Verbal behavior therapy

Verbal behavior therapy is a type of therapy that is designed to teach language and communication. Behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s theories inspired this therapy, in partnership with the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). It consists of motivational operation, discriminating stimulus, response and reinforcement.


Verbal behavior therapy: a short history


In 1957, B.F. Skinner wrote a book entitled Verbal Behavior. In it, he described several theories about how language is learned (even though none of what he wrote about was supported by any experiments – he wrote only based on his own observations). Some wondered if he described the technique Anne Sullivan used to teach Hellen Keller, who lost sight and hiring at 19 months old, how to communicate. Others simply criticized his work.


But in the 1970s, experts began taking his theories seriously and started using them as a method of treating specific deficiencies in learning language. Mark Sundberg, Vincent Carbone and James Partington then developed a therapy method based on his theories, and today, that method is used to help many people learn and acquire language.


How is verbal behavior therapy used?


Using this kind of approach works by encouraging those with autism to learn language in a unique way: by connecting words with their purpose, people on the spectrum are able to figure out that words can help them achieve better communication and results (i.e. getting an object they want or are asking for).


That said, verbal behavior therapy isn’t about focusing on specific words and what they mean, but rather why we use words at all. Why are they useful? How can our requests be met by using words? How can we better communicate our ideas using words?


Therapists who specialize in VB classify language into six types, or operants. Each of these operants has its own function. They include:


Mand. The man is a type of operant in which a speaker asks for something. This is a request. The child, for example, can say “crayon,” when asking for a crayon or colored pencil. It’s the first verbal operant acquired by a child. It’s said to be the only type of verbal behavior that benefits the speaker (the man gets the speaker reinforcers, like toys, food or attention). 


Tact. This is a comment one uses to share an experience. It can also be used to draw attention to something, like “kitty,” when pointing out a cat.


Echoic. Using repeated (or echoed) words, like “kitty? Kitty!” the individual is better able to learn.


Intraverbal. This is a word used to respond to something. For example: “How are you?” may be answered with “great!” Read more about  communication with your autistic child.

Textual. Textual behavior is reading, but with no implications that the reader has to understand what is being read.

Transcription. Transcription is writing and spelling out spoken words (taking dictation, in other words). This type of verbal behavior means something said out loud controls a written or typed response. 


Just as in ABA, verbal behavior therapy uses specific techniques to work with young people and children. Many therapists use verbal behavior therapy methods along with an ABA program to help move the autistic individual toward better communication.


What does a typical verbal behavior therapy session look like?


A verbal behavior therapist will likely advise you that there isn’t necessarily a “typical” session -- as each child is different, so are the sessions.

Some students may have already mastered one or a number of operants, so the therapist may choose to focus on the operants that need work. 

If, for example, the operant that needs work is the mand, a session may look like this: the verbal behavior therapist will teach mands first as the most basic type of language. If the child says, “crayon,” he or she will soon or eventually learn that saying “crayon” means someone will actually bring a crayon over.


In that same therapy session, or in subsequent ones, it may continue like this: the student makes a request with the word “crayon.” The therapist will then repeat the word and bring over the crayon. The therapist will then use the word again, in the same context, reinforcing the meaning and teaching this operant.


This said, the individual doesn’t actually have to say the actual word to get what he or she is asking for. For example, if the child simply points to the crayon, the therapist will still bring the crayon to him; the therapist first focuses on teaching the autistic child that communication brings about positive, desirable results (like getting the item he was pointing at). But the therapist doesn’t stop at letting the child simply point; eventually the therapist will help the child toward better communication by saying (or signing, if the child is nonverbal) the word “crayon.” More about  learning verbal communication.


The therapist will also eventually ask a series of questions, often made up of easy requests and difficult ones. This is in an effort to teach the autistic child to be successful. It also prevents, or at the very least, reduces frustration and angst on the part of the child. Therapists will often provide a variety of situations and different sets of instructions so that the child never gets bored or disinterested.


What is “errorless learning?”


Errorless learning is a way of teaching utilized in verbal behavior therapy; it helps teach the child to prevent making mistakes when learning something new. Some children are prone to making mistakes, so giving them the opportunity to make those errors without judgement is a way to minimize or eliminate tantrums, aggression or disappointment, which can all contribute to slow or stunted learning. In addition to preventing mistakes, it provides the child to access and experience reinforcement. 


Most of the skills in VBT can be taught using errorless learning techniques, and the therapist will encourage the parents to implement and maintain the skills at home. Using clear examples and setting realistic expectations, the child will have an easier time understanding what they’re being asked to do; providing reinforcements will also help the child feel successful in following instructions well. 


Errorless learning may be the right fit for your child if he or she is just beginning to learn how to communicate, or if he or she has a history of difficulty with learning specific types of tasks. It may also be a benefit for the kind of child who has a history of engaging in inappropriate responses.


What is a typical verbal behavior therapy session like?


Although every session will vary – each child is unique, after all – typically, the teacher, or the therapist, will ask a series of questions. These questions will combine easy requests with more difficult ones, so that the frequency of success rises (and the level of frustration on the part of the child decreases). Usually, the therapist will vary the instructions so that the child is never disinterested.


Many programs will require the child comes to therapy one to three hours a week, but sometimes parents and therapists will agree upon more intensive treatment, so the number of hours can increase significantly. The therapist will also instruct and train parents and caregivers to use verbal behavior principles to support the therapy and keep it going at home, which will help the child’s success.

See also if  dialectical behavioral therapy may be right for you.


For more information, or to speak with a licensed therapist, visit today. At Alliance ABA Therapy, we believe in partnership between parents, caregivers and treatment providers, and rely heavily on parental insight and develop plans based on that partnership. We look forward to speaking with you. 


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