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!

Behaviour Management

Defining the Problem

Defining a problem is so obvious, you might just forget to do it.

Tim Ferriss specializes in interviewing successful entrepreneurs, athletes and investors. He collated all these interviews into two books called Tool of Titans and Tribe of Mentors. Both books are a great read and in the latter book, Tim asks everyone the question if they had a billboard in a prominent place that they could write any message on, what would it be? What a great question this is and the answers that are given provide great insight into the mindset of the interviewee. I know if I am ever presented with this opportunity, I just want three words printed in black bold font:


Such a simple statement with a simple meaning. It is as applicable to life as it is to behaviour management and especially helping meet the needs of children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Yet, I feel it is a very simple step that can be overlooked because it is nearly too obvious. Of course, I know what the problem is. Everyone knows what the problem is. Or do they?

The Problem with an Undefined Problem

From my experience, teaching children with behavioural difficulties can be stressful and challenging for everyone involved. The principal, parents, special needs assistants, special education teachers, class teacher and classmates as well as the child themselves can become frazzled, frustrated and disillusioned if progress is not forthcoming.

Stressful situations can lead to a blame game. Parents may believe the problem originates in school. Schools may believe the problem originates at home. The problem may be perceived as the teacher is not good enough. The problem may be perceived that they’ve got a diagnosis of ADHD, ADD or ODD etc. Or my personal favourite, the problem may be perceived as the child is just “bold”. What do all these problems have in common? They’re all pretty much useless.

Truly defining the problem is simple but not easy. It requires the class teacher to sit down and reflect on what they are seeing and hearing whilst discarding emotions and perceptions or, even better, it requires all the parties involved to sit down as a team and coherently decide what is the problem they are trying to solve. If you find yourself using phrases like “they always do it”, “they’re annoying” or “they never do it”, you may benefit from taking the time to pause and reflect as these statements are often factually incorrect and driven by emotion and frustration.

There is an old adage that if you don’t have a goal, you can’t score. The same can be said of a problem. You can’t solve a problem you can’t define.

Defining a Problem: How To

Gather as many of the people as deemed possible or necessary and set the goal of the meeting as defining the problem. This could cause surprise should the child in question be receiving a high level of support already or perhaps, is already subject to several different interventions. It is worth undergoing this process, however, as there is a body of literature to back up the assertion that defining the problem leads to more successful outcomes so persevere.

Asking a group this question could result in a few different responses. This is a great demonstrator of how different perceptions exist. Perhaps the responses are like the ones I touted as unhelpful above. Perhaps, they are extremely helpful but different from the other peers at the group. I would suggest that it is rare that everyone at the table will have the exact same answer. Different problems need different solutions and if everyone is trying to hit a different target, you could well end up hitting none. One could surmise that it is best for the group to focus their aim on an agreed first target before moving on to a second. The power of the many exceeds the power of the one. A group all pulling in the one direction will get to their destination quicker than a group pulling in different ones.

Below is a list of questions that I would make sure the group can answer clearly before leaving the meeting:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Why is it a problem?
  3. When is it a problem?
  4. Who is it a problem for?
  5. Where is it a problem?

If you can’t write a simple, two or three sentence answer to each of these questions. You haven’t defined it simply enough. Applied behaviour analysis recommends limiting behaviour as anything that can be seen or heard and creating operative definitions that are crystal clear and upon reading them, the reader would be able to accurately repeat the behaviour. This is worth keeping in mind when following through these questions. 

Following this process can be helpful as it starts to clear your mind and narrow your vision. Suddenly, it might not be “always” as it’s only during math and science or in the afternoons. Maybe, the behaviour is only present when a teacher is assigning silent individual work. Potentially, the problem might only occur when they are sitting beside a certain classmate. The problem may not be spoken about anymore as they have ADHD which doesn’t help as much as when it has been clearly defined as “banging their pencils and shouting out when the teacher is issuing instructions”. Answering these questions can create a eureka moment for a teacher without any further steps as they recognize patterns and can start to experiment with interrupting them. If the problem arises during prolonged silent deskwork, maybe try ensuring that an energetic lesson has preceded it to see if it will help them settle. Ask them to do small jobs every few minutes to get them out of their seats before they realise they need to disrupt the class for their usual break. It may still be trial-and-error but with a clearly defined problem, at least it is clearly known how to gauge success. 

This process proved beneficial to me previously as a five-year child I had was renown for jumping on tables and chairs. I had inherited the information from a previous teacher to keep anything that may be desirable up high as it needed to be kept out of his reach. This problem continued for quite some time with no success. I tried reward charts, social stories and other incentives along with stern words to no avail. It was only when I took my advice and sat down and clearly defined the problem, I realised that he jumped on tables and chairs to get to and see the stuff that needed to be kept out of reach. The following day, I removed all the objects from high places and stored them in locked presses. The child who “always jumps on tables and chairs” was no more.

A simple tip: define the problem. I always think when I read this, that I know this already. But do I do it? There is a difference between knowing and doing…


Behaviour Management

The Rocks, Pebbles and Sand of Behaviour Management

The rocks must always go in first, but what are they when it comes to behaviour management?

Social, emotional and behavioural difficulties appear to be becoming a prominent issue in schools today. Many classrooms and schools have high levels of needs in this area where there seems to be an increasing number of diagnoses of conditions such as ADHD, ODD, ADD and EBD among others. As well as these children, there are many more waiting to be assessed or have not yet got to this point but are presenting with complex needs that a teacher needs to address. Separation, family bereavements and other domestic issues can also influence a child’s behaviour and a teacher needs a diverse range of strategies to successfully navigate the wide-ranging issues a modern-day classroom can present. All these issues can leave teachers, parents and the children themselves frustrated, stressed or feeling overwhelmed.

Styles, methods and behavioural perspectives are aplenty as a result of this growing issue with new academic research, programmes and initiatives emerging annually to help teachers meet these needs. Depending on your experience and academic grounding, you may take a behaviourist approach to manage your classroom and incorporate something like a token economy system to manage behaviour or you may view and engage with behaviour systemically and follow a strategic problem-solving approach. The number of options can be somewhat overwhelming due to the stress of challenging behaviour as teachers may begin jumping between different approaches if not met with success instantly or struggle to see a starting point at all.

The combining issues of rising needs and rising literature on how to meet these needs have sparked an internal conversation in my head. On a brief number of times, I’ve been asked what I would do in a situation regarding challenging behaviour. I find this an impossible question to answer as without knowing the whole, 360-degree context of the situation, it is foolhardy to think I can give accurate advice. It is only one person’s perception I am hearing which means everybody else could have a completely different view of the situation and my advice may be completely different upon hearing all sides of the story. Yet, offering no help is definitely no help. I want to be able to provide some value in these instances which got me thinking about rocks, pebbles and sand.

There’s an old metaphor about prioritising your life as you would prioritise putting rocks, pebbles and sand in a jar. Put the sand in first and there will not be as much room for the pebbles and rocks. Put the big rocks in first, pebbles in second and the sand in finally and you will fill the jar with far more success. What if we viewed behaviour management through this guise? What would the big rocks be? What would the pebbles be? What would the sand be?

I’ve been playing with this metaphor in my head for a while and using my own classroom experience, college experience and personal experience, I have settled on six big rocks that I believe should go in first into anyone’s behaviour management style. My six rocks are desire, clarity, consistency, positivity, ethics and patience.

My six rocks are:


This is the very first rock I would put in my jar. A teacher who wants to improve the behaviour of a class or a pupil. This is a non-negotiable in my eyes. A half-hearted effort at improving behaviour will beget half-hearted results. A teacher who does not believe behaviour can be improved, will generally not improve the behaviour. If a teacher truly wants to improve behaviour, they have a far greater chance of doing so because they will channel their efforts and time into ensuring it happens. Having the desire to improve means the teacher will be persistent in the face of setbacks and will decline from giving up on the child.

During a visit to a school in Demark that specialised in inclusion years ago, I was given a tour of the facilities and showed how they appeared to use technology to include children with a wide range of needs. I asked at the end of the tour how would the rest of schools manage this standard of inclusion if they did not have the money? I will never forget the response because of how it struck me (and I wrote it down);

“It is possible to be inclusive without money through time and people with the desire to include. Money is still important, but it is always possible to get money. Without desire, it is impossible.” 


Being clear in what you are trying to achieve and how you are trying to achieve it is critical. Defining the behaviour that you want to increase, or decrease is an important first step that is so obvious that it can often be overlooked. What is the problem? Who is it a problem for? When is it a problem? Where is it a problem? Why is it a problem? These are all questions that should have clear answers based on observed and agreed facts. Having clarity is especially important when there is more than one adult in contact with the child. If a class teacher views the problem as one thing and a special education teacher views it as another, it can be fair to assume that this will slow down progress at best and make it impossible at worst. Carving out some time for all the adults involved with the child to meet and clearly define the problem and clearly define the approach that will be taken should give a higher chance of success.

To enhance the chances of clarity, I would forgo the use of diagnoses when defining the problem. Often, in my experience, when labels and other factors like homelife which are largely out of our control are left aside and the actual problem is discussed and defined, it does not seem as intimidating anymore. The problem could simply be that the child will not sit in their chair during certain subjects or the problem could be that the child will not use their hand to speak if they wish to tell the class or teacher something. With a clarity of vision, a problem can reduce in size and strategies can appear more obvious.


This rock sits snugly beside clarity. Dealing with behaviour effectively needs consistency. This is required on a micro level and a macro level for maximum effect. On a micro level, consistency can be seen in the teacher keeping routines throughout the day and week, so the expectations are known. Also, in the classroom, the teacher needs to be consistent in how they deal with a child’s behaviour. They need to be consistent in their approach whether the teacher is tired and frustrated at the behaviour or whether they are feeling particularly relaxed coming up to the end of the term. Understandably, a child will quickly increase or reduce a behaviour if they realise the behaviour gets a consistent response. For example, if a child learns that raising their hand to speak will elicit a positive response consistently, they are more likely to do it. Conversely, if a child realises that every time they shout out, they will consistently lose a point for their group, they are more likely to cease the behaviour. Inconsistent reinforcement of behaviour can lead to children testing the waters or being confused as to what standard is expected.

On a macro-level, a child may need consistency in how they are managed across the school. If a child’s behaviour is being catered for effectively at a class level using an approach or with allowances, these may need to be consistently applied for the child throughout the school. For example, if a child’s challenging behaviour is managed effectively by giving him consistently positive attention and praise in the classroom, the swim instructor, principal and drama teacher may benefit from implementing this approach also. Implementing a known successful strategy in external contexts can prevent misbehaviour before it arises, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Consistency is a big rock.


There is a quote from Nel Noddings, who lectures on care theory, that I love for its simplicity: “Children will not learn from someone they do not like”. I love it mainly because I can relate to it from my own experience. I had teachers that I clashed with when I was in secondary school and what I learned from those teachers was far less than what I learned from the teachers I had a positive rapport with. Being positive and cultivating good relationships with your students is an important step in managing behaviour. This is not to be confused with being their friend. Positive rapport can be built through ensuring that you show interest in the student beyond the realm of their academic work. Listening to their stories, sharing your own stories and inquiring about their interests are small gestures that can make a big difference along with ensuring the other big rocks are present in the room. A child who has a good rapport with their class teacher will be more likely to try reciprocating the respect that has been shown to them. It may not always be reciprocated but I feel that it will happen a lot more than a teacher that has no relationship with their student.

Positivity is also a key ingredient as there will be ups and downs when dealing with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. I believe having a positive mindset is critical for a teacher’s self-care. Being positive that you are doing your best. Being positive and identifying the minuscule or major progress that has been made despite this setback. Being positive that you keep persevering and keep trying, that progress will be inevitable.


This should go without saying but being ethically sound in your approach is a non-negotiable in how a teacher manages behaviour. Approaches should be consistent with the rights of the child and not causing undue upset, embarrassment or angst in their lives. In the case of punishments, for example, if a teacher were to use such a strategy, they should strive to use the least amount of punishment necessary to cause the desired effect and phase it out as promptly as possible. A teacher should proceed with caution when using punishment procedures to ensure that they are in line with school policy where appropriate. Strategies used should keep the child’s dignity intact and not seek to embarrass the child or damage their self-esteem. Although this rock is not a glamorous one, it is a keystone.


Patience most certainly is a virtue. Patience can go a long way when striving to make progress with children who have behavioural difficulties. Patience is needed in scenarios where you are engaging in tactical ignoring to deny an attention-seeking behaviour the oxygen it desires. It is also needed when a child who struggles with their anger on the yard has an outburst and assaults another child on the yard. Patience is needed when you have invested an abundance of time and energy into a child and they let you down with a bang. There will be many times where your patience will be tested. A teacher will be tired, upset and stressed throughout the year but being patient will aid the teacher make measured responses and strategically communicate their message. To understand the importance of patience, think about a time that you lost yours. It rarely results in a productive message being conveyed, a good decision being made or the issue disappearing permanently. Often, losing your patience can leave a situation worse than it started. A teacher who has patience will understand that an issue may not be resolved overnight and depending on its size – may not even be resolved in the year.

A social media marketer by the name of Gary Vee uses the phrase “micro speed, macro patience”. Although he applies this to a business setting, it is also applicable to dealing with children with behavioural needs. Being impatient and putting lots of time into the day-to-day preparation that’s helpful and necessary to achieve progress with a child who has complex needs, however, having the patience to understand that the progress will not be as quick and may even be glacially slow.

From my own early professional experiences, I have experienced the helplessness and stress of feeling that I was failing a child who had severe behavioural difficulties in my classroom. It affected my self-esteem as I felt other teachers were judging me (tip: they’re not) and I felt I only appeared to be making the situation worse. On reflection, and with years of experience, I now realise that I was overwhelmed. I realised that I was looking at the big picture instead of clearly defining what the problem behaviour was and moving on from there. I was panicking and jumping from one reward chart to another without having any patience or consistency. I was being negative with my instructional language and with my mindset.

It was only when an older teacher took me under their wing and guided me through how to take the first steps in managing the behaviour of this child more efficiently that I began to see progress. I regained my composure, used the academic knowledge that seemed to abandon me when stressed and started to implement strategies based on the six core rocks I have identified above. Progress started to emerge, and I established a passion for all things behaviour.

In my view, if a teacher showed up to work every day and ensured the six rocks of desire, clarity, consistency, positivity, ethics and patience were present, they would cultivate a positive climate where children could thrive and develop. Children would be motivated to behave and learn, and challenging behaviour could be minimised. There are always exceptions and there will always be children who need extra support but starting with these six rocks is be a great foundation. In my opinion, elaborate academic experience, impressive visual displays and the latest strategies and initiatives come in second place behind these fundamentals. Paperwork is necessary but I don’t believe it to be a rock. These may be the pebbles in the jar. There can be times when these may cloud your vision and you may put these into the jar first and forget about your rocks. I believe you can manage without the pebbles, even though they are beneficial, but you certainly cannot manage without the rocks.

This is definitely not an exhaustive list. What have I missed? Am I mistaken to exclude paperwork, evidence-based approaches or something else? Let me know if you feel I’m missing a rock or perhaps included one you don’t agree with.