What are the verbal operants and why do they matter?

Verbal behavior seems like the newest buzz word in the world of Autism. Parents ask me almost every day what it is and how it is different from applied behavior analysis (ABA). Truthfully, it is usually used interchangeably. Technically speaking though, it is the part of ABA that teaches children how to use language to communicate.

Verbal behavior was developed by Skinner back in the 1950’s. Contrary to what many people think, it is not a new term. Truthfully in my personal opinion, which is not a popular one, behavior therapists are being forced to reconcile the dark history of applied behavior analysis and are using new words to create new connotations.  Whether that is true or not, verbal is a critical instructional methodology for kids with Autism.

Children who have only a speech delay benefit largely from speech therapy. Speech therapy will help most kids who do not have any developmental delays with talking as long as they are physically able to. However, children with Autism require more than just speech therapy. That’s because children with Autism by definition have delays in all areas of communication. All people with Autism start off with communication delays.  It is important to note that many people with Autism learn to communicate just as well as any neurotypical person. However, without delays in communication a person cannot get a diagnosis in Autism.

At this point, it is very important to understand a delay in communication is not the same as a delay in language. Language is vocal. Most of communication is non vocal. Early stages of communication includes eye contact, especially using eye contact to initiate and respond to joint attention and using gestures such as pointing.  Reaching or grabbing for something or trying or bringing someone to a desired object is typically not considered communication.

Children with Autism do not use eye contact or gestures to communicate unless they are taught to do so in early childhood development. This is where applied behavior analysis comes in. Applied behavior analysis is most commonly known for its ability to address problem behavior. However, the truth is that in its initial applications, it was primarily used to show a person what a correct response is.


Let’s look at a very basic example of how that works.

Let’s say that an adult puts a button on the table in front of a child. The child has no idea what it is for. The child pressed the button and the adult gives the child a cookie. The child may not initially understand that he was awarded the cookie for pressing the button. However, if the same thing happened five times, eventually they will learn that when they press the button, they get a cookie.  Now, whenever the child wants the cookie, they will press the button.

That’s how ABA works. Behaviors that a child does not know or understand are taught using a highly structured approach. A response is given, the child responds either independently or with help and the behavior is reinforced usually by a child getting an object that they desire. Eventually the child will learn to engage in the behavior and the reinforcement can be faded. Then the child can engage in the behavior independently.

Today applied behavior analysis has many practical implications. However, when using applied behavior analysis to conduct what it is commonly called verbal behavior or simply teaching a child to talk, this is the most basic application.

The main reason that parents seek out ABA is because they want their children to learn to talk. While this is not the only purpose of an ABA program, it is often the main component.   Most often children learn language naturally by hearing others speak. But as stated earlier, children with Autism do not. They require language to be taught to them directly. ABA therapist break down language into some very basic components called operants. By teaching these operants or skills individually, ABA therapist can significantly increase a child’s ability to use language to communicate and after reading this section, so can you.

In behavior therapy, the verbal operants are: a mand, an echoic, a tact and an intraverbal. Once you understand each of these terms, it will be easy to tell them apart and you will know what to teach. In typical language development, they are learned in that order. However, from my personal experience, some children with Autism will follow the progression out of order. This is usually depends on what stimulus a child attends to, what lessons a therapist selects to teach first and whether or not they engage in vocal stereotypy.

Some children with Autism are very vocal even at a very young age. They will repeat almost anything an adult says or they will initiate words independently but they are out of context. These are vocalizations but may not be functional language. That’s why is imperative that a person understands verbal operants. The verbal operants provide a way to know if a child is truly communicating. The following section will explore the different types of verbal operants in detail and give examples of them.

A mand is in simple terms a request. The learner wants something, says what they want and gets what they said. It is triggered by a person’s desire for something. The fancy ABA term for that is specific reinforcement. This is the only operant where reinforcement is specific to what is said. Requesting is one of the main components of language. Children constantly ask for things. Requesting is the most motivating type of language and the one children learn first. Think about it, you get what you say. There is very real tangible consequence when you ask for something that is favorable. Therefore, it should be the first operant taught and initially the one that is focused on the most.

The second operant typically learned is an echoic. In this operant, someone says something that the learner repeats and the learner receives something unrelated to what is said. It is triggered by something someone else says. This is called nonspecific reinforcement. At this point, this probably sounds really confusing so let me give you an example to illustrate. A teacher says. “Say blue.” The child says, “blue” and the teacher says. “Great job.”

Sometimes it is hard to differentiate between mands and echoics when children are first learning mands because therapists will assist or prompt a child to give a correct response by telling them what to say. For example, if a child wants an apple and his therapist says, “say apple,” and the child says, “apple.” If the behavior results in specific reinforcement (the child gets the apple), it is a prompted mand, not an echoic.  Echoics are mostly used in ABA to clean up pronunciations or to teach children to build upon their language by speaking in sentences. It can be an important part of an ABA program but it is the operant that occurs least often naturally in language.

The third verbal operant is a tact. A tact is when a person makes a comment about something they see, touch, smell, taste or hear. This operant is triggered by something in the environment. In order to be considered a tact, the comment must be made about something present. For example. “This tastes great.” “I see a yellow bird.” “I can hear a train.” Once again, reinforcement is non specific.  Some tacts that someone may learn in ABA is to identify an object’s color, features, category, attribute or function. When visuals are used to teach this, such as books, puzzles or flashcards, it is a tact.

The final and fourth verbal operant is an intraverbal. This is the most natural conversational tact that is used in conversation. This is when someone makes a comment or asks a question based upon what another person says without the object they are discussing being present. For example, “What’s your name?” “My name is Jessica?” “My favorite color is pink.” “Cool, my favorite color is blue.” Intraverbals are similar to echoics in that another person triggers the behavior. But it is different because with intraverbals reinforcement is non specific.  It is different from a tact in that there is no visual is present.

In order for anyone to have a fluent conversation, they must be able to use all four verbal operants. The next time you have a conversation, think about this final chapter. You will quickly notice yourself using all four operants in conversation.

The following chart will summarize all the info above just to make sure it is really clear:

References

Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (1987). Applied Behavior Analysis.





An interesting “spin” on Reinforcement.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the most well researched and scientifically validated methods for teaching children with Autism new skills.  It is based upon the behavior principle that what happens before a behavior and what happens after a behavior will determine if it happens again. If a person engages in a behavior and they do not get what they want, they are far less likely to engage in the same behavior again. Conversely, if a behavior results in a desirable consequence, a person is far more likely to repeat the behavior.

A consequence that makes a behavior occur again is called a reinforcer. Most people think that reinforcement is a good thing. However, reinforcement is neither good or bad. It simply makes a behavior occur more often. Sometimes this is good and sometimes it is not.

For example, if Joe hits his mom and gets a cookie immediately after doing so, the next time Joe wants a cookie he will likely hit his mom again.  Obviously, in this case, Joe’s mom would not intend to reinforce hitting by giving him a cookie. However, the cookie served as a reinforcer for hitting and made hitting more likely to occur again.

Let’s say Joe is learning to talk and asked mom for a cookie by getting her attention and saying, “cookie.” Let’s assume mom gave Joe a cookie. In this example, mom would want Joe to ask for things using his words in the future. I this example it is likely a good thing the behavior is reinforced.

In the example above, the behaviors were reinforced by Joe getting something, a cookie.

In this example the cookie served as a reinforcer because it was a desirable consequence for Joe.  This is called positive reinforcement. However, sometimes a behavior can be reinforced when something unpleasant is removed. This is called negative reinforcement.  For example, if a person lowers music because it is too loud, the softer music will serve as a reinforcer. The most common example of negative reinforcement in an ABA therapy session is when a child is provided with a break for completing work. During the break the demands from the child are removed. 

ABA therapists typically use positive reinforcement in two different ways. A reinforcer may be used with a young learner to teach them what a correct response is.  For example, a two-year-old with Autism might be learning to follow the instruction, “Find your nose.” The therapist might say, “touch your nose” and prompt the child to touch his nose. After doing so, the teacher may give the child a small favorite snack.

Initially, the child might now know what the therapist is asking him to do. However, he will learn that when he touches his nose after the therapist says, “touch your nose” something good happens– he gets his favorite snack.  Motivated to get a snack, the child will eventually learn that he is rewarded when he touches his nose after the therapist says touch your nose. Eventually the prompts and reinforcement (snack) can be faded and the child will have learned to follow the instruction touch your nose. 

The second way a therapist may use a reinforcer is to encourage a child to comply with a non preferred instruction by providing them with a reward.  Generally, when a therapist is using a reinforcer in this way, the child is rewarded for either engaging in a behavior or not engaging in a behavior. For example, a child may be rewarded for completing his homework all week. Or, a child may be rewarded for not having any bathroom accidents during the day.

Many people look at this type of reinforcement and think it is bribery. Let’s be honest, there is some truth to that. But, whether we realize it or not, reinforcement is part of everyone’s everyday life, even yours.  Just think of how many people run marathons just for the marathon medal! Most people go to the gym because they want great abs, not because they genuinely enjoy sweating and aching muscles! Finally, would you really go to work if you didn’t get paid? That’s right, the marathon medal, your abs and your paycheck are all reinforcers! Reinforcement is a normal part of social interaction and reinforcers can be very effective for helping children with Autism learn.

In order for an object to be a reinforcer, they must want it.  As you already know, what a child wants is always changing. So, it’s important to check every day to see what will qualify as a reinforcer for your child.

Typically to find out what is a reinforcer for a child, you would conduct a preference assessment.  A preference assessment is just a fancy and over complicated way of saying, find out what a child wants.  For a child that can talk, this may be a simple as asking, “What would you like as reward today if you have nice hands in school? Or “We are going to do your homework and when you are finished you can either watch TV or play outside for fifteen minutes. Which do you prefer?” For a child that is non-verbal, you can hold two objects in your hands and assume the one they reach for is the one they want.

It sounds so simple right! It is and it is not! What a child wants is always changing! On day a child wants pretzels and the next day they have no interest in pretzels and have moved onto to gummy snacks.  One day a child can be enamored by a toy car and by the next day they have lost all interest in it. That’s why it is so important to have a variety of reinforcers available and to rotate them as much as possible. This will keep children from getting bored of them.

From my experience, there are three types of kids that make it particularly difficult to find reinforcers for. The first child is the child who is not really interested in anything. Children with Autism often lack play skills, can have food sensitivities and may not be reinforced by social situations. This can make it really hard to find a reinforcer. If this is the case, establishing items as reinforcers by teaching your child how to play with objects is really critical. Searching for reinforcers will be a full time job. There will be a lot of trial and error. However, it is important to take time to expose your child to new stimulus all the time. Eventually, every child will find something they are interested in. I will admit, there are some children who make this a lot more difficult and frustrating for parents than others. 

The second child is difficult  is the child who is interested in everything. This may come as a surprise. Some of the hardest children to reinforce are the children who are most easy going. They are interested in everything. If you show them a puzzle, they will play with it. If you take it away and show them a car, they will play with the car. If you take away the car and give them some toy animals, they will play with those.  

The reason this presents a challenge is that when you withhold an item they are interested in until they complete a difficult task, they usually just find something else to do. Since all things have an equal value to them, there is no one specific item that will motivate them to put in effort to do something that find challenging or unpleasant.  In this case, it is best to limit access to toys. All toys other than the ones you are using should be out away and out of the reach of the child.

The third child that is difficult to reinforce is the child satiated with, the technical term for getting bored of reinforcers rather quickly.  This was the case for a client recently who was the motivation for writing this blog post.

Her son has learned to use the toilet but he often has accidents especially at home. His mom tried several different reinforcers. They will work for a day or two but then they totally stopped working. After having access to the reward, even for a short period of time, he was bored by it and he no longer was motivated enough to go to the bathroom.

She mentioned he is more motivated to go to the bathroom out of the house then he is in the house. She stated that she thinks that when he is in a public place, he is excited since it is new and different. At home, he is usually engaged with his toys, which are highly preferred activities and as a result, he doesn’t want to take the time to stop playing and use the restroom.

The more she described her son, the more I started to realize that he seems to be reinforced by something new or different. That’s when I suggested she put a different spin on a reinforcer — quite literally!

My initial recommendation was to allow him to select a prize out  of a prize box with several reinforcer options. This worked for about a week. But eventually, he got bored of his choices and had a regression.

I started to wrack my head about how we could make going to the bathroom at home exciting. In the past, I had suggested she use a reinforcer box. Her son was able to pick a prize out of a box every time that he went to the bathroom. However, he would select the same thing over and over and it quickly lost its effectiveness.

That’s when I suggested she try a prize wheel. Every time her son went to the bathroom, he could spin the wheel to see what his prize would be.  This wouldn’t totally solve the problem of reinforcers becoming satiated. But, it added an element of excitement and surprise. The wheel itself could also serve as a reinforcer which will increase the probability of a child complying.

Using a prize wheel is not limited to just potty training. It can have any application. If your child has a hard time keeping his hands to himself in school, you can have him spin the prize wheel when he gets home if you get a good report from the teacher. If you have a hard time motivating your child to try new foods, you can reward them with spinning the prize wheel if he tries new food.The possibilities are endless.

She has ordered her spin wheel and I will report back soon how it goes for him. I did some research on which spin wheels I thought would be the best and I think this one will work really well for you. It is small, only 12 inches so it can easily fit in most homes.  It also is a dry erase spin wheel so you could easily change what is on the wheel based on the time of day, what your child is currently motivated by and what things you have at home. I have included a link to it below. In full disclosure, this is an affiliate link. You are under no obligation to purchase a spinning wheel. However, if you decide to, and use this link, it will cost you the same amount and help me offset the cost of providing this free training for you.

I hope the suggestions in this blog post help you have a better understanding of reinforcement is and why it is such an important part of your child’s education plan. If you decide to try a spin wheel, I would love it if you would comment how well it worked for you on this blog posts.

Here’s What to Do if Your Child Keeps Getting Bored of Their Reinforcers!

Does it feel like every time your child learns a new skill, it is not long before you take a step backwards and the strategies you were using stops working? Are you wondering what you are doing wrong or even if you are the problem? I promise, the problem is not you. In this video I share what the problem is and how to fix it!

The Number 1 Reason Behavior Plans Fail

The Number 1 Reason Behavior Plans Fail! This simple mistake, your therapist might be making, could be the reason your child’s behavior plan is not working!!

Who Would Benefit From Applied Behavior Analysis?

Last week, a parent asked me if ABA was only for children who are aggressive. I promptly answered her with a Facebook Live. Later that day, in a meeting I was asked if ABA was only for younger kids who can’t talk. After being in the field of Autism and using ABA as my main modality of practice, I often take for granted that parents know if ABA would be helpful for their children but more and more I am finding that may not be the case.

A common misconception is that ABA only works for younger children. That is simply not true. In simple terms ABA therapists change a behavior by occurring what happened before and after a behavior. That lends itself to be used by anyone at any age. In fact, ABA is not only used when teaching children with Autism. It is used by many companies to increase productivity, by relationship counselors and even by the military. The belief that ABA is only used for younger children exists because at one time, funding to receive services was only available for young children. Thankfully today, more people have access to ABA, at least in the United States.



As a child gets older and gains more skills, ABA does look differently. Initially when a child first starts ABA a lot of time will be spent at a table doing discrete trial training. However, over time ABA will be used to teach more complex skills such as: making a meal, using a budget, making a bed, using a local bus system. ABA adapts to meet every person’s needs and can be used at any age.

 



In Case You Missed It — Here is the Recording of My FB Live: Is ABA Only For Children With Autism Who Are Aggressive?



 



Wondering What People With Autism Who Received ABA Have to Say About It? Here Are Two Podcasts I Have Recorded With Two People Who Were Diagnosed With “Low Functioning Autism” Who Attribute ABA to their Autism Recovery!



Joseph Mohs- Was Diagnosed With Infantile Autism at Birth and Now is a Well Known Speaker in the Field of Autism and a Proponent of ABA



Allison Knight was Diagnosed With Low Functioning Autism. She Received Intensive ABA an Now is an ABA Therapist!

 



You May Also Like My Videos

 

 



Is ABA Only for Kids With Autism Who Have Aggression?

There are a lot misconceptions about who ABA is and is not for! In this video, Jessica explains who a good candidate for ABA is!

ABA Terms Defined: Automatic Behavior

Did you know that the kids with Autism who benefit the ABA therapy are the ones whose parents have the best understanding of the techniques used by their therapists? This video is part of a very special series called ABA Terms Defined. It is designed to help parents like you understand the terms your therapist is using so you can have better conversations with your therapist and carryover the techniques he uses at home. This video describes the term, automatic behavior.

ABA Terms Defined: Continuous Schedule of Reinforcement

Did you know that the kids with Autism who benefit the ABA therapy are the ones whose parents have the best understanding of the techniques used by their therapist. This video is part of a very special series called ABA Terms Defined. It is designed to help parents like you understand the terms your therapist is using so you can have better conversations with your therapist and carryover the techniques he uses at home. This video describes the term, continuous schedule of reinforcement.

Choosing Effective Reinforcers to Help Children With Autism Get the Most Out of ABA!

Choosing Effective Reinforcers Are Critical to Help Children With Autism Get the Most Out of ABA! In this video, you will learn how to choose reinforcers that are super effective without being distracting! Understanding this topic may save your child hours of learning, lots of frustration and you lots of co-payments! You Want to Tune In!

Want Free Member Only Content?

You can get premium content, available only to our subscribers, delivered to your inbox at no cost to you. It's our way of letting you know, you are not on this journey alone. We want to be on your team.

We look forward to being in touch!