Home » Library » Enjoy » Off the Beaten Path

Clicking Tough Kids

Filed in - Off the Beaten Path

A Note of Explanation:

More and more parents are beginning to use the clicker system, and sometimes the actual clicker, to shape behavior and skills in their children (click here for an example from Don't Shoot the Dog!) People in professional circles, however, are sometimes still nervous about the idea. Here's a report from a teacher faced with an emergency situation who put the clicker to work in a truly imaginative way.

Stuart Harder, Ph.D., a behavior analyst in the Minnesota public school system, posted the October 6 letter, below, to a precision teaching discussion list of which I'm a member. Many people, including me, immediately sent praise and queries. In the second post, October 7, Stuart responded to some of those comments.

He is continuing this work and teaching others; other schools are also giving this a try. We will try to keep new information flowing to this site as it comes in.

Karen Pryor

From: Harder, Stuart R. [BSMTP:scred [dot] srh [at] norsol [dot] com]
Sent: Wednesday, October 06, 1999 5:28 PM
To: sclistserv [at] lists [dot] acs [dot] ohio-state [dot] edu
Subject: Tough Kids & Clicker Training


I was in a Level 4 special education classroom this morning working with 6 dedicated tough kids and their teachers. With the shortage of special education staff, especially those who serve youth with emotional and behavior disorders, this school district hired a physical education teacher and one management aide to work with the most challenging kids in the district. To make matters worse, they were not hired until a week before school started, making it impossible to provide training.

It was no surprise that I got urgent phone calls from the high school asking for help the first week of school.

Training is well under way and I think I've got a group of staff members who understand the vision. If they survive the interim chaos, we may have a successful program by the end of the year. I met with the teachers yesterday, however, and listened to an hour of discouraging comments and expressions of futility. Most comments tended to support the idea that these kids were unsalvageable and unmanageable. (Comments of this sort are the result of having been verbally brutalized, and most teachers question their career choices under these circumstances.) Basically, the kids had the adults in reactionary mode and the kids were loving the control. I offered to come into class and work along side them to see what could be done.

The next morning I arrived with a bunch of empty envelopes, some slips of paper, and my handy dandy clicker! I wrote the name of each student on an envelope, placed a slip of paper with the word "pop" written on it in the envelope, and wrote "10,000 points" on the outside. When the teacher started the class, I told the guys we were going to do something different. I showed them the clicker and said they would occasionally hear the click followed by my telling one of them, or the entire group, that they had earned 1,000 points. I also said that each needed 10,000 points to get "Stu's Pretty Good Mystery Motivator." Of course everyone wanted to know what they would get. I said they would have to pay to play, peaked inside one envelope, smiled, and sat down.

Class started with the usual ruckus, but as soon as all the boys were seated and quiet—CLICK! "Each of has earned 1000 points." I did not tell them why. It was amazing to watch how quickly these young men set about trying to make me click. I clicked hand raising, on-topic questions, sustained writing on work sheets, and accepting criticism and "no" answers. At one point, the young man who is the one most likely to lead the group astray began to talk out and walk about. I instantly started clicking every peer in his immediate vicinity who was appropriately engaged in a work task. He looked around, sat down, and began working. CLICK!

One of my favorite young men is the classic behavior model for those who revel in all things labeled ADHD. After two clicks, he was impervious to distractions. At one point, a peer next to him started to ask him questions, and he extended his arm, palm rotated outward in the direction of the speaker, and shook his head. CLICK!!

Needless to say, my teachers were in awe, and "Stu's Pretty Good Mystery Motivator" was a pretty good hit.

Now get this. In a baseline visit in that room, with the same teacher, I observed social behavior error rates of 1.63 per minute. During this one hour class, we observed an error rate of 0.22 per minute and the rate of clicked-corrects was 2.26 per minute!

There remain tremendous obstacles to overcome and one nice demonstration does little more than serve as an eye opener, but the teachers can now allow themselves so hope. My mantra is "You will live with what you pay attention to." They saw a brief verification today.

To Karen Pryor, I want to say "Thanks." Your book, "Don't Shoot The Dog" reminded me of my days in the operant labs, but more importantly of elegance inherent in our operant methods. CLICK!


Stuart R. Harder
St. Croix River Education District
Rush City, MN 55069

From: Harder, Stuart R. [scred [dot] srh [at] norsol [dot] com]
Sent: Thursday, October 07, 1999 11:58 AM
To: sclistserv [at] lists [dot] acs [dot] ohio-state [dot] edu
Subject: Re: Tough Kids & Clicker Training

Dear List members,

Thank you so much for you kind words and encouragement. I am, quite frankly, a bit over whelmed and more than a little pleased at the number of responses to this post.


Please feel free to use the post as you see fit. You might be interested to know that your book has resulted in numerous acts of sedition in the El Paso area after my sister and her friends started reading it. She reports that formerly grumpy and demanding husbands are wondering what hit them. (smile)


Thank you for your feedback. As you said, "Most of us are too chicken to use clicker training with people." I admit to having had second and third thoughts about my plan. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

You asked, "How did you click the peers? You only had one clicker...." I called them by name after the click. In the example to which you refer when the young man got out of his seat, I immediately looked at the peer closest to him who happened to have a pencil in hand and was writing. CLICK. "Peter. 1000 points." Next peer. CLICK. "Ed. 1000 points." I hit 4 peers in rapid succession that way. I thought about establishing a unique signal for each student, but beyond two or three individuals, the process becomes unmanageable for the person doing the clicking and I was concerned about discriminability for the kids. A single CLICK and a name gave me the precision I needed to shape individual and group repertoires.

I struggled with whether I ought to select a single target and click approximations to just that one operant or select, as I did, a broader range of operants that might serve as reasonable replacement behaviors. Here is the list of targets I choose.

Eight of the targets are social skills:

  1. follows instructions (3-5 sec)
  2. accepts criticism or feedback w/o arguing
  3. accepts "no"
  4. gets the teacher's attention
  5. requests permission
  6. disagrees appropriately
  7. resists peer pressure
  8. greets others

Three targets were general academic behaviors:

  1. attends to listening actively (i.e., awake, body and eyes oriented to teacher)
  2. do-write answers (work sheet activities, etc.)
  3. think-say answers

The social behavior targets were selected because they support the academic responses (i.e., without the social behaviors, the academic stuff won't happen).

As I clicked , announced the name and points, I recorded the target. My major task was to ensure that every student got clicked a minimum of 10 times during the period and that no student failed to earned the mystery motivator. I got in a median of 19 clicks per student: 14 clicks for academic and 5 for social behavior.

I will try to report back to the list as I get more data. I like the idea of video taping this effort, but I am concerned that the camera might add a needless distraction (these boys love to perform for the camera). I'll talk with the class and teachers about this idea.

Charts are in place but will need refining as we learn how better to build and maintain momentum. The major weakness now is getting curriculum and instruction adjusted to the individual needs of the students.


I got my clickers from http://dontshootthedog.com. I don't know if stores carry those froggy clickers any more, so if you can't find them locally, Karen Pryor's site is a sure thing.

One recommendation I might make before turning your teachers loose with the clickers is to have them complete four or five rounds each of the Behavior Game. I did that this Fall with my staff. It was a real eye opener, even for veteran teachers. The exercise will help them with their timing when clicking and will also let them experience the frustration that results from poorly timed clicks. One of my teachers got accidentally shaped into standing in one spot in the room. In the absence of clicking (the person with the clicker couldn't figure out how to get her unstuck), my teacher stomped her foot and said, "I need a click!" I think kids who are acting out are saying the same thing.

Again, thanks to all for your wonderful comments. I'm going back in this afternoon. No luck needed. I got a CLICKER!


Stuart R. Harder
St. Croix River Education District
Rush City, MN 55069

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.

The mystery motivator

Just one question -- what was the Pretty Good Mystery Motivator?



I am a fifth grade teacher and have been toying with the idea of trying the clicker in my classroom. I am new to this. What suggestions can you give me to get started?

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.