Verbal Behavior Training

Verbal Behavior Training teaches communication using the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis and the theories of behaviorist B.F. Skinner. Verbal Behavior Training focuses on motivating the learner to use language by connecting words with their purposes and creating opportunities to use words. The goal is to teach the learner that using words appropriately helps them obtain needed and desired objects, people and activities, make meaningful comments and reciprocally communicate rather than simply labeling objects. In other words we do not focus on teaching rote memorization of labels, rather we focus on teaching an understanding of language and how using language greatly benefits the learner. Verbal Behavior Training  typically focuses on teaching the learner verbal operants (verbal skills) such as manding (requesting), echoics (exact imitations) tacting (commenting) and intraverbals (conversational skills). Situations and instructions are varied as much as possible in order to sustain the student’s interest which promotes generalization of newly learned words to other scenarios, environments and people. High  amounts of praise and directly related positive reinforcements are utilized to reinforce and maintain new language. Parents, family members and other caregivers are taught to use verbal behavior principles to maximize learning and help generalize newly learned language.  


Why Verbal Behavior Training Is Important

Learners on the Autism spectrum many times have deficits in social communication such as greeting, farewell and conversational skills. In addition to language delays and deficits, children on the Autism spectrum who have acquired language may have difficulty in the following scenarios; altering communication to match the context or the listener, such as speaking differently in the school library versus on the playground, speaking differently to a peer than to an adult/teacher, using overly formal language, not understanding when it is appropriate to blurt out, interrupting in conversations, taking over conversations and not understanding verbal and nonverbal signals and social cues. Learners may also have difficulty inferring what is not verbally  stated (e.g., sarcasm) as well as nonliteral meanings of language (e.g., idioms, metaphors, multiple meanings, humor). Language deficits can result in limitations in social communication, social participation, relationships, academic achievement and can prevent the learner from accessing many forms of social interaction and reinforcement.

What Is Verbal Behavior Training

Focus:  Verbal Behavior Training Focuses on contriving (setting up) situations to increase the learners motivation to communicate and learn.
In his book Verbal Behavior, B.F Skinner classified language into categories/skills or what Skinner called “operants”. Each operant having its own function. Verbal Behavior Training  typically focuses on teaching the learner the following verbal operants (verbal skills); manding (requesting), echoics (exact imitations) tacting (commenting) and intraverbals (conversational  skills).

Manding:  Manding (requesting) is the first skill taught in Verbal Behavior programs. The function of a mand/request is to obtain what is desired. Our goal is to have learners manding hundreds of times per day as typical learners do. Therapists contrive situations to capture the learner’s Motivating Operation (motivation) in order to increase manding and the variety of mands. Once a mand is mastered it is transferred across the other verbal operants (echoics, tacting and intraverbals) by teaching the learner to make comments, verbally imitate more varied versions of the mand across settings and use the word conversationally. In the beginning stages of mand training, the child is only required to make requests by any means they have the ability to perform such as pointing at the item. The therapist then builds on this understanding to shape the actual word the client is trying to use. The consequence of  receiving what the child mands/requests for increases the chances that the behavior will occur in the future (reinforcement); this also decreases the likelihood that the child will use problem behavior to obtain what they want, such as crying for a cookie rather than requesting it. Motivation may be the most important variable in teaching  language, although it is typically not discussed outside of verbal behavior.

In manding training Most to Least Prompting is utilized to ensure the learner practices the correct response. Shaping (reinforcing successive approximations to a target behavior) is used to teach words that are not yet in the learners verbal repertoire. Prompts are faded as quickly as possible to prevent learners from becoming prompt dependent. Prompt dependency is evidenced when a learner waits for a verbal command before proceeding with tasks and skills rather than independently initiating tasks and skills that they know how to perform.

Echoics: The echoic operant refers to vocal imitation. A strong echoic ability is critical in teaching new language; in order to learn a child must be able to imitate. This is particularly true in teaching language. To learn to sign a child needs to have the ability to imitate motor movements and to learn to speak a child needs the ability to vocally imitate.  An echoic imitation has occurred if the child exactly echoes the speech of the speaker. By first teaching echoic skills to learners we can begin to reinforce language that may have otherwise not have been reinforcing to the child. Once a child imitates/echoes words they are provided with strong praise and reinforcement in an effort to pair words with reinforcement so the child will begin to enjoy using words. We teach a child to develop a strong echoic repertoire by repeatedly saying certain words and we reinforce it many times once the child echoes the word, which increases the probability of the child using those words in the future. 

Tacting:  A tact is a comment used to share an experience or draw another’s attention. For example a child may say “birdies!”  to point out flying birds. This verbal operant is not controlled by the child wanting something, rather the child is making a comment on some thing in their environment.  Tacting is taught in verbal behavior training once a child can mand and use echoics. This type of verbal operant is usually reinforced with verbal praise or confirmation. Tangible reinforcers such as toys and food can be used to reinforce this verbal operant if the child is not reinforced/does not enjoy verbal praise.

Intraverbal:  Intraverbal skills are conversational skills which allow people to discuss something that is unseen in their environment.  Answering a question and filling in another person’s statement are both examples of intraverbals.  Filling in another’s statement is termed intraverbal fill in.  With younger clients, intraverbal fill ins may be a nursery song such as “twinkle twinkle little______”, or statements such as “ready, set,________” as well as answering Wh (who, what, where, when…) questions.

Correction Procedure

In order to reduce errors, prevent frustration, teach skills quickly and keep sessions fun and motivating, learners are prompted using the most likely prompt to evoke the correct response (Most to Least prompting) immediately after an error and within 2-3 seconds after no response. This teaching procedure is termed Errorless Learning. The level of prompt is faded out as quickly as possible until the child can use the verbal operant independently. Once a child makes a request the therapist immediately reinforces the child by presenting what the child requested and repeating the word. This encourages independent manding and speaking.