Have you encountered students who are non verbal or limited verbally and are in the initial stages of acquiring a way to communicate with the world? Working with students at this stage of communication can be overwhelming and exhilarating all at the same time. By following the strategies that I will outline below, you will be able to help your clients increase their overall spontaneous language.
The first thing that you want to do when you work with an early learner, is to pair the environment and yourself with the delivery of reinforcing items and activities. You want to have many fun items and activities ready to present the student. At this point, we do not demand anything from the client, we are merely having fun, building rapport and learning about what they like. The process of pairing yourself and the environment may take just one session or it may take more sessions, depending on the learner.
After we have an idea of what the learner enjoys, we want to start work on teaching the student to request specific items and activities. This can be referred to requesting or manding. The term manding was described in the book Verbal Behavior written by B.F. Skinner (1957).
Manding is how we all start communicating: for babies, crying functions as a way to gain access to desired items, like a diaper change or food or cuddles. As a child grows and develops, crying is replaced with other ways to communicate (i.e. sign, gestures, word approximations). Mands are first in the language repertoire learned by all children, and are very important for the early development of language and for day-to-day verbal interactions of children and adults (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). It is important to focus on manding first; in its absence, it is unlikely that you will be able to teach other verbal behavior repertoires.
Following these strategies outlined below will help your student increase their ability to spontaneously communicate:
Strategy 1: Prompt mands initially to teach the child that it’s easy to get things with verbal behavior, so as to not turn the child off to communicating.
For most students starting work on manding, this may be the first time they are learning how to use a functional response form, whether it is sign, pictures, augmentative communication, verbalizations or a combination of these. We will use a variety of prompts based on their level of need and the way in which they are communicating. We need to make certain that they realize that communication is powerful and fun!
Strategy 2: Always start work with the student requesting their most powerful reinforcers.
Strategy 3: Always teach specific mands.
We should always start with manding for specific and powerful reinforcers, targeting 3-5 initial mands if possible. If you have a student with a limited amount of reinforcers, remember to use a preference assessment.
Strategy 4: Be a giver not a taker.
This is such a key strategy! Please do not take things from students who are nonverbal. Sometimes the only way they know how to communicate is with their behavior, which may be falling on the floor or having a tantrum. If a student wants a pretzel, give them a couple and not the whole bag. Once they eat the pretzels you gave them, they will be motivated to ask for more pretzels on their own. If a student requests a movie, show a short clip on your computer and control the buttons yourself. If you let the student watch a ten minute movie clip or give them their iPad to watch the movie, it may be very difficult to transfer to working on manding for other items or activities.
Strategy 5: Use a rotating array of reinforcement.
This strategy goes with Strategy 4. Instead of taking away an item, present another item or activity that is also motivating. If the student wants to engage with the item or activity they will request it. It is important to have this array of reinforcement in your possession, so that students need to request to gain access to the item or activity. This will help to increase the amount of practice they get with manding.
Following the above guidelines will help you build rapport and a cooperative therapeutic relationship with your student. It will also allow them to communicate more effectively with the world!
Rosemarie Griffin, MA, CCC-SLP, BCBA, serves students in public and private school settings. She created the website www.abaspeech.org and gives presentations on professional collaboration and on using evidence-based practices. firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also the creator of the action builder cards and can be reached on facebook at @abaspeech.
Skinner, B.F. ( 1957). Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Sundberg, M.L. (2014) The verbal behavior milestones assessment and placement program: The VB-MAPP guide ( 2nd ed.) Concord, CA:AVB Press.