Why Teach Across the Verbal Operants?

First of all, should probably say what a verbal operant actually is. B.F. Skinner was a top bloke. His contribution to the field is sensational. In 1957, he wrote a particularly influential book; Verbal Behaviour. In this book, he outlined the verbal operants.


A verbal operant is essentially a unit of language; a broken-down category, a unit of analysis. These verbal operants are often words that people don’t tend to use on a daily basis. Skinner used different words to define them, because his analysis of language was different to most. He looked at the function, and not the structure (which most people looked at, and still do).


So, words such as ‘mand’, ‘tact’, and ‘intraverbal’ were born. Here is a table that hopefully simplifies what each one is;

Verbal Operant

Simply Put


Mand A request Saying ‘crayon’ when you want some crayons
Tact Labelling something Saying ‘crayon’ solely because you’ve seen a crayon
Intraverbal Answering questions/conversation skills Saying ‘crayon’ when someone asks ‘what do you colour with?’
Echoic Vocal imitation Saying ‘crayon’ because someone else says ‘crayon’
Textual Reading Saying ‘crayon’ because you saw the written word crayon
Transcription Writing what someone has said Writing crayon because someone said crayon

Arguably the most common views on the development of language are from the field of cognitive psychology (Sundberg in Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007). So why do we need these words? It’s because Skinner defined them based on their unique function. More common terms that are used (by non ABA folk), are not defined this way. For example, a term such as ‘expressive language’ is often used by other professionals in different fields, but it tends to incorporate areas such as mand, tact, and intraverbal, without defining them separately as different skills. The problem with this is that we then assume some skills are known. Here’s an example to hopefully clear this up, click on this link to access a little table – Antecedent Behaviour Consequence


The behaviour in the table is all the same; saying/signing ‘crayon’, but no process is the same because of what came before and/or after the behaviour. They are all different. More typical analysis of learning can assume generalisation across verbal operants, but as many of you reading know, just because you can tact a ball, doesn’t mean you can read the word, mand for a ball, or answer intraverbal questions about a ball; all these things may need to be taught individually. Only then do we ‘know’ ball. 

Other common areas discussed during assessments such as the VB MAPP or ABLLS-R is receptive language (or listener responding), which is where you basically follow an instruction as a listener.

For example, someone says ‘find the crayon’ and you touch the crayon. This is not technically a verbal operant, but it is a category that we teach across. 


If you’re a bit of a geek like me, and you want to test yourself, here is a link to an exercise from Cooper, Heron, and Heward’s awesome text-book on ABA – VB Exercise

Challenging Behaviour – Part 3

We should always keep the learners’ safety and dignity as paramount. It’s also important to rule out any medical issues when dealing with problem behaviour.


One very important thing to consider when working on decreasing challenging behaviour is an extinction burst. An extinction burst basically means that when you start working on reducing problem behaviour, it gets worse before it gets better. Two bi-products of an extinction are intensity (more of the same behaviour, at a higher intensity) and variety (some challenging behaviour you haven’t seen before). An example of this is the classic ‘child trying to get mums attention scenario’.



Mum is talking, and the child comes up and says ‘mum’, the mum ignores, the child persists ‘mum, mum, mum’ (this is the intensity; more of the same behaviour), but the mum continues to ignore, so the child pulls on mum’s arm (variety, a new behaviour).


Your consultant should have a good chat with you about this, because if you ‘give in’ and reinforce the challenging behaviour during the extinction burst, you are likely to make the whole thing worse in the long run. You’re better off not working on it at all if you think you can’t manage the extinction burst, so think carefully. If you reinforce during the extinction burst, you’re essentially encouraging the learner to engage in more intense problem behaviour, sooner.


So here are some of the key tips to remember when dealing with problem behaviour;

  • Remember, as hard as it might be initially, keep calm, think about the antecedent (why the problem behaviour occurred), and what consequence you should deliver. The better your analysis becomes, the calmer you will be during incidents of problem behaviour.
  • Make sure you are reinforcing appropriate behaviours, and your reinforcement is being delivered well.
  • Don’t get caught up talking during the incident, it’s consequences that will shape behaviour.
  • Don’t negotiate during problem behaviour; nothing positive should occur in the learner’s environment until problem behaviour has ceased.
  • You could also try video the problem behaviour, so you can watch it back to analyse the situation. 

This concludes the 3 part challenging behaviour posts, I hope you found it useful!

Challenging Behaviour – Part 2

When working on reducing problem behaviour you need to be sure to deny any reinforcement related to the antecedent when problem behaviour occurs.


Here are some common reasons challenging behaviour may occur, with typical consequences we should deliver in brackets;

  • Lack of effective communication (requests) (the ‘count and mand’ procedure could be used for this)
  • Avoidance/escape of demands (follow through with reasonable demands)
  • Sensory reinforcement is valuable (block and re-direct)
  • Wanting attention (ignore)
  • Having to wait (continue to wait until the learner has waited appropriately)
  • Being told no (continue to deny access to what the learner wanted)
  • Being interrupted from a preferred activity/having to transition (continue to interrupt /transition)


It’s also important to reinforce appropriate alternative behaviours where we can. This,
coupled with ensuring the appropriate consequence is delivered if problem behaviour does occur, will most likely reduce problem behaviours faster.


Here are some of the best ways to do this;

  • Lack of effective communication (requests) – teach mands, the more spontaneous mands a learner has in their repertoire, the less likely they are to engage in other, less desirable, challenging behaviours.
  • Avoidance/escape demands – implement an appropriate schedule of reinforcement that competes with the motivation to avoid/escape. Chances are, if there is a lot of problem behaviour when demands are placed, your reinforcement needs to be better.
  • Sensory reinforcement is valuable – teach an appropriate behaviour to achieve sensory reinforcement (e.g. if your learner swipes things off of a table to see them fall, teach them to build blocks and knock them down instead).
  • Wanting attention – teach to request attention appropriately (tap on arm, saying someone’s name).
  • Having to wait – initially provide reinforcement during periods the learner is expected to wait (as long as there is no problem behaviour), and fade reinforcement gradually over time (as long as the learner is waiting successfully).
  • Being told no – provide alternatives as long as there is no problem behaviour (you can’t have chocolate, but you can have some raisins).
  • Being interrupted from a preferred activity/having to transition – use promise reinforcers (provide something the learner wants, initiate the interruption and immediately deliver reinforcer in the absence of problem behaviour).


This is a very brief snippet of what could be done, and there are comprehensive protocols for working on a range of problem behaviours, that should be overseen by a BCBA/BCaBA, with thorough data being taken.

Challenging Behaviour – Part 1

This will be part 1 of 3 on challenging behaviour. There’s a lot that could be covered, so I thought I would spread them across 3 posts to not overwhelm readers!


First, the following point should be noted. I’ve heard people say something like, ‘little Jonny had a behaviour in the last session’; well I should hope so, as behaviour is anything a living organism does. Referring to an incident  as a challenging behaviour, or problem behaviour is clearer.


Challenging behaviour is a reality for many of those on the spectrum. Challenging behaviour can present in many different ways, but it’s important to look at why something is happening – the antecedent.


For each incident of challenging behaviour, we should strive to look at the ABC (antecedent, behaviour, consequence).


A – Antecedent – the ‘trigger’, why did it happen, the function

B – Behaviour – what the learner did, the challenging behaviour

C – Consequence – what consequence was achieved


Rather than adopting a blanket consequence for a challenging behaviour, we should use the consequence appropriate to the antecedent. For example, a child may hit regularly, but each incident may occur for a different reason. What we do should be dictated on why the problem behaviour occurred.


There’s no such thing as ‘out of the blue’. It may seem that way as the antecedent isn’t clear, but there is always a reason. When it’s difficult to see the antecedent, it may be worth taking some video, and if you catch any challenging behaviour, watch it back and see if you notice anything. Try looking at what happened immediately before the onset of the incident.



Here is a 0-50 graph used to plot data

Taking constant accurate data is vital. It’s the data, and graphing the data that informs us whether we are making good decisions, and whether the improvement is because of our interventions. It’s a good idea to take data on the following; total frequency of problem behaviour, total duration of problem behaviour, and frequency of problem behaviour for each antecedent (I’ll discuss common antecedents in Part 2).