Thursday, September 5, 2013

Seven Things a Behavior Analyst Learned from a Chicken

By Mary Lynch Barbera PhD, RN, BCBA-D

Excerpted with permission from

Why Did I Go to Chicken Camp?

Why did I go to chicken camp? Like chickens, many of the children I work with including my 15- year-old son with autism, do not understand complex human language. Since becoming certified as a Level 1 TAGteacher in 2010 and after reading “Reaching the Animal Mind” by Karen Pryor around the same time, I have become convinced that the key for me to become a better Behavior Analyst was to learn more about animal training.

What Did I Learn at Chicken Camp?

  1. When teaching people, it is important not to jam too much information in every minute. During chicken camp we took a 10-minute break every 50 minutes. When we took our first 2 breaks (50 minutes after we got started and then another one hour later), I was thinking that these constant breaks were excessive. By the afternoon of the first day though I became to appreciate the frequent breaks, which led to excellent networking, a relaxed training environment, and happy “campers.”

  2. Reinforce early, not late. This is especially important for new/difficult behaviors. When we were first teaching our chicken to peck the red chip, for example, we were instructed by Terry to click as soon as her beak was going toward/almost touching the chip. I applied this in the past week when I was working with a 3-year-old client. We were having a difficult time “pairing up” the intensive teaching table so as soon as he started to approach/walk toward the table, I directed the therapist to turn on the iPad video. In the past, I might have waited until he was sitting to reinforce and we wouldn’t have been as successful.

  3. Don’t assume you know what the extraneous variables are to which the chicken or child may be responding. Since returning from chicken camp, I feel that I am much more aware how difficult it is to evoke target behaviors and reinforce immediately since we work in uncontrolled settings with multiple variables operating at all times.

  4. If you suddenly are not getting target behavior, the animal may need to rest, may be full, or may need to lay an egg. As a nurse and a behavior analyst, I am keenly aware that most of the kids we work with sometimes have physiological issues in addition to autism, which can be a factor.

  5. Short sessions are best to keep everyone on his or her toes. In addition to the humans taking breaks every hour, we also were careful not to overwork the chickens. With the chickens, we targeted a behavior for 30-60 seconds at a time, then picked up our chicken and re-grouped. We only repeated the short intervals for about 10 minutes then the chickens were put back in their cages for a drink and a rest. The chickens were not the only ones who needed a break every 30-60 seconds, since the instructors needed time to analyze what went right/wrong and to plan for the next interval.

  6. Don’t over-prompt by physically trying to move the chicken or by “luring” or “baiting” the chicken to do the task. For instance, to get the chicken to go around a cone, don’t put the food out so the chicken just moves for the food. Instead, reinforce head or leg movements in the right direction with a click (indicating the behavior was correct) followed by a food treat. In general, children with autism are physically prompted and “lured” too often. Since camp, I’m more aware that reinforcing successful approximations is a much better way to go!

  7. If the chicken is making repeated errors, the skill is too high and/or the reinforcement is too low. If the chicken/child is stuck on a program, he or she doesn’t have the prerequisite skills or you haven’t figured out how to teach the skills he/she needs. If you are not getting the target behavior, increase the reinforcement, reduce the field size, give a better prompt, or somehow look to make the task easier. Once the chicken/child is successful, you can ramp up from there. The idea that the chicken/student/child/trainee is never wrong was heavily reinforced during our 2-day chicken camp. If they don’t “get it” you are not “teaching/training” them correctly.
Watch this video of chicken training in action!

Click here to read the full article

For more information about chicken camp, visit

Mary Lynch Barbera is the author of The Verbal Behavior Approach. Available from Amazon in print and Kindle formats.

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