Answered by Tina Sidener, PhD, BCBA-D
Assistant Professor of Psychology, Caldwell College

The term “verbal behavior” can be a confusing one, perhaps because it is used to mean several different things, and the field lacks consensus on some of the applications of this term. Let’s start with one use of this term…Verbal Behavior, the book. In 1957, B. F. Skinner wrote a book called Verbal Behavior, in which he introduced a controversial idea – that language is behavior! He used the term “verbal behavior” instead of “language” to make this point very clear. His book was not about treating people with autism at all, but some behavior analysts became very interested in Skinner’s book and how it might apply to the way we go about teaching language to children with autism.

One of the most interesting things about Skinner’s approach to language is the way he broke it down into different types based on the way they are learned. He called the different types of language “verbal operants” and gave them specific names. To look at this more closely, imagine someone asking a parent or teacher about Brandon’s language skills by saying, “Does Brandon have (or know) the word “cookie”…does he know what “cookie” means?” The answer to this question is more complicated than it might seem! In terms of Skinner’s approach to language as behavior, you would want to get more information about the specific situations in which Brandon shows that he knows what “cookie” means, like:

  • Asking for a cookie when he wants one (a “mand”)
  • Telling someone else when he sees a cookie (a “tact”)
  • Repeating “cookie” when someone else says, “cookie” (an “echoic”)
  • Answering “cookie” in response to a question (an “intraverbal”)
  • Pointing to a cookie when someone asks him to (“listener behavior”)

That’s a lot of different kinds of cookies! Some behavior analysts use Skinner’s analysis of language because they think it helps them to better identify all the parts of “meaning.” In other words, to teach all the “cookies” that a child needs to learn! Typically developing children may learn all of these “meanings” so quickly that it’s not important to distinguish between them. However, some children with language delays may need to be taught each of these individually.

OK – that’s just the term “verbal behavior.” The term “verbal behavior program” means something a little bit different. But first consider this…as you navigate your way through the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA), I’m sure you will (or have already) discovered that no two programs are exactly alike. This is because 1) every child is different, and 2) every behavior analyst is different. The characteristics high quality ABA programs share are more important than their differences. Programs that describe themselves as being based on ABA should be committed to using a scientific approach to understand why people do what they do and help them make meaningful changes in their lives. Intervention programs for children with autism that are ABA-based will likely share these characteristics:

  • Program is directed by professional(s) who are BCBAs, have graduate-level (ideally doctoral) training in ABA, and extensive experience in autism treatment
  • All relevant types of skills are systematically taught
  • Behaviors are analyzed and taught using the principles of learning
  • Teachers pair themselves with preferred items and activities to make interactions reinforcing
  • Data are collected on learner progress on a regular basis and are used to make decisions about mastery and to guide problem solving
  • Research drives programs and teaching procedures
  • Progress is measured in terms of observable behavior
  • There are written protocols describing how programs are taught
  • Ongoing, hands-on, systematic training is provided for teachers and therapists by a behavior analyst

Having said that, you may find that some ABA programs for children with autism have more of an emphasis on certain teaching and data collection techniques (for example, fluency training, discrete trial training, or activity schedules). While these different procedures have data to support their use, right now there’s little research comparing behavior analytic procedures to tell us which ones are more effective than others for individual children. However, one of the unique things about ABA programs is that frequent data collection allows a behavior analyst to make changes quickly when a child isn’t making progress with a certain teaching procedure.

“Verbal behavior programs” are ABA programs that tend to emphasize certain techniques, such as

  • Ensuring that each of the verbal operants is carefully taught
  • Giving careful attention to using reinforcement strategically and effectively including efforts to pair instructors with reinforcement
  • Teaching manding at the beginning of programming
  • Using signs to teach talking
  • Using a pairing procedure to increase vocalizations
  • Using a “cold probe” data collection system (data are collected on just the first trial of a skill every day)

Also know that many behavior analysts who run programs that others might call “verbal behavior programs” may not label them as such. They may just call what they do an ABA-based program. And no two “verbal behavior programs” will be the same.

So… what’s the bottom line? Instead of looking for a certain type of program for your child, I’m inclined to recommend looking for a program that describes itself as thoroughly based in the principles and methods of ABA (not eclectic), is comprehensive, has excellent, ongoing staff training and supervision, and is supervised by individuals who have advanced training in ABA and extensive experience in autism treatment.

Citation for this article:

Sidener, T. (2010). Clinical corner: What is “VB” (“verbal behavior”)? Is it different from ABA, and does my child need it to learn language? Science in Autism Treatment, 7(3), 6-7.

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