Verbal Behavior is a communication theory that proposes that language, like any other observable action, is a learned behavior that can be acquired, developed, and sustained through the application of behavioral strategies, (prompting, reinforcing, planned ignoring, etc.).
Supporting language and communication development with verbal behavior strategies differs from other traditional theories of language, but shares the common goal of promoting more effective, appropriate, and consistent communication proficiency in children who have inherent difficulties in acquiring these skills.
Verbal Behavior can be difficult to understand and the terminology and language surrounding the theory further complicate its use, however, verbal behavior is an important tool for analyzing and supporting language development for children with autism for whom language acquisition is almost universally delayed. It is important that parents, teachers, and other potential instructors become familiar with the fundamental idea of verbal behavior—that it reflects a social interaction between a speaker and a listener and that language is modified by the speaker’s access to reinforcement and the “environment” initiated by the listener.
BF Skinner and the Theory of Verbal Behavior
The theory of verbal behavior was initially put forth by BF Skinner in the 1950s. In his research, Skinner suggested that language is a learned behavior that responds to outside reinforcement and that the most effective way to promote communication development is to address language through the analysis of these interactions.
Skinner indicated that language instruction should be grounded in the principles and strategies of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). A child’s language and communication skills can be modified using the laws of behavioral change, and language growth is affected and mediated by the types of responses the child receives.
Verbal Behavior analysis requires recognition and understanding of language units and their specific purposes for the speaker. These language units are referred to as verbal operants, (of which there are 6). Brief definitions and examples of the core and secondary terminology of verbal behavior appear below:
Core Verbal Behavior Terms
1. Mand: Asking for reinforcers
Example – A young boy requests “Mom” because he wants to see his mother.
2. Tact: Naming items, actions, events, objects, etc.
Example – A young boy says “Mom” because he sees his mother in front of him.)
3. Intraverbal: Answering questions and having conversations in which the speaker’s words are “controlled” by previous statements or words
Example – A young boy says “Mom” because someone else has just stated, “Dad and —-“
4. Echoic: Repeating what has been heard
Example – A young boy says “Mom” because someone else has just said “Mom”
Initial training should focus on these four communication skills, which mark the necessary starting points for children’s language development.
Secondary Verbal Behavior Terms
5. Textual: Reading written words
Example – A young boy says “apple” because he sees the word “apple” written in front of him)
6. Transcription: Writing and spelling words spoken to an individual
Example – A young boy writes “apple” because the teacher has just said “apple” aloud)
Verbal Behavior-based training starts with the establishment of the mand, tact, echoic, and intraverbal. Instructors emphasize the integral differences between these terms in order to promote and reinforce the use of appropriate language in different circumstances. The behavior of the listener, i.e. their responses and interactions with the speaker, encourages the speaker to use different types of language in different environments.
Through the careful analysis of the speaker’s verbal behavior, teachers can identify specific weaknesses and address them through the application of ABA concepts and strategies, (reinforcement, extinction, prompting, etc.).
The Benefits of Verbal Behavior Interventions for People with Autism?
Although Skinner’s Verbal Behavior approach was not designed for children with ASD, research suggests that verbal behavior interventions for learners with autism are a highly productive way to improve their communication skills. Given the well-documented success of ABA strategies to improve the behaviors of people with ASD, the effective extension of these techniques to the domain of language is not surprising.
Employing Verbal Behavior to treat children with ASD begins with a thorough assessment of the child’s present skills and deficits in language. In many cases, a verbal behavior-based assessment tool, (called the VB-MAPP,) provides the requisite information. Based on the unique language and skills profile of each thoroughly-assessed student with ASD, teachers can then create educational programming that helps remediate specific deficits and subsequently increase independence and inclusion.
Use of Verbal Behavior Approach with People with Autism
The functional analysis of behavior has proven to be an effective strategy for modifying the behaviors of children, adolescents, and adults with autism. The Verbal Behavior approach to autism treatment considers language to be a behavior that can be affected and improved through high-quality behavior analysis. When applied, behavioral principles, (prompting, fading, shaping, modeling, generalization, etc.) can yield positive behavior changes and socially-valid improvement.
The functional analysis of a student’s Verbal Behavior leads to the identification of the relevant aspects of language development and informs a plan for improving the student’s language skills. The most common verbal errors shown by children with autism are difficulties with answering questions. As Teachers identify specific communication and language barriers that interfere with a student’s everyday interactions, (also noting the circumstances in which language deficits occur,) they use their knowledge of the child’s language profile to address their complicated and individualized impediments.
Comparing Approaches: Functional Analysis vs Structural Analysis
While traditional language and communication intervention methods focus on the structural analysis of languages, such as syntax and vocabulary development, the Verbal Behavior approach focuses on the functional analysis of language, as educators seek to learn the purpose of each language demonstration.
Components of High-Quality Verbal Behavior-based Instruction
Providing high-quality Verbal Behavior intervention for children with autism requires that teachers receive extensive training on:
- Key concepts of Verbal Behavior
- Assessment strategies
- Creating objectives based on assessments
AHRC NYC’s teachers receive training in Verbal Behavior terminology as they pertain to treatment. ABA principles and strategies provide the foundation for language intervention. In order to complete an assessment of a student’s language skills and deficits, Teachers use the Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program, (VB-MAPP) a field-tested assessment tool that provides information for future Verbal Behavior instruction for students with autism, allowing them to obtain essential information about the student’s current level of communication ability.
The assessment will also reveal important information about beginning academic skills, grammar and syntax, classroom skills, play and social skills, and much more data to inform future instruction.
The Verbal Behavior approach can work in tandem with other classroom strategies, (Discrete Trial Training or ABA-based programming,) to cultivate a comprehensive program for skills development. Researchers have suggested that teachers should focus on some essential issues when employing the Verbal Behavior approach, including:
- Mand Training
- Recognizing the role of motivation in language and communication intervention
- Intraverbal Training
- The notion of Automatic Reinforcement
- Using Functional Analysis to understand verbal responses, verbal errors, language assessment, and curriculum development
Verbal Behavior-based instruction and programming that address these core, pivotal skills is another reason why AHRC New York City teachers are equipped with most effective and comprehensive tools to increase the communication, independence, and quality of life for learners with autism.
Who Is Qualified to Provide the Verbal Behavior approach to Autism Treatment?
Verbal Behavior for students with autism should be supervised by a teacher or administrator with a BCBA and extensive training in verbal behavior theory. Expertise in a Verbal Behavior-based assessment tool such as the Verbal Behavior-MAPP is also necessary. This supervisor should lead the training sessions, observations, and advisement of the teachers who are expected to utilize Verbal Behavior strategies in their classrooms. Their expanded knowledge and experience with verbal behavior terminology and application for students with autism is transferred to the relevant staff.
Teachers who employ verbal behavior strategies should be well-versed in ABA and other behavioral strategies and should be experienced in the application of behavioral principles in order to modify and improve the behaviors of students with ASD.
The Role of Verbal Behavior in AHRC NYC’s Schools
The Verbal Behavior approach to teaching language to students with autism and other disabilities is primarily used in our preschools and elementary school. We are committed to providing the most efficacious approaches to improve language and communication skills for our students with autism. Our schools have utilized ABA strategies from their inception. Verbal Behavior analysis is a logical extension to behavioral approaches and seamless addition to classroom curricula. Our BCBA supervisors and instructors oversee the Verbal Behavior approach and ensure that our extensively-trained teachers are correctly assessing the students and providing instruction that is derived from the student’s language and learning profile.
When the Verbal Behavior approach is being used, teachers start with either the VB-MAPP or the ABLLS-R assessment tool, both of which have ample evidence of their thoroughness and utility.