Verbal Behaviour, VBMAPP (& Assessments) & Verbal Operants

This is part of the parent training course:


The interesting thing about operant behaviour is that the rules of operant behaviour extend to the way we talk to ourselves and think. For example, Teaching verbal operants and verbal behaviour is crucial for individuals learning language skills. As we have already mentioned, behaviour is functional for an individual and often it is a form of communication in the environment to get our needs met, so it is is easy to the see importance of teaching verbal behaviour responses that help an individual get their needs met. So, for example, a child might pinch you every time they want a cookie, this behaviour might be successful because it always gets a cookie and so an intervention for this would be getting the learner to appropriately request a cookie. This can be done a number of ways depending on the skill level of the person such as Picture Exchange Communication or even in its simplest form taking you to the cupboard by hand and pointing to the cupboard. 

What are the operants for verbal behaviour?

  1. Mands:
  • Definition: The mand operant involves making requests or expressing wants and needs.
  • Example: A child saying “I want juice, please” to request a drink.
  • SD: The presence of a motivating operation (MO) or need for the item being requested serves as the discriminative stimulus.
  1. Tact Operant:
  • Definition: The tact operant involves labeling or describing objects, actions, or events.
  • Example: A child saying “That’s a dog!” when seeing a dog in a picture.
  • SD: The presence of the object, action, or event that is being labelled serves as the discriminative stimulus.
  1. Intraverbal Operant:
  • Definition: The intraverbal operant involves responding to verbal stimuli with related verbal responses.
  • Example: A child answering the question “What is your favorite colour?” with “Blue.”
  • SD: The verbal stimulus or question serves as the discriminative stimulus.
  1. Echoic Operant:
  • Definition: The echoic operant involves repeating or imitating what is heard.
  • Example: A child saying “Car” after hearing an adult say “Car.”
  • SD: The verbal stimulus or sound serves as the discriminative stimulus.
  1. Textual Operant:
  • Definition: The textual operant involves reading or recognizing written words.
  • Example: A child reading a word like “cat” from a book.
  • SD: The written word or text serves as the discriminative stimulus.

Figure 1. Verbal Operants

The relationship between PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) and Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (Bonds & Frost, n.d.):

Skinner’s analysis of language, known as verbal behaviour, views it as behaviour reinforced through the involvement of other people. Verbal behaviour encompasses various forms and modes, and any behaviour capable of impacting another organism can be considered verbal. Skinner identified four main types of verbal behavior: Mand, Tact, Intraverbal, and Echoic. Antecedent conditions, consequences, and autoclitic behaviors play a role in influencing verbal behaviour. The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) applies Skinner’s principles to teach communication to individuals with disabilities, focusing on initiating communication through picture exchanges. Additionally, teaching the language of emotions is important and can be accomplished while the individual is experiencing the emotion.

PECS is Verbal Behaviour:

A common misconception is that using signs or other alternative forms of communication device might hinder or not help to develop spoken language. Using communications like PECS do not hinder vocal language development and it does not promote a preference for nonverbal communication over spoken language. PECS is designed to provide individuals with an effective and consistent method of communicating needs and wants. It serves as a tool to bridge the communication gap and can be used alongside or as a stepping stone to vocal language development. PECS utilises visual supports, such as pictures or symbols, to facilitate communication. It provides individuals with a structured and systematic approach to initiate and engage in communication. The use of PECS does not discourage or replace the development of spoken language but rather serves as a means to support and enhance overall communication skills. By using PECS, individuals can quickly and effectively communicate their needs, reducing frustration and promoting functional communication. As individuals become more proficient in using PECS, it can serve as a foundation for the development of spoken language. The consistent use of PECS can create a predictable communication environment that encourages language acquisition and verbal expression. Ultimately, PECS offers a flexible and individualised approach to communication that can be tailored to each person’s needs and abilities. It provides a consistent method for individuals to express themselves and have their needs met while simultaneously supporting the development of vocal language skills.

Figure 2. Picture Exchanging

Source Unknown

In Summary:

  • Most programs tend to start using PECS as request cards as the motivation to get things we want is always pretty high and easy to teach and the establishing operation already exists for the item. The main issue it to teach discrimination between items (see Figure 2,3. )
  • Research studies have shown that when individuals with communication difficulties engage in PECS, similar areas of the brain are activated as during vocal communication. 
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have demonstrated that both vocalisation and PECS-based communication activate regions of the brain involved in language processing, such as Broca’s area and the left inferior frontal gyrus. 
  • This suggests that PECS elicits brain activity patterns similar to vocal communication, indicating its relevance as a form of language expression.
  • Although PECS primarily relies on the use of visual symbols (pictures), it can still be considered a form of verbal behaviour within the framework of Skinner’s analysis. 
  • Skinner defines verbal behavior as behaviour reinforced through the mediation of other people. In the case of PECS, the exchange of pictures serves as a communicative act that is reinforced by others’ responses, which may include providing the requested item or acknowledging the individual’s communication attempt. 
  • The act of exchanging pictures to communicate intentions or desires aligns with the functional definition of verbal behavior outlined by Skinner.
  • It’s important to note that the classification of PECS as verbal behaviour does not diminish the significance of other forms of verbal operants, such as vocalisation or speech. 
  • Rather, it expands the understanding of verbal behaviour to encompass alternative modes of communication beyond traditional speech. 
  • PECS provides individuals with limited or no vocal abilities a means to engage in functional and communicative exchanges, using a visually based system that taps into the fundamental principles of verbal behaviour.

Figure 3. Discrimination Training

Discrimination involves being able to reliably pick out the relevant object from an array. We can do this by increasing the sample field from 1 plus a distractor (can be a blank card) and then increasing the field size, where there is usually something that the person might not necessarily be motivated for such as Brussel sprouts 🙂

Rule-Governed Behaviour:

Rule-governed behaviour is a special case within verbal operants, where behaviour is controlled by verbal rules or instructions rather than direct environmental contingencies. It involves following verbal instructions or rules to guide behaviour and make decisions. Rule-governed behavior allows individuals to engage in flexible and complex behavior beyond what is directly reinforced or punished in the environment.

Here’s an example to illustrate rule-governed behavior in the context of verbal operants:

Imagine a teacher giving instructions to a student for completing a math problem. The teacher says, “Multiply the two numbers together and then subtract 10 from the result.” The student follows the verbal rule or instruction provided by the teacher, without relying on immediate consequences or feedback from the environment. The student may not fully understand why they are subtracting 10, but they follow the rule because they have been taught to do so.

In this example, the student’s behaviour is controlled by the verbal rule provided by the teacher. The rule functions as an antecedent stimulus, guiding the student’s behaviour. The student may not have previously learned the direct consequences of multiplying and subtracting in this particular context, but they follow the rule based on previous learning experiences.

Rule-Governed Behaviour & Inflexibility, Problem-Solving & How We Derive Relations

Rule-governed behaviour is essential for human functioning, as it allows individuals to engage in complex problem-solving, planning, and decision-making. It enables us to follow societal norms, cultural practices, and personal values. While rule-governed behaviour is powerful and efficient, it is still influenced by the contingencies that established the rules in the first place. These rules can be shaped and maintained through the consequences that follow their compliance or violation.

It’s worth noting that rule-governed behaviour can sometimes lead to inflexibility or difficulty adapting when the environment changes or when new contingencies emerge. In such cases, the reliance on previously learned rules may interfere with the ability to adapt and learn new behaviours.

RFT (Relational Frame Theory) is a theoretical framework that explores how language and cognition are shaped by the relationships between stimuli. Studies have shown that relational training, which involves teaching individuals to understand and respond to relationships between stimuli, correlates with improvements in language and IQ measures.

Derived Relational Responding (DRR) is a concept within RFT that focuses on responses based on the relation between stimuli rather than the stimuli themselves. DRR involves untaught responses emerging based on previously learned arbitrary relations. It is not dependent on physical properties but rather on social conventions.

Generativity refers to the ability to generate new and untaught responses based on previously learned relational patterns. RFT suggests that generativity is supported by contextual control, derived relations, and the ability to respond to relational patterns.

Integrating RFT (Relational Frame Theory) and VB (Verbal Behavior) within and intervention such as the Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) programs involves analysing, capturing, and contriving motivation, establishing functional control for each Skinnerian verbal operant, and teaching initial skills. It also focuses on establishing joint attention and instructional control with young and resistant learners, providing loose multiple exemplar training for relational responding patterns, and teaching relational responding from non-arbitrary to complex arbitrarily applicable relations.

Figure 4. Rule-Governed Behaviour

Source Connections Behavior Planning and Intervention

How we DERIVE Meaning from Stimuli in Relational Frame Theory (RFT):

  • Stimulus Equivalence: Stimulus equivalence refers to a set of stimuli that evoke the same response or have the same functions.
  • Reflexivity: Reflexivity occurs when a stimulus is related to itself (e.g., A = A).
  • Symmetry: Symmetry occurs when two stimuli have a bidirectional relationship (e.g., If A = B, then B = A).
  • Combinatorial Entailment: Combinatorial entailment involves deriving new relations from existing ones (e.g., If A = B and B = C, then A = C).

Figure 5. Relational Frame Theory & How We Derive Meaning

Source Unknown

Conclusion: Using a behaviour skills training approach, parents and beginner tutors can effectively teach verbal operants and verbal behaviour to individuals. By understanding the discriminative stimuli or establishing operations associated with each operant and incorporating principles of stimulus relations found in RFT, learners can acquire and generalise language skills more efficiently.

Assessment & Curriculum

VB-MAPP Verbal Behaviour Milestones And Placement Program

This the the most widely used assessment is the VB-MAPP was developed by Dr. Mark Sundberg in 2008 and is based on B.F. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior. It includes 170 developmental language and learning milestones across three levels (Level 1: 0-18 months, Level 2: 18-30 months, Level 3: 30-48 months). The milestones were identified using information from various sources on language acquisition and child development, and they are assessed through direct testing, observation, or timed observation. The interpretation of VB-MAPP results involves determining the child’s overall level, identifying areas of strengths and weaknesses, and developing instructional programs to address skill deficits. The VB-MAPP guide provides suggestions for curriculum, placement, and IEP goals based on the assessment results. Overall, the VB-MAPP is a comprehensive tool that assesses language and learning skills, provides guidance for program development, and emphasizes the function of language for children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Verbal operants in VBMAPP

  • Mand (requesting)
  • Tact (expressive labelling), 
  • Echoic (vocal imitation), 
  • Intraverbal (answering questions), 
  • Listener responding (receptive language), 
  • Imitation (motor imitation)

There are other types of assessment for functional living, EIBI and other skills assessment but it is beyond the scope of this course to go into the details of the assessment here. What is practical to know is that an assessment is required before beginning any intervention therapy with an individual and consent to work with the child must be provided. Assessments can take anywhere up to a few weeks (they are ongoing) and a VBMAPP can take around 4 hours to complete, sometimes it is quicker. It is usually updated quarterly and workshops with consultants occur monthly to check progress and set new targets and ensure teaching strategies are in line with progress for the individual. 

Outlined below is a typical assessment for a new learner which might be useful to be aware of so you are aware of what the assessment entails when someone comes along. 

Table 1. Typical Assessment Process For New Learner

Student Information
Name:Age:Gender:Date of Assessment:

Assessment Steps:

QuestionnaireMeet with the caregivers to gather information about the learner’s goals, background, previous treatments, and areas of concern. Document antecedents (triggers) and consequences (reinforcements/punishments) related to the learner’s behavior.
Direct ObservationObserve the learner directly and take notes. Interact with the learner to assess their connection and engagement with others. Note the learner’s communication skills, including gaze shifting, gestures, body positioning, sounds, and use of communication tools. Assess the learner’s developmental performance by presenting appropriate questions based on their age/developmental level.
Indirect Assessment MeasuresProvide caregivers with indirect assessment measures such as PEAK Indirect checklist, Vineland, or other relevant tools to complete. Collect additional information about the learner’s skills, abilities, and challenges.
Determine StagesUse the stages described below to determine the learner’s current stage and identify areas for skill acquisition programs.
Stages Overview
Stage 1Learners starting programming around the age of 2-4 or those who have never had therapy before. Assess the following skills: Instructional motivation, Mand training, Attending, Matching, Motor and object imitation, Shape sorter and basic puzzles, Orienting and play skills.
Stage 2Learners who have acquired basic skills and are ready to progress to more advanced programs. Assess skills such as advanced puzzles, block designs, patterns, sorting, receptive identification of objects/pictures, receptive commands, labeling items/pictures, and play skills. Also, assess barriers to learning, core autism symptoms, and address any challenging behaviors.
Stage 3Advanced learners who are ready for intraverbals and stringing words together. Assess skills such as patterns, sequencing, seriation, mazes, receptive/expressive identification of pronouns, emotions, adjectives, body parts, etc. Evaluate skills in reading, writing, math, conversation, and play. Continue to address barriers to learning and core autism symptoms.

Note: These steps and stages are suggested guidelines and can be adapted based on the learner’s individual needs and circumstances.Here is a more comprehensive assessment guide that could be used SB-VBMAPP-Initial-Milestones-Assessment

VB-MAPP Verbal Behaviour Milestones And Placement Program Contains Several Important Areas Such As:

Barriers to skill acquisition:

The barriers include instructional control, behaviour problems, defective mands, defective tacts, defective imitation, defective echoic, defective matching-to-sample, defective listener skills, defective intraverbal, prompt dependency, defective generalisation, scrolling, defective scanning, defective conditional discriminations, weak motivators, response requirement weakens the motivators, self-stimulation, defective articulation, obsessive compulsive behaviour, reinforcer dependency, defective attending, and defective social skills. By identifying these barriers, the clinician can develop more effective intervention strategies and allow for more effective learning. 

Transition readiness:

Contains 18 assessment areas and can help to identify whether a child is making meaningful progress and has acquired the skills necessary for learning in a less restrictive educational environment

Task Analysis & skills tracking, & Placement & IEP Goals:

The barriers assessment helps identify learning and language-specific deficits that may impact a learner’s progress, while the transition assessment measures a learner’s overall level of capability and determines the level of instructional and environmental support needed.


Communication is the key to reducing challenging behaviour. In individuals who might be struggling to regulate themselves a verbal behaviour approach with PECS or similar can help even if there is vocal language as it helps to increase environmental predictability and reduce the need to engage in challenging behaviour. Verbal behaviour consists of different operants, including mands (making requests), tacts (labelling), intraverbals (responding to verbal stimuli), echoics (repeating what is heard), and textual (reading or recognising written words). PECS is a communication system that uses visual supports, such as pictures or symbols, to facilitate communication. It does not hinder vocal language development but serves as a tool to bridge the communication gap and support overall communication skills. Research has shown that PECS activates brain regions involved in language processing, similar to vocal communication. PECS is considered a form of verbal behaviour within Skinner’s analysis. Rule-governed behavior is another aspect discussed, where behaviour is guided by verbal rules or instructions. It enables complex problem-solving and decision-making. In addition, Relational Frame Theory (RFT) explores how language and cognition are shaped by the relationships between stimuli. It includes concepts such as stimulus equivalence, reflexivity, symmetry, and combinatorial entailment. The VB-MAPP assessment is a widely used tool based on Skinner’s analysis of verbal behaviour. It assesses language and learning milestones and guides program development for children with autism and developmental disabilities. The assessment process involves gathering information, direct observation, and using various measures. The assessment helps identify skill deficits, barriers to learning, and transition readiness. Overall, this module emphasises the importance of understanding and teaching verbal operants and provides practical guidance for parents and tutors.


  1. Bondy, A., & Frost, L. (2002). Picture Exchange Communication System: Training Manual (2nd ed.). Pyramid Educational Consultants, Inc.
  2. Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (Eds.). (2001). Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  3. Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Copley Publishing Group.
  4. Sundberg, M. L., & Partington, J. W. (1998). Teaching Language to Children with Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities. Behavior Analysts, Inc.

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