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Children, Music Lessons, and the Clicker

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From Karen Willmus:

Following is proof a good teacher CAN clicker train kids—and it works!

All this last year my children, (boy age 7 and girl age 5) have been taking Suzuki violin lessons. We've had pretty good progress even though I never push them to practice every day. (Mom usually doesn't have time to supervise and forgets.) Well, as you all can imagine, kids that age don't practice on their own. Anyway, as the year's gone on, the kids have been more and more resistant to practicing. I don't like to fight, so the practice is becoming less and less. (Classical conditioning, you say!)

Two months ago: enter a new Suzuki violin teacher. (The old one went back to college.) One her first lesson with the new teacher, my 5-year-old daughter was on best behavior, but on the second lesson, she was extremely fidgety. (A common ploy.) Without a blink, the violin teacher whipped out this beaded thing that looked like a single-string abacus. She lined up 10 colored beads on one side and explained to my daughter that when she did something correct, she'd move a bead over. But if she didn't do as she was told after two requests, she'd move a bead back. However many beads my daughter had at the end of the lesson, that's how many chocolate kisses she would get.

I have to say, it was fascinating to watch my daughter's behavior through the rest of the lesson. CLASSIC model of testing behaviors. And her FULL attention was on the teacher. She accomplished more in that lesson than she had the whole year for the other teacher.

Later that week we still had problems with practice, but when it was time for her lesson, my daughter was "waiting at the gate!" The teacher used a different type of gizmo—a plastic frog jumping lilly pads this time I think. She's almost always got something new. And the candy changes. Now the only negative part of this is my daughter is a candy-holic, and I really don't want to approve of candy as a reward every time. And we still weren't doing all that hot at practice.

Ahah! The light went on! One night at home, I prepared my daughter for her lesson, and then lined up a variety of small change on the table. Seven coins: penny, dime, penny, nickel, penny, dime, quarter. As my daughter played through her music, she got a coin whenever she did something right during a song. I also had two other "surprise" bonus coins that she could get at any time. As soon as she got her seven coins, the practice was finished.

If you ever want to know what a horse is thinking when you're clicker training them, just try this method some time with a five-year-old! It was eye-opening to me, to say the least. Be prepared for astounding results mixed with tons of negotiating. We've been practicing this way for two weeks now and, like the horses I've clicker-trained, my daughter's attitude has completely shifted to the positive. I had to start the same method with my son when he saw his sister was getting money for practicing. He commented at first that he thought it was babyish—but we did it anyway and every time he gets a coin, he smiles and tries harder.

Oh, and if you're wondering—it doesn't seem to matter the value of the coin as much as the variety. (Sound familiar? Variable reward schedule is an absolute must.) You must use the proper amounts of consistency and surprise. As you can imagine, it didn't take me long to notice that the teacher ALWAYS SAID THE SAME PHRASE to mark the desired behavior. (She'd suddenly say, "THAT'S IT!")

And for motivation—both my children LOVE the Dollar Store and they're also saving up for a small yard pool.

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