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Verbal Behavior and ABA

10 blog avatar Verbal Behavior and ABA
Expert Name: Erin Lombard
Expert Title: M.Ed., BCBA
Company Name:  Step By Step Academy
Company URL: www.stepbystepacademy.org
Short Bio: Erin Lombard is a behavior consultant with over 12 years of experience working with children in homes, schools, and center based programs. 

She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and a previously certified Special Education teacher in Arizona. Along with providing consultation through SBSA, she also currently teaches Positive Behavior Support courses at Northern Arizona University.

Erin is originally from California where she earned her undergraduate degree in Child and Adolescent Studies from California State University, Fullerton. She obtained her master’s degree in Special Education from the University of Phoenix. She completed her coursework in applied behavior analysis from the University of North Texas. She is currently working on her PhD in Psychology at Capella University.

Verbal Behavior and ABA

Verbal Behavior, also known as VB, is a method of teaching language to individuals with autism. VB focuses on the idea that a meaning of a word is found in their functions. The term was coined by B.F. Skinner, considered by many to be the grandfather of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). To teach a child with autism or other special needs with language delays a meaning of a word, one must first teach its function. As an example, Instead of just teaching a word, we must teach them how to functionally apply those words. For example, a child with autism might say the word “toilet” when they see one, but may not be able to say “toilet” when they need to use the bathroom or answer correctly when asked what a toilet is used for.

Although VB and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) are both derived from philosophies established by Skinner, they use different approaches to teaching language. Some believe that Verbal Behavior Intervention is a good addition to ABA, the only evidence based, highly effective autism intervention. According to Skinner, language is broken into parts that have different objectives. According to Skinner, the basic verbal parts of language include echoics, mands, tacts, and intraverbals. The term ‘mand’ refers to the child demanding or requesting what he desires. This process works as follows: a child says apple when he wants an apple. When she is given an apple, her language is immediately reinforced through various reinforcements (snacks, toys, hugs and kisses, etc) as she is likely to repeat this action with positive reinforcements if it follows the desired behavior. In essence, the child is taught to use language in a functional way by verbally requesting what she wants.

With ABA therapy, the child is not necessarily taught to verbally request what they want, but to communicate it in some way; whether verbally, signing or gesturing, as an example. In the ABA method of teaching language, children are taught to label or name things. For example, they will learn to say the word “phone” when they see a phone. Since they are not necessarily taught the function of the phone, they may not be able to use this word in a sentence. Since the focus of VB is to teach functional communication, it complements the ABA approach.

Skills Developed Using Verbal Behavior

Verbal Behavior intervention works on developing communication skills, including receptive and expressive language across the verbal operants of mand (requesting), tact (labeling), echoics (vocal imitation), intraverbal (conversational skills). Learning across the operants also includes working on gross and fine motor imitation, textual (writing), and listener (following instructions).

Benefits of Verbal Behavior

Verbal Behavior is a great approach that can be combined with other teaching methods such as Discrete Trial Training (DTT) or Natural Environment Training (NET). In fact, combining the total operants of Verbal Behavior across both DTT and NET may contribute to acquiring a more comprehensive language repertoire (Sundberg & Michael, 2001). Children need the functional skills across the verbal operants to increase verbal behavior, particularly in environments with their peers (Sundberg & Michael, 2001). A child without strong intraverbal (conversational) skills may not be able to interact appropriately in response to their peers’ verbal behavior, which may weaken further interactions.

Verbal behavior also capitalizes on the child’s own motivation, teaching the child to
communicate what he desires. This ability to mand (request), can reduce problematic behavior which used to function as a means for obtaining the desired item.


Bondy, A., Esch, B. E., Esch, J. W., & Sundberg, M. (2010). Questions on Verbal Behavior and its Application to Individuals with Autism: An Interview with the Experts. Behavior Analyst Today, 11(3), 186-205.

Sundberg, M. L., Michael, J. (2001). The benefits of Skinner’s analysis of verbal behaviour for children with autism. Behavior Modification, 25(5), 698 – 724


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Being an RBT for me was extremely fun because where were you going to find a place where you can be completely silly without having to worry what people thought about you? This was the only job that made me feel like I could make a dramatic difference while being myself.

I also liked to be surrounded by people that had the same goals of wanting to help kids and the teamwork made the job much easier and more enjoyable.

Change and progress was the ultimate goal for our kiddos. The early intervention program was seriously only a miracle because I saw changes in the kiddos that from day one, you wouldn’t even recognize who they were.

Changes from being able to utter 3-4 words where they can only make a syllable from when they started, the behavior decreases in which kiddo that used to engage in 30-40 0 self-harm to only half, learning how to wait during games, table work where they use to swipe and drop to the floor if they had to.

My favorite was when the parents would tell us what amazing progress they were making at home. I used to tear up and felt for these parents so much because it was already difficult for them and now, they can trust and rely on ABA and the therapists knowing their goal was ours.

By Emma Rogers, BA, RBT

Mother Child
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