A Guide to Verbal Operants in ABA Therapy
Verbal operants are at the core of verbal behavior therapy. This therapy aims to teach language and communication skills by helping students understand why words are used and how they can be used to help the student communicate what they want.
Verbal behavior therapy and operants are highly complementary to the field of ABA therapy. The primary goal of increasing functional communication and understanding of language is shared. Interventions focused on verbal operants can be incorporated into any ABA program.
Experts recommend that ABA professionals, educators, and caregivers teach across all operants in order to encourage the best acquisition of language and understanding of how language works for students.
What Is Verbal Behavior Therapy?
Verbal behavior therapy is an approach to working with people with autism. It teaches communication and language by helping students connect words with desired results or purposes. It doesn’t just focus on teaching words as labels for objects, but rather on why words are used and how they can help the student communicate their ideas.
At the heart of verbal behavior therapy are operants, or word types. Each verbal operant has a different function that is necessary for understanding and successfully using language. These are the four operants used in verbal behavior therapy:
Verbal operants can be incorporated into types of therapy that are focused on improving communication and spoken language. In ABA therapy, for example, the use of verbal operants can help students achieve their communication goals.
Why Verbal Operants Are Important
Verbal behavior therapy is based on the principles of ABA therapy and the behaviorist B.F. Skinner. In 1957, Skinner published his book titled Verbal Behavior, in which he described a functional analysis of language and identified verbal operants. According to Skinner, verbal operants help to evaluate the conditions upon which behaviors occur, not just the behavior itself. Therefore, verbal operants address:
The antecedent condition.
The behavioral form.
The consequence of the behavior.
Through antecedents, behaviors, and consequences, or ABCs, ABA therapists are able to teach and reinforce the fundamentals of language.
Here is an example of ABC in use:
Antecedent: The student wants some water.
Behavior: The student says “water.”
Consequence: The student gets water.
Adding to the above four verbal operants, Skinner also identified textual and transcription as primary verbal operants, though they are not used as frequently in verbal behavior therapy today.
How Verbal Operants Are Used in ABA Therapy
Verbal operants can be incorporated into an ABA therapy program in order to develop functional communication skills in the student. In addition to mand, tact, intraverbal, and echoic operants, ABA therapists may also incorporate listener responding and motor imitation operants into their work with autistic students.
Various ABC interventions can be used in an ABA program. Depending on which skill the student needs, different operants can be targeted.
For successful acquisition of language, ABA therapists assess their students’ abilities to demonstrate strong skills across all operants. It is not enough for students to have a strong vocabulary. Students must be able to use the words they know to communicate their needs and wants in a variety of settings.
Mand, or a request, is one of the most basic language skills that young children develop. If the antecedent was a motivation for the consequence, or what the student wanted, then it can be considered a mand. Here is an ABC example of a mand exercise:
Antecedent: The student wants a toy.
Behavior: The student says “toy.”
Consequence: The student receives a toy.
By going through this process, often repeatedly, the student learns that using the right word to communicate what they want will get them what they need from other people.
A tact is a label or name for an object. Tact is the ability to correctly label items and events around you that you come into contact with. In other words, tact is a way to share an experience you are having. For example, a child sees a car and then says “car.”
A way to identify the tact in a situation is to ask the question, “What is it?” The answer to the question lets you know what the student is experiencing through their use of words and language.
The intraverbal operant is a more complex piece of language. It refers to people being able to answer a question without a visual cue in front of them, such as an object they are looking at. Intraverbal language skills allow you to answer a question such as, “What is your name?” or “Where do you go to school?”
An intraverbal intervention may look like this:
Antecedent: The therapist asks, “What animal has wings?”
Behavior: The student answers “bird.”
Intraverbal interventions can also include simple fill-in-the-black exercises, such as having the student fill in missing words to their favorite book or song.
Autism Speaks explains that echoic refers to a repeated or echoed word. It is a form of imitation that helps confirm the student’s correct use of language. The therapist or educator says a word that the student must repeat. By repeating the correct word, the student practices using words correctly.
Echoic interventions rely on the student to repeat what the speaker said. For example, the speaker points to a book and says “book.” The student then responds with “book.”
Listener responding means following directions, and it exhibits how much language a student understands. Rather than being an expressive language skill like the other operants, listener responding is a receptive language skill.
Some children develop stronger receptive language than expressive, so it is important to develop this side of language as well. Listener responding interventions teach students how to follow basic instructions.
Here is an example of a listener responding intervention:
Antecedent: The student is asked to touch the picture of a dog.
Behavior: The student touches that picture.
Motor imitation refers to the student’s ability to copy what another person is doing. Verbal instructions may be part of the intervention, though they do not need to be. For example, the therapist claps their hands; the child should then copy this action and also clap their hands.
The speaker may tell the student to copy them or do as they are doing, but they do not have to. When the motor imitation operant is mastered, no instruction is needed.
Providers of ABA Therapy
The principles of verbal behavior therapy and verbal operants can be used by behavior therapist, educators, and caregivers who participate in a student’s ABA program. Focusing on the use of verbal operants can help your students develop a functional understanding and use of language.
Some experts recommend that ABA providers teach across all operants. Rather than focusing on just one skill at a time, incorporating all operants throughout a program helps to consolidate language for students. Particularly for more advanced language programs, such as those focusing on categories and function, teaching across the operants is a sound way to more broadly expand language skills.
- Language Development in Children With Language Disorders: An Introduction to Skinner’s Verbal Behavior and the Techniques for Initial Language Acquisition. (January 2009). Journal on Educational Psychology.
- Verbal Behavior Therapy. Autism Speaks.
- Verbal Operants. (January 2020). How to ABA.