat until the child looks confident.

Say: The next TAG is 'Pick up the pencil, swing it into position, and write the letter 'A' '

Observe: Click if the child brings their fingers into a correct pencil grip and keeps them that way while they write a single letter. Don't worry about the legibility of the letter 'A.' Repeat until the child looks confident, replacing the pencil each time.

Say: The next TAG is 'Pick up the pencil, swing it into position, and write your name.'

Observe: Click if the child brings their fingers into a correct pencil grip and keeps them that way while they write their name.
Repeat. The child has learned a new way to hold the pencil.

Thanks for reading this far,
Love and More Love,

What about teaching kids to use clickers with their dog?

I like this article, but think that my teen would be self-consious if I tried it on him, but has anyone taught a young teen  to clicker train their pet dog?

I'd also like to use clicker training on myself to break overeating, and poor food choices.  Of course over-eating and poor food choices are self-reinforcing in the moment, so waiting for extinction isn't going to work.

Thanks in advance -


5th Grade Maths

Hi Karen,

I have just become the stepfather to a 10year old 5th Grade daughter...with a hatred for and a complete lack of math. I am starting her from scratch tonight on her multiplications.

I have extensive experience in clicker training dogs (and taught at a club)and horses and a new born piglet (could spin left & right, sit, down, touch a target stick...all on command...all at 6 weeks old!)

My question is what to use as a reward. She loves Goldfish but that will become fattening over time...have you thought of maybe a point system where when she gets to a certain number of points, she gets a dress or something...that is long term though...I need something as an immediate reward after the click but can't think of anything healthy, small and fun.

I do think the cent idea is great! 25c as a jackpot!

Please let me know if you have an idea.

Thank you very much

5th Grade Maths

Hi Karen,

I would like to report back after yesterday's session of teaching my step daughter multiplication.

The start: She came into my office (sent down by Mom) and crawled onto my lap as if she was going to sleep. I started talking to her about having some fun with math and of course "no one can have fun with math...math is stupid".

I had written out the 1x to the 5x table without answers and also in another section the answers without the "what x what" parts and posted them on the opposite wall. She did not see this when she walked in and crawled onto my lap.

So I turned my chair and faced her to the wall and said..."look over there"! Well! She sat up and said "you've gotto be kidding me...there are millions...I will never learn all that" To which I replied "I don't expect you to learn it, only to enjoy a game".

I explained how clicker training works and used pennies...her eyes lit up and I got a smile....ta-da-da...we were halfway home! I told her for every correct answer, she will get a click and a penny and for an incorrect answer, she will not get any response until she gets it right.

So we started with the 1x to give her confidence and show her how it works and she started earning pennies and the smile got bigger. I went from just giving the answer to giving the 1 x ? side and there was some hesitation initially, but it dissapeared in no time as she earned more rewards.

Oh! I used a UK red telephone booth savings box for her to drop the coins in...nice loud sound for extra reinforcement. She thought me clicking with my tongue was cool too! This was going very well. Her hand stayed reached out to get the next penny and reminded me so of my horse, Pepper, in his stall leaning far over the chest chain to get the treat!

So I went to the 2x table. She did well but got some wrong, no reinforcement and came back with the right answer. I did some easier ones and then went back to the one she got wrong and bingo..no hesitation as she got it right and the "penny dropped" - no pun intended!

Then I told her that was enough and she said "no, I want to do more!" What a nice turn around from math being stupid 20 minutes before.

I then let her pour out the pennies and make stacks of 5 pennies each, count the (11) stacks and multiply it out to see how much money she made. Easy to do that since she's now working with 11 x 5c of her money, so she got to 55c without hesitation.

A wonderful session that was never negative and that both of us enjoyed.

I will keep you posted as variations come up....maybe someone else could learn from this some time in the future.

TAGteach Blog

Hi Johan:

This is a great example of the application of TAGteach. Thanks for sharing this! Do you mind if I copy your post to the TAGteach blog so that other tagteachers can read it? We also have a TAGteach Yahoo group if you are interested in talking to other people using TAGteach. Visit www.tagteach.com for links and information.


I am not a cat owner but I am cat sitting and I have alrerady tought the cat to use the toilet in steed of cat litter. When I sean Ya'll youtube show I was excied to check out this sit thanks

Post new comment

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <embed> <object> <div>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Glossary terms will be automatically marked with links to their descriptions. If there are certain phrases or sections of text that should be excluded from glossary marking and linking, use the special markup, [no-glossary] ... [/no-glossary]. Additionally, these HTML elements will not be scanned: a, abbr, acronym, code, pre.
  • Each email address will be obfuscated in a human readable fashion or (if JavaScript is enabled) replaced with a spamproof clickable link.

More information about formatting options

To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.