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Verbal Behavior

What is Verbal Behavior?

Verbal Behavior, also known as VB, is a method of teaching language that focuses on the idea that a meaning of a word is found in their functions. The term was coined by B.F. Skinner. To teach a child 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. According to Skinner, language is broken into parts that have different objectives. According to Skinner, the basic verbal parts of language include choices, 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 he is given an apple, his language is reinforced through receiving the apple. The child is likely to repeat this action with having been positively reinforced, which immediately followed the desired behavior. In essence, the child is taught to use language in a functional way by verbally requesting what he wants and, in turn, receiving what he requested.
With ABA, children are 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 language, it is able to complement the ABA Discrete Trial approach.

Skills Developed Using Verbal Behavior

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

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 complete 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 skills may not 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 for what he desires. This ability to mand may reduce problematic behavior that functioned as a means for obtaining the desired item.  Copyright © by Special Learning Inc. All right reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, contact Special Learning Inc., at: contact@special-learning.com
Suggested Resources:
Basic Social Expressions Social Story Curriculum Bundle Mand Training Across Modalities: Effective Methods to Teach Functional Communication Building Language for Early Learners Bundle


Parent Waitlist Program


November 02, 2023 | 12pm-1pm PDT

Journey to Independence

Community-based program designed to support families on waitlist

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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