Friday, July 8, 2011

Teaching Kids About Operant Conditioning

By Jane Jackson - Level II TAGteacher

I thought I'd share a little project I did this week with some kids aged from about 10-15. I've tried to promote +R techniques with the kids in our Pony Club (a local chapter of a global organization with nationally set Standards of Proficiency) for several years with varying success. They are interested but I've always felt like I overwhelmed them with too much info at once but never knew how to break it down smaller when I had limited time and access to them.

This week we had our annual camp with 9 kids- staying at a friend's very nice facility. There were also 2 older kids there as junior instructors. They have lessons twice a day and lectures at noon; they bring their own horses and are responsible for all care and working as a team to keep the whole barn neat and safe. There were two other instructors in addition to myself- the friend, my age, who owns the property; and a young woman who graduated from our club (she was there part time). Pony Club utilizes "traditional" methods- lots of -R and does not hesitate to advocate +P. I want to share +R techniques as much as possible but have to acknowledge this is my own little interest, not part of the United States Pony Club curriculum.

Explaining the Challenge

I decided to do a week long explanation of the four quadrants. I've felt for a long time that understanding those four "tools" is really helpful. At our morning briefing on Monday, I introduced my "challenge" to the kids. Each day we'd focus on a different quadrant (I didn't use that word). At the morning briefing I would explain each "tool" and give a couple examples. Then they could look for examples of that tool through the day. Anyone who brought me an example (any time!) would get a ticket. The example did NOT have to be correct. Just telling me something they THOUGHT might be right earned them a ticket. I wanted them to bring me lots of ideas and then I could tell them if it was an example of the tool of the day or not and if not, why. No wrong answers. They had 2 options with their tickets. I had a tin of candy and a plastic bag labeled raffle in the tack room (so yes, I used Theresa's seminar model!). They could either trade a ticket for a piece of candy (honor system) or drop it in the bag for a raffle of a free private riding lesson. Each day at lunch we'd review some of the ideas that they'd come up with during the morning, then they'd have a little more knowledge to go hunting in the afternoon. Each day I added new candy to the selection to keep the appeal fresh!

Day 1

I loved how it worked through the week. The first day was +R and they were very enthusiastic. They discovered early on that compliments were a great example so we had fashion tips going strong ("nice shirt", "I like your socks", "That's a cool saddle pad", "your horse looks really good"). All these things made it more likely the receiver would wear the shirt or socks or saddle pad again and keep their horse shiny and healthy. So for the afternoon, I suggested they look for non-fashion examples and they found more horse-oriented ones.

Day 2

Day 2 was +P. I did not want to encourage them to use it or criticize others for using it so I explained how +P may be accidental: tripping over a dog in the doorway will make it less likely the dog is underfoot next time. Being out of balance over a fence may hurt your pony's mouth or back and make it less likely he'll want to jump next time. They found some but there were fewer examples and I said that was GOOD because it's more successful to reinforce a behavior than discourage one. They came up with using pressure to stop a horse from grazing (and hopefully make it less likely they'd try to steal grass again), making a horse who barged out of his stall go back in, etc.

Day 3

Day 3 was -R. The majority of traditional horse training is done with -R but even using that as an example was confusing for them. The thing that clicked was when I used a car's seat belt beep as an example. The examples they brought me were traditional methods- rein pressure, leg pressure, rope pressure. Perfect :)

Day 4

Day 4 was -P I asked how many of them had privileges revoked (computer, TV, phone) for bad behavior. Every hand went up so I had that covered! Many examples I got that day were of that ilk but I also got horse related ones. By that afternoon I could say "negative means" and they knew "take away", and on through positive, reinforcement and punishment.


The last day I did a review of all and the project for the day was to come up with something they'd like to train their horse (simple!) and how they'd go about it. The girl who wanted her horse to stop nipping at her when she tightened the girth had a really hard time framing it in positives ("what DO you want her to do?") so I was really glad for the opportunity to discuss that. Someone else wanted her horse to stand at the mounting block, another to load in a trailer, another to stand quietly, etc. They were great. After they gave me their plans I went into more detail on how to proceed, accentuating the need for baby steps and high rates of reinforcement. The only followup I'll do will be casual- some are my students I see regularly; others I may only see a couple times through the rest of the summer at PC meetings.

Overall I felt it was more successful than any other promotion of Operant Conditioning I've done with the kids. I feel like I really helped them become more aware of what they were doing and assessing whether or not it was successful. One girl told me that when the other instructor yelled at the horse for kicking his stall door, it was an ATTEMPT at +P but it didn't work because he kept kicking it all week :)

Some Tag Points

This wasn't officially TAG teach (there was no auditory marker for this although I used one frequently during lessons). I just thought if anyone else is trying to explain OC with kids, I'd share my experience! Something I picked up at one of the seminars is that TAG teach can be most useful when a learner is experiencing difficulty. In my Level II project, I tried to set up tag points for my program in advance. Putting it to use showed me that many of these tag points were unnecessary and yet there were other tag points that I needed which I hadn't predicted. In this camp situation, my plan was to introduce the 4 quadrants and I did not know what individuals would find challenging so I had no pre-set tag points. Theresa challenged me afterward to find some!

So here are three situations I came up with for which the learner had difficulty:

The girl who had so much trouble re-phrasing her pony's nipping into a positive behavior to reward for.

Another who very enthusiastically kept bringing me examples of management as opposed to training.

A third who is painfully shy. The only times she brought me examples were when I encouraged the other girls to help her find some. She was so shy that when they all excitedly came to me, she would just smile and hang her head and shrug until one of the other girls would offer to say it for her. She got 2 or 3 tickets all week and I really had no idea if she understood any of it.For example #1, I would try playing with opposites. Starting with a point of success, I would tag her for giving me the opposites of up, in, fast, stop, dirty. Tag point is "say the word's opposite"

Next, have her tag me or another adult for the opposites of a list of action words which I would give her: moving (standing), yelling (whispering), greedy (patient). Same tag point but she'd be doing the tagging.

Next step: have someone act out some horse behaviors and then tag them when they changed from doing those behaviors to the opposite. The actor would be a horse fidgeting on the cross ties- "M" would (hopefully) tag when they stood still; a pushy horse to lead, could be tagged when patient; backing -> forward; head up -> head down, teeth clenched -> mouth open. This last example could be in the context of a horse who didn't want a bit in his mouth but could also be reversed to be her pony who had her mouth open to nip! Tag point is "demonstrate the opposite behavior"

Finally, I would ask her to repeat the last exercise but I would tag her for naming the desired behavior when it happened. My goal would be to help her turn her thinking around so that she could begin to think of and verbalize "what DO you want" instead of what you don't want. Tag point is "name the desired behavior".

I would also want her to tell me what the desired behavior looked like for things like "patience" and "standing" (four feet on the floor, etc)

I find creating tag points for cognitive educating to be most challenging. Simply tagging for correct answers is quizzing, not teaching. So I challenge everyone to come up with appropriate tag points for teaching cognitive skills and share them! Use # 2 above as an example if you want.

Visit Jane's website at Bookends Farm

1 comment:

  1. Jane, I would suggest using a "dog" technique for the nipping horse. The horse doesn't seem to be charging and attacking, so there is that brief period from the time your rider approaches to the nip. That is the window of opportunity for c/t, "I'm here, you're not nipping" I can reward that moment of "not nipping". Now, it's just a duration exercise.