Teaching Communication Skills

“Manding is the most important operant since it is always preceded by motivation and ends with the child receiving what she requested”

(Mary Barbera, The Verbal Behaviour Approach)


Where do we start when we need to teach a child to communicate?? It can often seem like a daunting task when you start considering all of the skills involved and there are certainly a lot of different skills required!

A good starting place is to teach your child to make requests. It teaches the learner that requesting (called manding in the ABA world) will allow him access to things that he wants or avoid things that he doesn’t want. This quickly teaches your child the value of communication i.e. ‘I ask – I get’.

Teaching your child to request also typically reduces challenging behaviours as you’ve given your child a new way to get what they want – bonus!

I always recommend that the child should initially be taught to request for their favourite things first and those items should be things which adults can easily control access to.

Some good ideas are; highly preferred items/activities which allow for short duration of contact (e.g. bubbles, tickles), are relatively easy to remove (e.g. music, video), easy to deliver and can be delivered on multiple occasions (e.g. edibles, sips of juice).

When you are thinking of what requests to teach the most important thing to remember is to make sure these items/activities are things that your child always has a strong motivation for.

If you have a pre-verbal child you might be wondering what mode of communication you should choose to teach your child. Whilst we always aim for vocal speech it’s sometimes the case that we need to choose an alternative mode of communication such as PECS (picture exchange communication) or sign language to get the ball rolling.

Choosing between PECs and sign language needs to be an individualised decision as both have their pro’s and con’s. That’s a topic for another blog!

Teaching your child to request should occur throughout the day, but it’s also important to set aside several ‘mini manding sessions’ throughout the day.  This is the time where you are completely focused on teaching your child to request, and will also allow you to do more positive pairing with him.

Top tips for teaching vocal children to request

  1. Even if children are able to speak using long sentences, begin by teaching single words. Forget about teaching “I want”, “Can I have” etc. You need to ensure your child learns which word actually gets the desired item, carrier phrases can come later.
  2. Teach all of the conditions under which the request is made. For example, you want your child to request independently and spontaneously but also when someone asks him what he wants, which one he wants, when the item is visible and when the item is not visible.
  3.  Teach the actual names of the items before teaching colours or other adjectives. For example, if a child likes to colour, be sure he can ask for the “crayon” before teaching him to ask for the colours. Otherwise, the colour words may “replace” the name of the item when the child is requesting.
  4. Words such as “more”, and “please” should be treated as adjectives and should not be taught until the child is able request the item using its “name”.
  5. When adding carrier phrases, teach a variety within the context of the same activity or set of conditions. Consider teaching both those you want your child to use with other kids as well as those you would like your child to use with adults. For example, “May I have a drink please?” would be appropriate to use with teachers and parents but sounds way too formal to use in the playground.
  6. This is hard one….but do your best to ensure your child doesn’t get anything for ‘negative behaviour’. You may see an escalation (extinction burst) in the negative behaviours your child has used to get what they want in the past. It’s really important not to respond to these negative behaviours because if these behaviours still work for the child then really there’s no need for words….easier said than done – I know!
  7. Avoid “stand-off” situations, in other words, the situation should not be ‘you have to talk before you get this’. Use whatever prompting strategies (signs, pictures, ‘fill-ins’) are necessary to allow your child access to what they want. Just hearing you say the name of the item and having that name paired with reinforcement will lead to an increased likelihood that the word will be used in the future.
  8. When attempting to teach children nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives or adverbs, it is often much easier to begin with requesting (manding) and then transfer to the label (tact). For example, if you want to teach the child to label “dark”, it might be easier to first find a condition under which he would find dark desirable (playing with torches in dens?), teach him to ask for “dark”, then transfer that response to a label (tact) of “dark”.
  9. “Cleaning up” mild articulation errors can also be accomplished during requesting. When your child first learns a specific word, you might accept any intelligible approximation. After the child can request the item without prompts, have him repeat the word after you a couple of times before giving him the desired item to improve the articulation of the word. Give the child the item (reinforcer) after the best production. Obviously every child is different so use your judgement with regards to how many times you should ask your child to repeat the word.  It’s important not to ask a child to repeat the word so many times that he loses interest in the item and talking in general.

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