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.