The Four-Letter F-Word

They were staging a sit-in. All four of them, sitting there and staring intently at me, What is she going to do?

I looked at the other adult in the room and asked, “Did you say the four-letter F-word?”

He shook his head no. He had in fact said neither Fish nor even Chicken. But there were all four cats gathered by their dishes and staring fixedly at me. They do that every now and then – instead or one or two cats reminding some random person that the kibble dishes are getting empty, all four of them will gather round and complain at me, specifically. The woman who can read enough feline body language to know that the congregation is requesting goodies from the pop-top cans. Manna from Mama. Apparently the usual dry kibble gets boring, and they want “chicken slices in gravy” or some such thing.

Except for tonight. Spot isn’t having any of it. He’s not swarming around my ankles and meowing, but rather sitting on a dining chair and staring at me with his great, golden eyes. The goody from the pop-top can doesn’t appeal. He probably smelled the bag of grilled salmon take-out that hubby had brought home and popped in the refrigerator. Spot prefers “real” fish to the processed glop from the tin; he used to catch his own meals at a lake. In fact, the past few times I’ve cooked fish he has waited for and requested the leftovers, which he’s welcome to because fish doesn’t reheat well.

It only took a few meals for Spot to learn what I meant when I asked him, “Hey, Spot! Fish?” Spot’s a smart cat; it took less than half a dozen repetitions (“trials” as they are known in training parlance) for him to associate hearing the human word “Fish” with the generalised concept of sushi tuna, grilled salmon or poached tilapia for him to eat. Those trials didn’t even happen in the same hour or the same day.

Now, teaching Spot to learn the word “fish” did not involve any rigorous training sessions. I merely caught his attention by saying his name, then set down a dish containing some various leftovers while saying, “Fish!” It’s simple associative learning. Granted, food is a good reinforcement, and he was already aware that some of the things people say are directed to him and are meant to inform him of something.

He also knows that when I say, “Water’s boiling,” this means that he needs to get off my lap so I can get up and make a cup of tea, and that I’ll return in a minute to make a lap for him again. That’s actually much more complex; for all he knows, the syllables “Water’s boiling,” really mean, “Get up”. But he’s also observed that when I say “Water’s boiling,” instead of something like, “Okay, I gotta get up now,” or “Time to make dinner,” that I am going to return to my chair shortly, and that if he hangs around he gets to curl up with me again. Sometimes he stands on the chair cushion, rather than laying down on it, because he knows I’m likely to come back and sit down. That’s a more complex chain of events; he’s not only associated a spoken word with an action for him to do, but he’s also observing my behavioural patterns so he can choose his next course of action.

But for all of his high level of feline intelligence, he’s still limited in what he can learn. Especially compared to a human child.

If you use food as a familiar, desireable food reinforcement, how many trials do you think it will take for a human child to learn to associate a word or two with an action? For example, “sit down” or “stand up”.

Six? Twelve? Maybe fifteen?

How about over 100? We’re talking about children who have grown up in a home where other people have been using language with the child for over two years. Presumably the child knows that some of the things people say are directed to him and are meant to inform him of something. Food is a good reinforcement, and the child’s favorite foods are even used. (We have to assume that the child’s hearing is fine, and that the adult has the child’s attention.)

Here’s a parent’s description of an Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) training session with their child (

“Sit down,” I’d repeat, this time placing my hands on his shoulders to gently guide him into the chair. Eyes still averted, he allowed me to ease him down.

“Good boy!” I’d squeeze an M&M between his pursed lips for his efforts, recording a “P” to indicate that I ‘d had to manually prompt him for his second trial.

“Sit down,” I’d repeat 27 more times, alternating between M&M’s, chocolate chips, hugs and tickles, recording each discrete trial.

Then I’d begin with 30 trials of “stand up,” “turn around”, and other “one-step” commands before moving on to teaching Jake to “do this” as I manually prompted him 30 times to drop a block in a bucket.

After each of the 30 trials, we’d take a structured play break.

It took a total of 150 trials over three weeks to teach Jake to sit down, 180 trials over three weeks to teach Jake to stand up, and 2,100 trials over 10 weeks to teach Jake to look at us when we called his name.

The child was two years old. There were people doing this with him for forty hours a week, month after month.

Different children learn in different ways, and on their own different time schedules. Some skills take longer than others. I was eight years old before I learned to tie my shoelaces; I had to acquire the fine-motor dexterity to manipulate the laces and maintain the right tension, and be able to remember and follow the sequence of steps. I compensated for my lack of shoelace tying by wearing buckle shoes during my first three years of school. In the grand scheme of all things scholastic, it wasn’t a big deal. It was a big deal for my parents and I do remember spending a lot of frustrated days sitting around fighting with the laces on my sneakers (trainers). Every now and then some adult would sit down with me and show me how they tied shoelaces. Thankfully, my third-grade teacher’s method of direction was different enough that the process finally made sense.

But when an instructional method requires 150 or 180 repeated trials for the child to learn to associate a word with an activity they already know how to do … that really seems like it’s the wrong teaching approach for the child.

Maybe parents are too fearful of another four-letter F-word, Fail. They are afraid that without endless hours of intensive, repetitious work (and mounds of data sheets to show for it), that their children will fail to learn and grow. Amazingly, children do learn and grow. I’m not saying that additional instructional is not sometimes necessary, but rather than given these kinds of results, such an approach does not seem to be the best method.

Applied Behavioural Analysis is neither a good nor a bad thing unto itself. But any good teaching naturally uses behavioural observation and analysis. And if those observations show that someone has not learned something after a considerable number of tries, then the instructor needs to analyse where in the teaching process the breakdown is occurring, and to consider what other means might be more efficacious.


  1. Changer said,

    26 February 2007 at 2:11

    Interesting. It’s worth noting that my truly non-verbal trainee, Malcolm the Smooth Collie puppy, learned “Sit” “Down” and “Stand” with less than 100 trials of each one. The stand took the most (67 trials, and it’s not perfect- he hasn’t entirely associated it with a stay yet- glad I have those numbers handy, it was a pain to keep, but an interesting project). I think the problem is less with the method (behaviorism is, overall, pretty useful for training) and more with the trainer or the reinforcer. And dude, what’s up with the M&Ms? Apparently, one could conclude, my collie is smarter than her son (possible, but unlikely, Mal is sweet but not really all that bright), I’m a better trainer than she is with better timing for delivering a reward (Possibly, Mal is my fourth dog trained with a clicker, and she’s not using freeshaping or as precise a marker as I am- plus, “good’ is vaguer and more likely to get lost for someone with sensory integration problems- which her son might or might not have- we know that Mal can hear my marker signal), or three, freeze dried liver and Pounce cat treats are a better reinforcer than M&Ms. :P

  2. qw88nb88 said,

    17 February 2007 at 15:46

    Oh gee thanks; I’ve been putting off filing for a month now…

  3. natalia said,

    17 February 2007 at 15:29

    PS: i totally thought the 4-letter F-word was going to be FILE… Something that I don’t have any capacity for… yet(?)

  4. natalia said,

    17 February 2007 at 15:27

    i thought that a certain autistic loved one didn’t hang up their shirts on the hangers (and when attempted, didn’t do it correctly) because “no le da la p*ta gana” (there’s another 4-letter word for ya) but then i was told by another autistic friend, whose intellect i totally respect, that “buttoning shirts is really hard.” so… that was an eye-opener.
    i guess i have my automatic motions programmed for hanging shirts, but loved one doesn’t… yet.
    although, for now, maybe there are more important things to think about, like university and stuff…

  5. Ms. Clark said,

    17 February 2007 at 5:23

    I forgot to add that it wasn’t just “CAT” there were about 15 words like that that if I spelled them the kid could tell me what they were. I was amazed. Xe learned the ABC’s really early and colors and shapes and so forth, because that’s what I thought moms were supposed to do. Teach their kids lots of cool stuff, and I thought that kids were supposed to enjoy learning for the joy of learning, and my kids did.

    I’m not sure if I’ll ever understand ABA, it sounds like torture to me. Temple Grandin was explaining that breaking down a task like putting shoes on might be the worst thing for an autistic kid. Some like to learn by doing the task in one unbroken movement.

  6. Ms. Clark said,

    17 February 2007 at 5:18

    Really, couldn’t that time have been spent with that child in a more productive way? It’s just scary to think about, to me. I spent a gajillion hours of “early intervention” with my kid, xe could tell me what “C-A-T” spelled at 2 years old, I’d say, “C-a-t” and xe’d say, “cat.” It wasn’t really reading, but it was fun. The kid could really read at 3 years and a half, not because xe taught xyrself but because I spent a lot of fun time teaching xyr (xem?). None of it involved extrinsic rewards, and there wasn’t much in the way of saccharine sweet ‘OOOOH AREN’T YOU SMART???” stuff either.

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