ABA Therapy: The Verbal Operants

ABA Therapy: The Verbal Operants

In our previous blog (read it here), we reviewed verbal behavior. In today’s, we will be diving further into the verbal operants. But first, let’s talk about how verbal responses begin! Verbal behavior (or responses), includes various forms of communication such as vocal, gestural, and picture exchange. Today, we will focus on vocal-verbal communication since it is fairly unique to the human experience.

So how do verbal responses begin? As soon as we are born, we are welcomed with gasps, wows, and the indiscriminate sound that becomes our name. At the same time, we are receiving comfort, warmth, and embraces. Through this process, known as stimulus-stimulus pairing, we begin to enjoy listening to the words around us. In fact, we enjoy it so much that around 12 months, we learn to produce our very first word: an echoic has emerged.

As humans, we are given a head start with babbling. Babbling is essentially respondent behavior, i.e., responses that are involuntary or unlearned — think sneezing. But through the process of discrimination and reinforcement, spontaneous vocalizations that match our native tongue are shaped. By 18 months, we have learned a multitude of skills, from receptive to expressive.

Behavior analysis breaks expressive and receptive communication into smaller units to better study their functionality. As we covered in our blog Understanding Verbal Behavior, we take a functional approach to  understanding language. Through this approach, we can efficiently evoke language through the 3-term contingency (we will cover this and the 4-term contingency in a future blog).

Let’s begin with the earliest unit of verbal behavior: the echoic. Echoics are, in basic terms, an echo of what another person says. For example, if I say “mama”, you repeat “mama”, and I then follow with praise as a reinforcer, i.e., “Oh my goodness, you said mama!”, the end product is an echoic. Each component — the antecedent, the response, and the consequence — is necessary here.

With an echoic, the antecedent must be a vocal stimulus (i.e., “mama”) coming from the speaker. The listener must in turn respond with one-to-one phonetic and correspondence (i.e., “mama”), meaning the word must be identical. Here, pitch, tone, and meaning are irrelevant, as these are learned in later stages of language development.

The most important component, but what can be most forgetful, is the presentation of positive reinforcement immediately (0-3 seconds) after the response is emitted. Whether it be praise, a hug, or a toy — positive reinforcement must occur for an echoic to be finalized. This addition of reinforcement increases the likelihood that the response (in this case, “mama”) continues to occur in the future.

What progresses from the echoic is what we call the mand. The mand is what allows communication to flourish. Think of it as de-mand. A demand is defined as a request, and that is what the mand is; a request. As soon as we learn that words can effectively be exchanged for a multitude of reinforcers (our wants and needs), language becomes a vital tool for the individual.

Once echoics emerge, the mand will quickly follow with direct teaching. The 3-term contingency varies here, although a 4th component should be assessed as well. It looks like this:

  1. Motivation (either satiation or deprivation)
  2. Antecedent (vocal-verbal stimulus)
  3. The vocal-verbal response
  4. Consequence (a specific reinforcer)

Let’s cover each step in detail. The first step, motivation, is essential. In order to produce or teach the mand, we must make sure that there is a need or want that has not been met within a point in time. For example, if a child is shaking from the cold, a need for warmth is present. Rather than providing a blanket as a parent, the best action would be to capitalize on this teachable moment! Using the echoic as a stepping stone, once the response is emitted (for example, “blanket”), the specific reinforcer can be provided. Bingo — a mand has emerged.

The last verbal operant we will cover is the tact. The tact provides the speaker to label stimuli in their environment. Stimuli can range from objects such as toys and nature, to feelings and pain. When a child says, “I’m hurt” or shouts “plane!” they are emitting a tact. Tacts are important to the expansion of language because they are reinforced through comments or gestures of another person. They are labeling exactly what it is to get acknowledged. There is a requirement; the stimulus must be present. This is the key feature that differentiates it from the echoic and the mand.

Verbal operants are not limited to echoics, mands, and tacts, but these 3 units are the basic foundation of verbal behavior. If you would like to learn more, have questions, or are seeking a formal evaluation, please reach out to us through our request form.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *