What is Verbal Behavior?: Another Type of ABA

In the “The ABA Umbrella: Different Types of ABA” post, I referred to three types of ABA that are frequently utilized—Discrete Trial Training (DTT), Natural Environment Training (NET)/Incidental Teaching (IT) and Verbal Behavior (VB). We have talked about DTT, and NET/IT in detail, so I would like to introduce you to the third, VB.

As an overview, Verbal Behavior (VB) is a structured, 1:1 therapy, but unlike DTT (which is another type of 1:1 therapy), VB is language-based. The child will learn to make the connection between a word and its meaning. B.F. Skinner is the man behind Verbal Behavior. He breaks language down into 7 “verbal operants,” which are a unit of behavior in a speaker. That is, what the speaker does with language.

I’m not going to cover all of them; however, I will break down 4 that are typically utilized in ABA (and life in general): mands, tacts, echoics and intraverbals.

Mands (AKA requests)

The ability to mand is so important; it is vital to have the ability to request things, for wants/needs and to gain information. Manding starts at birth—a baby cries to get his or her needs met. This advances to gestures, words, questions. Mands are utilized to gain information, in the form of “wh-” or “how” questions. (Ahh, a toddler’s favorite: “Why? Why? Why?”) As toddlers and children develop language, whether it’s verbal, signs, a device, picture exchange, etc., it is vital to teach and practice mands, as they are valuable in all aspects of life.

Tacts (AKA labels)

The ability to label items is critical as well. We interact with items every day, so it is important to learn to WHAT items are. This can be done expressively (verbally labeling) or receptively (for example, pointing when asked to identify a specific object). Not only does this include the names of items, but also physical attributes, such as adjectives (i.e., “green leaf,” “furry cat,” “scratchy sand,” “wet sponge”), prepositions (i.e., “the ball is under the table”) and actions (i.e., “the boy is clapping”). Tacts can come from something observed as well (i.e., “Oh look! I see a cat!”).

Echoics (AKA verbal imitation)

This includes repeating words, sounds, approximations of words or sounds, intentionally or unintentionally. We use this everyday: for example, as a parent, when teaching a new word to your child, you may ask him or her to imitate a word or sound. “Say, ‘spoon,’” “Say, ‘baba.’” This also applies to noises and sentences.

Intraverbals (AKA conversational skills)

This combines three of the above verbal operants. As you can imagine, conversational skills are very valuable. Not only from a behavioral standpoint, but from a social one as well. If conversational skills are lacking, this could hamper interactions children can have with others. This may include your typical conversation, fill-in-the-blanks or asking/answering questions in the context of a conversation. We understand that with some children, especially those with developmental disabilities or speech/language disorders, conversational skills don’t come easy or at all, and that’s ok.

What are some examples of VB being used during a therapy session?

Verbal Behavior not only works on requesting, labeling/identifying items, and having conversation, but it teaches a child how to FUNCTIONALLY use their words. Not only is a child learning to label objects, but also learn what they do. It can be contrived at the table (DTT) or can happen naturally (NET/IT).

An example of a contrived scenario—the therapist shows your child a crayon. Ideally, this is how we would like the scenario to play out: Therapist: “What is this?” Child: “A crayon.” T: “What do you use a crayon for?” C: “Coloring.” T: “What do you color with?” C: “A crayon.” Naturally, VB can be embedded into typical conversation or play. For example, during play, a therapist could practice labeling items or talking about what certain toys do. “Hey, look at that truck! What does the truck do? Ooh, the truck has a horn! What sound does a horn make?”

How can you use VB with your child?

Work on helping your child request and label items. Label items that your child is using and what he or she is doing. Describe items using prepositions and adjectives. Use echoics to teach new words. Talk, talk, talk to your child, whether you think they understand or not—you may be surprised at what your child picks up just by that alone! “Give” your child words, explain how you use items and/or what they do in and out of context. Embed it into play. Depending on where your child is in his or her language development, carry on a conversation or encourage the use of “wh-” questions.

These are things you probably do every day without being aware of it!

Melissa Laco, BCBA, COBA