Teaching Cues, not behaviors (part 3)

Pubblicato: febbraio 6, 2014 in Uncategorized


Third and last part of my post devoted to conditioned cues.


We, often, underestimate the interference of environmental factors in the failure of exhibition of well- learned behaviors. Basically, we blame our students for this failure. Alessandro, my son, had, for a while, the habit to talk loudly during our dinners. We tried to change his behavior ,”exchanging” with extra seconds of game on his tablet, every performance of the tag point: “Low voice”. Since “Low voice” is not a quantifiable behavior, before we had established together the meaning of: “Low voice.” Things run smoothly for a while, and we didn’t need to reinforce “Low voice” anymore. But one evening we had as dinner guests Alessandro’s  grandparents and his voice went back to high volume. Even the chance to earn extra game-time didn’t  have any  effect. “Grandparents at dinner” overwhelmed the cue: “At the dinner table” to which the child was responding with “low voice”. New cue, new behavior and, also, new child’s response to reinforcement.”At the dinner table with grandparents” is a different cue, which reinforces a different behavior.

What should we do?  Teaching the cue “At the dinner table” means, in addition to other things (“Sit on the chair”,” Use  knife and fork” etc. etc. ), also: “Low voice” no matter what the environment is. It’s the cue that needs to be taught, not the behavior. It is the cue “At the dinner table” that elicits “Low voice.” To achieve this conditioning practice is required.


Practice is not the mechanical repetition of an action, but the conscious, eventually repeated, execution of an action. If we want to learn how to shoot for the basket, it’s meaningless to throw 100 shots a day, if no one teaches us how  we should throw. This is just a rather sterile trying over and over again. The deliberate practice should aim, in first instance, to learn the components of “Shoot for the basket”, until they become fluent skills. Now, the 100 shots a day, are intended as an exercise in order to maintain fluency in the learned behavior. Kobe Bryant, one of the top players in the NBA, scores 800 baskets per day to maintain his performance level (2).


800 throws each day…

As sport training develops muscles and skills,” behavioral practice” develops attention to the cues and fluency in the responses. The practice must be intentional, aimed at achieving specific results. Practicing involves both sides of the student-teacher relationship. Students focus their attention to the task, the teacher must be ready to reinforce students’ achievements and to set the right environment where students can have success. Sometimes, it is better to quit. If you are unable to manage a child in a supermarket, or a dog in the presence of a cat, it’s far more effective to avoid putting students in situations where they easily could fail our expectations. These are OUR expectations as teachers, not theirs. The dog or the child in the supermarket, are perfectly comfortable with the behaviors they exhibit given  a specific cue. The responsibility of the practice is up  the teacher.

What could I do to get “Low voice” during ALL our meals? I should -constantly- reinforce all the exhibitions of” Low voice”, in an environment where it is easy to obtain this  behavior,  gradually moving towards more challenging  situations: dinner with the grandparents or in a Pizzeria. In difficult situations I have to generously reinforce the desired behavior and ignore the performances of the opposite behavior. As teacher, I never have to take for granted that a certain level of expertise in a certain environment could be generalized. As the (italian) saying goes ,” You never stop to learn .”

SOLUTIONS: “The Aladdin’s cave” and the “Busy hands” Principles

TAGteach ( Clicker Training works effectively at the same way, with animals) delivers both to teachers and students a common focus point. The tag point clearly indicates what exhibit to a given  cue and strengthens the elicited behavior with surgical precision. Deliberate practice is consciuos repetition of each tag point as many times as are necessary to gain fluency. It is simple, in these conditions, being able to have something to reinforce, rather than the opposite. We can continue to condition our cue even in the presence of new, concurrent stimuli. To return to basketball, we can strengthen a given elbow position before the throw, both when the player is standing and when he is moving or running, pressed by some adversary .

Less simple – but it should not be an excuse for the teacher – to be able to understand when and how the reinforcement work or not.

Alessandro was always rather difficult to manage in the supermarket. Everything in sight on the shelve was good  to be thrown in the cart (especially gloves for dishes washing… See you never know where the Reinforcer can be…). So, instead of trying to stop his desire to splurge I gave him something to focus on, a new cue. First I started granting him some little buying: (you can not get into the Aladdin’s cave and not even put a dime in your pocket … ) usually a small Coke can,or some cheap toys. If you have your hands full holding on something that you enjoy, It’s gonna be more difficult to plunder the shelves. Then we moved on to draw a shopping list. Together, we drew it at home. Together, we have stated that only what was on the shopping list would be buyed (obviously a small Coke was included, following the “Aladdin’s cave” principle ).Finally, we went to the supermarket. Alessandro was holding a pencil and the list: his task was to check off the list as the items went in the cart (a possible tag point is: “Check the List “). The child is empowered and focuses on a specific task: does practice in doing something else. In addition holding the list and the pencil, your hands are busy and can not grab gloves and other things (we can call it the “Busy hands ” principle).To draw the list and check it are aids for the child. In this manner he can deal with the supermarket without “surrendering” to other environmental stimuli. Once you have achieved success and made practice, aids may gradually disappear.

carrello della spesa


What did I really teach to Alessandro? I have not taught: “At the supermarket no tantrum, because we won’t buy anything”.  I taught that the cue “Supermarket” reinforces behaviors such as: “Check the list “,”Buy what ‘s on the list” and “Buy 1 Coke”. “Supermarket” elicits a specific set of behaviors. Everything else is extraneous to, and it is (as any undesirable behavior ) ignored. I can not teach: “You will not touch anything!”; Ogden Lindsley wrote that we can not teach things that even a dead man can do. We have -always- to strive for giving something to do in the presence of a cue. A living being is such, because it is -always- doing something. A stimulus, a cue is such because it gives -always- something to focus on to the brain. If we teachers do not indicate what to do, students will, naturally,  find something to do (3). The brain is designed to pay attention to environmental stimuli. We can not teach not to behave, on the contrary, we can teach what behaviors will be reinforced by a specific cue.

Finally,  We must also be aware that the behavior is not static and fixed, but rather, is fluid and malleable. Sometimes things may not always go as expected. I am ready to buy another pair of gloves…


(1) I use “cue” and “stimulus” as synonymous

(2) 10 Years of Silence: How long it took Mozart, Picasso and Kobe Bryant to be Successful

(3) How to Train Your Brain to Stay Focused



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