Verbal Behavior

Verbal behavior, a concept developed by B.F. Skinner in 1957, refers to the use of language as a form of social behavior. Unlike traditional views of language that focus on the structure and meaning of words, Skinner’s approach emphasizes the function of language—how it is used to communicate and interact with others. Verbal behavior is not limited to spoken words but includes all forms of communication, such as gestures, sign language, and written text.

The Importance of Verbal Behavior in ABA Therapy

In the context of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, verbal behavior is crucial because it provides a framework for understanding and teaching language skills to individuals with developmental disorders, particularly Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ABA therapy uses principles of behavior analysis to teach communication skills and improve social interactions, making verbal behavior a central component of many ABA programs.

Key Components of Verbal Behavior

  1. Mand: A type of verbal behavior that involves requesting or asking for something. Mands are motivated by a need or desire and are reinforced by obtaining the requested item or action. For example, a child saying “cookie” to get a cookie is exhibiting a mand.
  2. Tact: This involves naming or identifying objects, actions, or events. Tacts are reinforced by social acknowledgment or praise. For instance, when a child sees a dog and says “dog,” they are tacting.
  3. Echoic: This is the repetition or echoing of what someone else has said. Echoics are essential for developing more complex language skills and are reinforced by the accurate imitation of the spoken words. For example, if a therapist says “ball” and the child repeats “ball,” this is an echoic response.
  4. Intraverbal: This type of verbal behavior involves responding to questions or engaging in conversations where the response is not identical to the stimulus. Intraverbals are crucial for maintaining dialogues and social interactions. An example is answering the question, “What is your name?” with “My name is Sarah.”
  5. Autoclitic: This involves the use of additional verbal behavior that modifies the meaning of the primary verbal response. Autoclitics help to provide more context or clarify the speaker’s intent. For example, saying “I think it’s raining” uses the autoclitic “I think” to indicate uncertainty.

Teaching Verbal Behavior in ABA Therapy

Teaching verbal behavior involves systematic instruction and reinforcement strategies tailored to the individual’s needs. Here are some effective methods used in ABA therapy:

Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

DTT is a structured teaching method that breaks down skills into small, manageable components. Each trial consists of a clear instruction, the child’s response, and a consequence (reinforcement or correction). For example, to teach a mand, the therapist might hold up a favorite toy and prompt the child to ask for it. If the child successfully requests the toy, they receive it as reinforcement.

Natural Environment Teaching (NET)

NET focuses on teaching verbal behavior in natural, everyday contexts. This approach uses the child’s interests and activities as opportunities for learning. For example, if a child is playing with blocks, the therapist might encourage them to request specific blocks by color or shape, thus incorporating mands and tacts into the play activity.

Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP)

VB-MAPP is an assessment tool that helps identify a child’s current language skills and provides a roadmap for instruction. It evaluates various aspects of verbal behavior, including mands, tacts, echoics, intraverbals, and autoclitics, and helps therapists develop individualized teaching plans.

The Role of Reinforcement

Reinforcement is a key principle in teaching verbal behavior. Positive reinforcement, such as praise, access to preferred items, or social interaction, strengthens the likelihood of the desired verbal behavior occurring again. For example, if a child receives praise and a sticker every time they successfully mand for a toy, they are more likely to continue using mands in the future.

Challenges in Teaching Verbal Behavior

While teaching verbal behavior can be highly effective, it also presents challenges. Some common difficulties include:

  • Motivation: Ensuring that the child is motivated to engage in verbal behavior can be challenging, especially if the reinforcement is not meaningful to them.
  • Generalization: Helping the child apply learned verbal behaviors across different settings and with different people requires consistent practice and reinforcement.
  • Complexity: As verbal behavior becomes more complex, such as in the case of intraverbals and autoclitics, the teaching process may need to be more nuanced and individualized.


Verbal behavior is a foundational concept in ABA therapy that plays a crucial role in developing communication skills for individuals with developmental disorders. By understanding the different components of verbal behavior and employing effective teaching strategies, therapists can help individuals achieve meaningful improvements in their ability to communicate and interact with others. At Chicago ABA Therapy, we are committed to using evidence-based practices to support our clients in reaching their full potential through the power of verbal behavior.

130+ 5-Star Google Reviews | Chicago ABA Therapy

"We were so happy with our experience with Chicago ABA. We began working with them when our son was almost 4, a few months after his autism diagnosis. It was such an amazing team to work with - everyone was professional, responsive, flexible, and worked so hard for our son to meet his goals, which he did beautifully. We worked together for almost 2 years before he left for kindergarten, and in that time period he met almost all of his goals. We went through several bumps in the road with behavioral difficulties, and the Chicago ABA team did an amazing job helping us problem solve, try new strategies and think of ways to translate those strategies at home. We couldn't recommend them more highly - anyone who works with Chicago ABA will be lucky to have the experience!"

"Chicago ABA Therapy is a boon for special needs kids and parents. They take a play-based, personalized approach and meet the kids where they are. They also go above and beyond - our ABA therapist took time to make sure we as parents understood every aspect of our child's experience, understood how to read his progress reports and generally made us feel a part of his therapy. My child loved all his therapists. Highly recommend the team!"

5-Star Google Reviews
Read More Testimonials