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.

VerbalBehavior

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

Example

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

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NET – Where Learning Should be Super Fun

Hey! Apologies for the long silence. As many people reading this may know, September is a mad month! I should be back in the game now.

A large part of most programmes should consist of natural environment teaching (NET). This refers to teaching in typically occurring daily events; basically learning away from the table/clinical setting. For younger learners, this could be through play, for older learners, it could be out in the community.

It’s a good idea to choose (where possible) motivating topics to embed your teaching. This way learning is fun! Make a list of all of your current targets, next to a list of your learners’ favourite topics/games, and see how you can relevantly incorporate the different targets among them. For older learners, targets may lend themselves to a more functionally oriented programme (as opposed to a developmentally sequenced set of targets), so it’s a good idea to set your targets based on the common environments the learner accesses (e.g. setting goals across all of the verbal operants based on going to the shop, local swimming pool, train station etc). A good way to plan all of this is to create a NET lesson plan for yourself. Be sure to include easy tasks also, as we should always strive to follow the teaching procedures outlined in my previous blog.

Here’s an example NET lesson plan for a younger learner (sheet derived from Carbone Clinic)

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The best thing about NET is that you can make it so fun that the learner doesn’t even see it as ‘learning’ (in the boring sense of the word). A big part of ABA is programming responses for generalisation, and NET is a great opportunity for this. Lesley Love, the teacher/BCaBA who hired me originally at Treetops, always said that every part of the day was a teachable moment, not just the time spent in the classroom, and challenged us to take advantage of every moment. This has always stayed with me. It’s also a good opportunity to model lots of appropriate skills, such as play skills/functional skills, and to constantly model appropriate vocal behaviour (you should always be talking, I never shut up!).

It’s been my experience so far that therapists (myself included when I first started!) find table work easier, because it’s structured. It can be more challenging to teach in the natural environment, but we must strive to, it’s really important. I found the best way to get better at NET was planning. The NET lesson plan is a gift, organisation and preparation is key. Saying this, the therapist also needs to be flexible enough to adapt to unplanned for teaching opportunities.

Another point to make is that the child’s VR (schedule of reinforcement (how many responses are required before something good for the learner happens)) can often get overlooked, and as a result more problem behaviour can occur during NET, so be mindful of this.

Plan well, have fun, and use every moment. Get yourself in the natural environment and have a right nice time.

7 Teaching Procedures to Smash ITT

Table work, ITT (intensive table teaching), DTT (discrete trial training), are all ways of talking about working at the table.

 

The following teaching procedures are taken from the excellent Carbone et al (2010) paper. These teaching procedures will make table sessions, and pretty much all teaching, more effective. Most importantly, they get your learner to learn because they want to, not because they have to!

1. Pairing and Manding

When beginning a table session, pairing and manding is your first priority. You should present an array of reinforcing items for ‘free’ (no requesting necessary). Then it’s your job to follow your learner’s motivation, see what they are most motivated for among the items that are presented. To be sure that the item will function as a reinforcer, you should require them to mand for it, if they are willing to ask for it, then is most likely a reinforcer. This process helps you identify effective reinforcement for your table session, which is essential to promote good responses, and also decreasing the likelihood that your child will engage in escape motivated problem behaviour.

 

2. Stimulus Fading

Another method to prevent escape motivated problem behaviour (crying, whining, flopping etc when demands are placed) is to fade in the amount of demands. This will be relative to your child’s VR. A Variable Ratio schedule of reinforcement has been found to be the best schedule to maintain steady rates of responding (sorry got carried away there, but it is a juicy science). A VR is basically how many demands you can place before your learner loses interest. You should start at the lower end of your learners’ VR, for example if your learner has a VR of 2, you should start with 1 demand then reinforce, and increase the amount of demands each time until you reach the higher end of the VR which would be no more than 4. If the learner’s VR is 10, stick between 5 and 20 (half below, double above). It’s not just about the amount of responses; you should also fade in the effort and difficulty of responses (don’t probe acquisition skills (skills you’re teaching) too soon).

 

3. Differential reinforcement

If your learner responds well (not making errors, or getting a ‘yes’ on the probe (the first time you ask them)) then you should reinforce more. You can do this in various ways, either longer duration of an activity (e.g. giving your learner longer on the iPad), more than one reinforcer (e.g. iPad, slinky, and bubbles), or a higher quantity of a reinforcer (e.g. 3 crisps instead of 1). Equivalently, if your learner responds poorly (e.g. errors frequently on mastered targets, or gets a ‘no’ on a probe) then you should deliver less reinforcement. This process is referred to as differential reinforcement. Think of it as ‘performance related pay’.

 

4. Errorless Teaching

Throughout a table session you should minimise errors (your learner responding incorrectly) as much as possible. Frequent errors increase the likelihood of escape-motivated behaviour.

If your child errors this is the error correction procedure you should follow: –

 

Re-state the SD (the demand)

Prompt response

 

Re-state the SD

Fade on your prompt

 

Distracter (between 1 and 3 previously mastered skills)

 

Re-state the SD

Fade again on prompt if needed/let child respond independently

 

Effective prompting will also help minimise errors. You should follow the prompt schedule of most to least (go in with a higher prompt and fade as needed). Your prompts should be the most effective and least intrusive you can do. Remember to prompt as much as necessary to ensure a correct response while not over prompting when not needed. Each trial you run will be different. Don’t fade if you think an error is likely.

 

5. Pace of Instruction

Another teaching procedure to consider when at the table is the pace of instruction. A fast pace of instruction is important as it prevents the likelihood of escape motivated problem behavior. Using short ITI’s (inter trial intervals – the time between the learners last response and your next demand) gives less opportunity for problem behavior to occur, and also provides socially mediated reinforcement for your learner quicker. It is also worth paying attention to your learner’s latency (how long it takes your learner to respond to your demand) to responding, the longest time between a demand and a response should be 2 seconds, and anything longer should be error corrected. Basically, don’t hang about, get it done well and in a timely fashion.

 

6. Intersperse Instructions

When teaching a target at the table, you should be using a master pile; these are skills that have previously been mastered. The mastered targets are regarded as ‘easy’ tasks, and acquisition targets are regarded as ‘difficult’ tasks. Difficult tasks have been found to be associated with a worsening set of conditions due to higher errors, more effort, and less reinforcement (basically new targets are harder). It’s important to intersperse difficult tasks within the easy tasks – 80% easy, 20% difficult to help prevent this. This (hopefully) ensures loads of success.

 

7. Mix and Vary Tasks

This is short and simple. Research has shown if you repeat the same task over and over again, it’s boring! This can lead to an increase in escape-motivated behaviour. So mix demands across different verbal operants; listener responding, imitation, tact, intraverbal, visual etc.

 

I hope this all makes sense. I’m hoping to get a video of this to post it in action.

Smash ITT.

Reflexive MO article – Carbone + Tirri

Leg it to the Table!

So, with some learners, it’s appropriate to be running ‘table sessions’. A table session is an intensive teaching period of many tasks to provide a lot of opportunities to teach targets. As a general rule, I wouldn’t run table sessions with pre school age children, as most of those programmes are based around natural environment teaching and play.

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It’s important to generalise all teaching in to the natural environment, but learners (and therapists) often respond well to table sessions, as it’s very structured, and (should be) reinforcement rich.

 

First things first; set up the table as a fun place to be. You want your learners to run to the table, not run away. If you are working with a learner who has a history of problem behaviour related to table teaching, forget demands, just pair. Build a stronger history of reinforcement at the table than problem behaviour. Just go there for fun! Deliver all of the learners favourite things, and play with their favourite toys, and the only requirement is that they stay at the table. 

 

Once your learner is ready for table sessions (no longer having problem behaviour when asked to sit at the table), make sure you prepare well. Have a range of possible reinforcers ready, all necessary teaching materials (targets on acquisition – being taught, and mastered skills), and probe data sheets needed.

 

For most learners, a 15-minute schedule is appropriate, (15 minutes NET, 15 minutes’ table, 15 minutes NET etc.). For younger learners it may be less, and older learners (particularly secondary age and over) it would be more, but of course this should be totally tailored to the individual learner.

 

Version 2

Master Pile

Version 2

Tact Picture

Version 2

Intraverbal

Version 2

Imitation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next post is going to be on awesome teaching procedures to use at the table, and in general life!

Manding – A Very Important Target!

This is a juicy one.

Once you’re paired with your learner, you should begin manding. A mand is a request for a desired item/activity/action/information. The word ‘mand’ is derived from ‘demand or command’. This skill area is very important as it allows learners to access their environment and communicate their needs. The more functional requests a learner has, the less likely other, undesirable behaviours will serve the mand function (e.g. crying, whining, hitting etc. in order to get something).

The first thing you should do is to contrive (build) motivation. You should never prompt a mand when there is no motivation (don’t require your learner to say/sign for something unless you’re sure they want it). Some learners will make this obvious; reaching for an item, pointing to something, but others will make you work for it; maybe a subtle look at the item, or simply tolerate it being around.

Sometimes it may take time to build motivation, and you may need to try a variety of items/activities before the learner has motivation to mand. This is fine, be sure to not rush, motivation is really important when teaching a mand repertoire. If the learner isn’t motivated, try and up your game!

Make sure you ‘cleanse the environment’, in other words, don’t have the learners’ favourite things freely available elsewhere, otherwise why do they need to come to you? Keep reinforcers under your control.

Little and often. The smaller/less duration you deliver a reinforcer, the more likely you are to keep motivation high, and get more teaching trials. Say you’re teaching a mand for ‘biscuit’. Break that bad boy in to tiny pieces. One biscuit can go a long way. If each time your learner says biscuit you give them a whole one, you’ll go through loads, and they’ll probably get full pretty quick! 15 trials from one biscuit is better than 1 trial for one biscuit. You must also consider the learner losing motivation if you are too tight-fisted with reinforcement.

Another good habit to take on is to pair (associate) the item with the vocal/sign you require the learner to do. For example, when playing with a ball, repeatedly saying ‘ball’ when you do it; this will increase the likelihood of requesting spontaneously.

Be sure to use differential reinforcement throughou manding. The more spontaneously and independently the learner is manding, deliver more of the reinforcer, and less for weaker responses. Think of it like performance related pay!

The immediacy of the reinforcer is important, the quicker the reinforcer is delivered, the more likely it was because of the behaviour that preceded it (e.g. the vocal/sign), which we want to encourage. Also, the longer you take to deliver the item, the more likely a less desirable behaviour may occur. Deliver the item sharpish.

It’s important to errorlessly teach – don’t let the learner error when manding (leaving it too long before prompting, or manding incorrectly). Prompt as much as needed to respond correctly. It’s important to remember, use the most effective, but least intrusive prompt. Prompt him enough to respond correctly, but don’t over prompt, it’s a very fine line. Over time, prompts can be faded.

Intersperse mands. Don’t teach one at a time. For early learners, work on 5-10 initially. As a general rule, don’t do more than 3-5 of the same mand in a row, mix it up.

This final point gets a mixed review. Don’t choose generalised mands (vague mands, ‘more’, ‘again’, ‘please’). This probably goes against what most people out of the field will advise you to do. But think of it like this….you’re playing with the learner, surrounded by toys – cars, trains, planes, balls – having a good old play. You’re doing loads of cool stuff, having a lovely time, and the learner says ‘more’ or ‘again’. You do what you think the learner wants (1 of the many things you have been doing), but you don’t do what the learner wanted, so they engage in problem behaviour. Bad times. This can all been avoided if we teach specific mands from the off, such as ‘car’, ‘train’, ‘plane’, ‘ball’, notmore’.

I’ve been trained to mostly take trial by trial mand data, recording individual mands as they occur, recording prompt levels, and vocal approximations (if needed) which is definitely needed for those learners who have a developing mand repertoire, especially if you’re trying to shape vocals. Data for this is pretty intense, but it’s necessary. Data is our friend, and ensures we are making the correct decisions for that learner.  

So, get some potential reinforcers together, decide on the mands you want to teach, have fun, and get stuck in!

3 and a ½ Top Assessments – My Favourite Assessments


Assessment days are manic. You never really know how it’s going to go. I arrive, boxes of resources, ready to work my socks off. It can certainly be a struggle fitting a whole assessment in in one day, but it depends on different factors; how much problem behaviour (if any) the learner engages in, and the skill level of your learner.

 

Your consultant should do some form of baseline when they start the programme. I’ve always been trained to design a learners individualised curriculum based on the assessments, using assessment goals to design the programme. This seems like common sense to me, it’s a great way to track goals/progress. I like to update the assessments around every 6 months. I also update them if there will be a change in provision, or sooner than 6 months if there’s been a big jump/regression in the learners’ skills.

 

VB MAPP

VB MAPPI love the VB MAPP. This is my most commonly used assessment. It’s a great assessment to get a good baseline of the learners’ skills and barriers to learning. VB MAPP stands for ‘Verbal Behaviour Milestones Assessment and Placement Program’ (VB-MAPP, Sundberg, 2008), which was largely influenced by B.F. Skinner’s (1957) ‘Analysis of Verbal Behaviour’ (find out more about verbal behaviour here). The VB-MAPP can make it easier to compare the current abilities of a learner to those of a ‘typically’ developing child as it highlights a students’ strengths and weaknesses of a variety of critical skills. The assessment breaks down skills in to small achievable goals, and is split across 3 levels, covering 16 different skill areas. These skill areas comprise of areas such as;

  • Mand – (request)
  • Tact – (label)
  • Motor Imitation
  • Listener responding (following instructions)
  • Intraverbal (fill in statements, answering questions)
  • Social skills
  • Play skills
  • Visual skills
  • Group responding
  • Classroom skills
  • Echoic (vocal imitation)
  • Spontaneous vocal output
  • Listener responding by feature, function, and class
  • Reading 
  • Writing
  • Math

The VB MAPP is awesome

 

ABLLS-R

The ABLLS-R (Assessment of basic language and learning skills- Revised) is another excellent assessment. It is used to assess current levels that the learners are working at, and helps structure the programmes we run with the learners.ABLLS-R

It provides a comprehensive review of skills from 25 skill areas that most typically developing children acquire up to the age of 4 years of age. The goals in the ABLLS-R are usually ‘chunkier’ (larger criteria for mastery), and aren’t as developmentally sequenced as the VB MAPP goals. The ABLLS-R covers some skill areas that the VB MAPP doesn’t, such as self care skills.  When designing individualized curriculum, I like to use goals from the ABLLS-R and VB MAPP together.

 

AFLS

AFLSThe AFLS (Assessment of Functional Living Skills) comes in 6 different books;

  • Basic Living Skills
  • School Skills
  • Home Skills
  • Community Participation
  • Independent Living Skills
  • Vocational Skills

 

The authors define functional skills as ‘commonly age appropriate skills that are used everyday for typical activities and routines and are essential for independence’. Basically, what skills does someone that age need to live as independently as possible.

 

The AFLS was developed over several years analysing which skills are required for daily functioning in various settings and independent life within the community. The assessment was designed to further refine and teach additional skills of independence, social interactions, work participation, and other independent living skills.

 

There is a certain point in a learner’s life when conceptual learning, like sorting shapes and colours, needs to be replaced with specific practical skills required to improve learner’s independence (Partington and Mueller, 2012).

 

This assessment is good to use for learners who are secondary school age, particularly from 16 years old.

 

Essentials for Living

My homework is to look in to this assessment more. A few colleagues talk highly of this, and from what I do know, it’s a good assessment for teenage + learners who have more severe developmental difficulties.efl

 

I’d be interested to hear if anybody recommends any other cool assessments! You can buy these assessments here at Treezy, which is a lovely website for resources!

 

 

References

  • Partington, J and Mueller, M (2012). The Assessment of Functional Living Skills. Pleasant Hill, CA: Behaviour Analysts, Inc; Stimulus Publications
  • Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal Behaviour.  New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts
  • Sundberg, M. L. (2008). The Verbal Behaviour Milestones Assessment and Placement Program: The VB-MAPP. Concord, CA: AVB Press.

What is VB?

So, another abbreviation – VB, what is that? Is it still ABA? How is it different?

VB (also known as VBA, AVB, ABA/VB) stands for verbal behaviour, and it refers to B.F. Skinners analysis of verbal behaviour. It’s all I’ve ever done, so I’m a big fan. Like my previous post, this is a big topic to cover, but hopefully this will give you a brief idea of what it entails.

You don’t do ABA or VB, it’s an additional analysis, so you would use all of the concepts and principles that ABA encompasses, and in addition to that you would use the analysis of verbal behaviour.

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B.F Skinner is a top man in the field of ABA, he bought operant conditioning to the table and dedicated a lot of work to defining the process. B.F Skinner took over 20 years to write his book ‘Verbal Behaviour’. If you want to have a little read about his work, click here.

 

 

Consultants that use the analysis of verbal behaviour prioritise the function of language, rather than the structure. So what does that mean? Well, the function of language would be why someone is doing/saying something, and the structure would refer to how it is presented (sentence structure).

Verbal behaviour is probably the most socially significant of all behaviour (remember the
ultimate aim of ABA‘to increase socially significant behaviours’). Typically, a programme which uses the analysis of verbal behaviour will prioritise manding (requesting), as teaching learners to be able to request their favourite things, and access their environment is very important.

Verbal behaviour isn’t just speaking. I would refer to Drinkspeaking as vocal behaviour. Verbal behaviour can be what people say, gesture, sign, or write. For example, saying ‘drink’, writing ‘drink’, signing ‘drink’, or pointing to a drink, are all forms of verbal behaviour. All verbal behaviour must be socially mediated (someone else must be there). For this reason, getting up and getting a drink when you’re by yourself would not be regarded as verbal behaviour.

 

An ABA programme that uses the analysis of verbal behaviour will break down language in to operants. These are the units of language that Skinner defined in his book, Verbal Behaviour (1957). We (followers of the analysis of verbal behaviour) don’t assume that just because a learner can say ‘dog’when they see a dog, it means they can answer a question such as ‘tell me an animal that barks’.VerbalBehavior

The verbal operants are independent of each other, and each have an independent process of learning. We’ll try to make sure that when a target is being taught, such as ‘dog’, that we target it across each verbal operant, so that the learner can label a dog, find a dog, match a picture of a dog, answer questions about dogs etc, to ensure they are fluent across all areas, and understand what they are saying (for the professionals reading this, I’m aware that Skinner didn’t define visual and receptive as verbal operants).

 

The primary verbal operants are:

  • Mand
  • Tact
  • Intraverbal
  • Duplic (imitation, echoic)
  • Textual (reading, dictation)

I’ll post a more in depth explanation of the verbal operants somewhere down the line.

Logistics of a programme that uses the analysis of VB – they will often involve the following effective teaching procedures,

  • Identifying competing reinforcers
  • Pairing
  • Fading in demands
  • Errorless teaching
  • Task variation
  • Fast pace of instruction
  • Intersperse easy and hard instructions

Programmes are often split between natural environment teaching – NET (through play etc) and DTI (discrete trial instruction, or ‘table work’, ITT (intensive table teaching)). NET will focus on generalising skills to everyday situations; there’s no point in teaching
a learner that a picture of a car is a car, if they can’t tell you a toy car is a car during play.

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DTI is intense teaching, which focuses on teaching a few new targets several times, whilst maintaining previously mastered skills. I’ll upload a video at some point. Programmes are at most 50:50 (NET:DTI), but with earlier learners, the majority of time should be spent on NET. Typically, I would recommend changing activity every 15 minutes; this helps keep it fresh, and also gives you plenty of opportunity to work on transitioning. 

There’s so much to say, but nobody wants to read pages and pages of a blog, so if anyone wants any more info, please get in touch. I’ll likely expand on some of what I’ve said in later posts.

For me, ABA and VB is the way forward.