Special Education Verbal Behaviour

Verbal Behaviour Theory: What is it and How can it help?

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I have attended three workshops over the past few days and committed to making a post on each workshop about the key facts and actionable steps that I considered important having digested the information that was relayed. To give a wider context, I have recently switched roles to teaching in a special class for teaching children with autism. So the three workshops are tied into improving my teaching in topics related to this. I will break down my first workshop on Verbal Behaviour into theory and practice trying to be as simplistic as possible to give you a general sense of what it is and whether you’d like to research it further.


The cliff notes around the theory were:

  • Language is learned in response to the environment. The elements that influence language learning are motivation, reinforcement, extinction and punishment.

N.B. Punishment is meant in the applied behaviour analysis sense as something which decreases a behaviour.

  • When thinking about language and communication, consider the antecedent, behaviour and consequence.

E.g The child sees a biscuit is the antecedent.

      The child says “biscuit” is the behaviour.

      The child gets the biscuit is the consequence.

In this instance, the behaviour (the child speaking) is likely to increase as they got reinforced through getting the biscuit. Consider the inverse of this, if a child takes your hand and drags you to the biscuit and you give it to them, this is the behaviour that will increase.

  • With language, we can consider form (grammar, syntax) and function (why they are speaking). When working with children with language delay or who are emerging speakers, function is equally – if not more – important than form so they can communicate needs and requests.
  • Skinner defined eight kinds of “verbal operant” which is in layman terms, forms of verbal behaviour, these are:
    1. Echoic – repeating back words, parroting
    2. Imitation – Repeating back actions, very important it is part of any verbal behaviour programme.
    3. Mand – Asking for what you want. Obviously, this is critical.
    4. Tact – Labelling what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch.
    5. Intraverbal – Conversation, finishing off a rhyme or song, giving a description etc.
    6. Receptive by feature, function and class aka RFFC – Allows children to respond to questions like “what has a tail?” or “What can you do with these items?”.
    7. Textual – Reading, this is social when learning and for pleasure when proficient.
    8. Transcription – Writing what is heard.

The key points for me on the theory were thinking about how language and the speed at which it is acquired is affected by motivation and reinforcement. Children will learn when they are motivated to or rewarded for it. This can be done through ensuring they need to speak or by rewarding them with a truly desirably object when they do. If you took nothing else from this post, this would be the one fact to ruminate on.


There was so much information given in the workshop today but I boiled it down to four actionable steps which I will be taking with me as I progress:

  1. In a classroom where the goal is to increase the children’s ability to request an item they want using verbal behaviour, consider spending the first half an hour of the day working on this. Have items which the children like out of reach and visible around the room. Give the items to the children for a number of minutes when they use the word/point at the picture in their PECS book/sign the word or however they are communicating. This session starts the day off on a positive note if you are in a special class as the child and adult will find it easier to establish rapport.
  2. Manipulate the classroom environment as there are not enough scenarios in a day to motivate the children to request items. For example, give children a yogurt with no spoon. Start an art task with missing supplies. The idea here is that the children use the language to request the items. It was emphasised that the children are not ignored if they are struggling, they can be prompted to repeat the work after you if that is the level they are at, for example.
  3. Use shaping, reward the child for making successive attempts at getting closer to the desired result. It was recommended to have just a list of ten core words for this. If they want a bottle, for example, the first day they might say “BaBa”. On subsequent days, the child shouldn’t be reinforced by getting the bottle until they get to that same level or to a slight improvement. If they say “Ba”, this should not be reinforced. Prompting the child and encouraging repeating the word will help.
  4. Use the Verbal Behaviour Milestones Assessment and Placement Programme (VB-MAPP) to help assess and guide your teaching of verbal behaviour. This is an extremely comprehensive programme which will help you identify where the child is at and how to get them to the next stage with suggested tasks broken down step-by-step. I couldn’t even start to breakdown this programme in a few words but it is extremely impressive and is something I will definitely be recommending to teachers teaching children with autism or language delays.

Concluding Thoughts

Skinner’s theory on language and verbal behaviour is extremely interesting and easy to grasp. I really think the concepts are worthwhile and intriguing. The actionable steps that are borne from the theory are pretty simple to incorporate in the classroom and I will certainly be using the VB-MAPP to guide me in assessing the children’s current position and planning the way forward as it is so comprehensive.

A really worrying point was made today that language acquisition is being delayed in some children as they don’t get as much motivation and reinforcement for using language in the early developmental stages as children used to years ago.

The reason?

Adults are spending more time on their phones than attending to their child.

The last thing I would suggest reflecting on is if you have a child who is a selective mute or an emerging speaker, have you ever fulfilled the need of the child before they have to speak? When you see them struggle to reach something silently, do you walk over and hand it down? I know I have and with this workshop in mind, perhaps this kind of reaction borne out of kindness is actually hindering the child’s acquisition of language. Lots to consider!

By Barry Whelan

A teacher with a huge interest in improving behaviour, communication and inclusion.

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