Let’s Learn ABA: Verbal Operants

Hi BTL Fam!

You may have heard the terms “mand”, “tact”, “intraverbal” etc. from your ABA provider a time or two. These terms are often used during ABA sessions to identify different Verbal Operants. What does that mean? We’re here to explain it a little more!

Before we go any further, it is important to understand that in ABA terms, VERBAL does not always mean spoken words! Verbal can include communicating with sign language, a PECS system, an electronic device or vocal communication.

Verbal Operants come from the idea of Verbal Behavior. B.F. Skinner developed this idea way back in the 1950s and has been a foundation for ABA practices ever since! The idea of verbal behavior is that language is viewed in a functional approach. Meaning that there is a 4 term contingency in place in order to develop verbal behavior.

What in the world is a 4-term contingency?!?! Let’s break it down:

      1. Discriminative Stimulus (SD)       2. Establishing Operation         3. Response      4. Consequence

A discriminative stimulus lets us know that there is a possibility that a desired response will occur. For example: You see your grandma, then you are more likely to ask her for candy (because she typically has some). Therefore, seeing grandma is the discriminative stimulus  The establishing operation increases your likelihood to engage in a behavior. So if you are hungry, you are more likely to ask grandma for a piece of candy. Being hungry is the establishing operation! The response is going to be how you obtain the candy. Thus asking “grandma, can I have a piece of candy?” will be your response. This will then result in the consequence of you gaining a piece of candy!

Let’s break that down again:

  1. You see Grandma (SD).
  2. You are hungry (Establishing Operation)
  3. You ask “Grandma can I have a piece of candy” (Response)
  4. You get a piece of candy (Consequence)

However, many individuals with Autism have difficulty engaging in a 4 term contingency and producing the required response that will end in a desired consequence (like obtaining a preferred item or escaping an aversive task!) . This may lead to difficult behaviors we often see such as tantrums, aggression, elopement, etc. By developing an individuals verbal operants, we can help individuals learn how to communicate with their environment and others around them!

Verbal operants utilized in ABA include:

  • Mands
  • Tacts
  • Intraverbals
  • Echoic
  • Imitation
  • Listener Responding

By incorporating the different verbal operants into an ABA program, we are increasing the individuals ability to functionally communicate their wants and needs. Instead of only teaching one verbal operant, ABA providers aim to teach all of these collectively in order to strengthen the language of the individuals they are working with!

Verbal Operants

By: Heidi Mann, BCBA, Outreach Consultant