Tip of the Week: Use a Time-Out Ribbon

Time-out can be an effective procedure for addressing behaviors that do not function for escape. However, often it can be difficult to implement, and in some schools is not even allowed. There are valid concerns related to time-out. For example, you may not have the opportunity to supervise a child in a separate location for time-out, or you might want to keep them in the same place so they don’t miss a lesson during class.

The time-out ribbon may be an excellent solution for just those types of instances. When Foxx and Shapiro (1978) first wrote about the time-out ribbon, they referred to it as “nonexclusionary time-out,” meaning the individual does not have to be excluded from an environment or activity to be “in time-out.” In their initial study, all students wore a ribbon on their wrist. When the individual has the time-out ribbon on, they have access to socially-mediated reinforcement. If the time-out ribbon is removed, they do not have access to that reinforcement. (Foxx & Shapiro also note that it does not have to be a ribbon, but could be anything that is easy to wear and easy to remove.) However, by again demonstrating appropriate behavior, the ribbon can be placed again on the individual’s wrist.

In a time where we often focus on new, high tech solutions, such as the use of iPads or SmartBoards to introduce behavior change procedures, it’s important to draw attention to low-tech solutions that are easy to implement. Another aspect of the time-out ribbon that is attractive for our particular population is that it provides a clear visual indication that reinforcement is available.

A possible drawback is that, in a classroom setting, if the ribbon is removed, the student could continue to engage in disruptive behavior. Foxx and Shapiro emphasize the need to pair the ribbon with social reinforcement when first introducing it to the individual. This increases the likelihood that the individual will correct their behavior to earn the ribbon back.

Foxx & Shapiro demonstrated the effectiveness of the time-out ribbon with five boys with developmental disabilities. Since then, two more studies have demonstrated the efficacy of the procedure. We know that time-out can be highly effective from a wealth of research over recent decades, but if it’s not available, you should definitely consider the possible use of the time-out ribbon.

Further Reading

Alberto, P.A., Heflin, L.J., & Andrews, D. (2002). Use of the timeout ribbon procedure during community-based instruction. Behavior Modification, 26(2), 297-311.

Foxx, R.M. & Shapiro, S.T. (1978). The timeout ribbon: A nonexclusionary timeout procedure. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 11(1), 125-136.

Laraway, S., Snycerski, S., Michael, J. & Poling, A. (2001). The abative effect: A new term to describe the action of antecedents that reduce operant responding. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 18, 101-104.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Pick of the Week: NEW! Function Wheels – A Behavioral Identification and Intervention System

We’re absolutely thrilled to introduce Function Wheels, an easy-to-use system that enables users to identify the function of behavior and immediately intervene. Created and piloted by Keith Amerson, MSEd, Different Roads to Learning is a proud partner in bringing you the first all-inclusive, systematic approach for identifying the functions of problem behaviors and implementing research-based interventions to manage them.

Get your kit today at the introductory price of $149.95 through July 31st! No promo code necessary.

Click to enlarge.

Be sure to check out this nifty video below for a more in-depth look at the Function Wheels Kit!

Pick of the Week: Visual Task Completion Schedules

Keep students on track with these handy visual task completion schedules! This week, you can save 15%* on the Task Completion Schedule and the Flip When Finished Schedule. Just enter promo code SCHED15 at check-out to redeem your savings!

The Task Completion Schedule features clear “X” symbols to show a task has been completed. Simply take one of the Velcro “X” symbols and place it over the image of a task to show that it is completed. This black loop schedule also comes with a removable pocket to hold the 6 finished symbols, which have hook fasteners on their ends to attach to the schedule over the pictures. The Task Completion Schedule measures 28″ x 4″.

The Flip When Finished Schedule contains detachable clear pockets to keep students on track with their tasks. Simply flip the picture over when a task is complete or to reveal a new task. This schedule can be hung horizontally or vertically against a wall or board. Includes eight 3.5″ x 3.5″ pockets with one clear side with its reverse colored vinyl. A hook strip on top of both sides keeps it stuck to the loop schedule. The Flip When Finished Schedule measures 34″ x 4″.

Don’t forget to save 15%* this week on the Task Completion Schedule and the Flip When Finished Schedule when you enter in promo code SCHED15 at check-out!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EST on July 14th, 2015. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at checkout!

Tip of the Week: Improving Behavior for the Whole Class

Often, we focus on how to improve the behavior of an individual, but there are many times in which teachers must figure out a way to improve the behavior of the entire class. In ABA, we might implement a group contingency, a strategy in which reinforcement for the whole group is based upon the behavior of one or more people within the group meeting a performance criterion (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

Group contingencies can be especially beneficial for teachers because it may not always be possible to implement a contingency for an individual or there may be several students who need improvement with the same behavior. It’s also a useful strategy for individuals who respond well to peer influence. Furthermore, there are several studies that demonstrate the group contingencies can increase positive social interactions within a group.

Let’s look at examples of each type of contingency. In the first type, a dependent group contingency, reinforcement for all members of the group depends on the behavior of a single person within the group or a small group of people within the group. For example, you might say, “If Joseph remains in his seat for all of math, we will have five extra minutes of recess today.” This can be highly motivating for Joseph, because his peers will respond well to him if he earns them access to five more minutes of recess (leading some to call it the “hero procedure” because the individual is viewed so positively upon earning the reward.) It’s clear that if you have a student who is not motivated by social reinforcement from peers, this type of contingency would backfire. However, there is plenty of research that shows it’s benefits. (Allen, Gottselig, & Boylan, 1982; Gresham, 1983; Kerr & Nelson, 2002)

In the second type, an independent group contingency, criterion for accessing reinforcement is presented to everyone, but only the individuals who meet criterion earn the reinforcer. For example, you might say “If you remain in your seat for all of math class, you will earn five extra minutes of recess today.” In this contingency, every student who reaches criterion accesses the extra recess time, but those students who left their seat do not earn the extra five minutes. Another example might be, “Each person who turns in all homework earns two bonus points on their spelling test.” In this set up, the entire class is working towards a common goal, but the individuals who achieve the goal earn reinforcement no matter how their peers perform.

In the third type, an interdependent group contingency, reinforcement for all members of the group depends on the behavior of each member of the group meeting a performance criterion. Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace put it very well when they wrote “Independent group contingencies involve treating the members of a group as if they were a single behaving entity. The behavior of the group is reinforced contingent on the collective achievement of its members” (2014). In many classrooms there some type of independent group contingency in place, such as earning behavior points per class period or keeping your name on the green light (with yellow and red lights indicating problematic behaviors.) It’s quite simple to add an interdependent group contingency to these systems already in place. For example, you might say, “If all students names are still on the green light at the end of math, everyone earns an extra five minutes of recess.” There is evidence that interdependent group contingencies promote cooperation within groups (Poplin & Skinner, 2003; Salend & Sonnenschein, 1989).

Group contingencies are an excellent tool for classroom teachers, as well as anyone else working to manage a group of individuals.


Allen, Gottselig, & Boylan. (1982). A practical mechanism for using free time as a reinforcer in the classroom. Education and Treatment of Children, 5(4), 347-353.

Cooper, Heron, & Heward. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis – 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs; NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Gresham, F.M. (1983). Use of a home-based dependent group contingency system in controlling destructive behavior: A case study. School Psychology Review, 12(2), 195-199.

Kerr, M.M. & Nelson, C.M. (2002). Strategies for addressing behavior problems in the classroom (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace. (2014). Behavior Analysis for Lasting Change (3rd ed.). Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.

Popkin, J. & Skinner, C. (2003). Enhancing academic performance in a classroom serving students with serious emotional disturbance: Interdependent group contingencies with randomly selected components. School Psychology Review, 32(2), 282-296.

Salend, S.J., & Sonnenschein, P. (1989). Validating the effectiveness of a cooperative learning strategy through direct observation. Journal of School Psychology, 27, 47-58.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Photo courtesy of Books and Blogs by Cindy Andrews

Tips on Effective Self-Management with ABA Techniques by Daniel Sundberg

Most of us at some point or another have struggled with time management. Whether it is finding more time to spend with your children, or just finding the time to exercise, time management can be a major challenge. But the benefits are potentially huge. When I first started graduate school I had trouble scheduling classes, work, research, exercise, and social activities. Fortunately, I was introduced to some effective techniques, derived from the principles of applied behavior analysis, designed to help people systematically manage their own behavior, known as self-management (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). The self-management process at its core is about taking data on your own behavior and setting up systems to manage your own performance. Individuals have used self-management to address a wide variety of challenges, from reducing smoking and managing spending, to better utilizing their billable hours and managing medication use. Additionally, self-management techniques have been used by individuals with a wide range of developmental and cognitive abilities (Cooper et al., 2007), and have been shown to be effective in increasing an array of positive behavioral skills in individuals with autism (Lee, Simpson, & Shogren, 2007).

While I find a specific tool like the Self Management Planner useful in coordinating my own efforts at self-management, the components of a good self-management program can be incorporated into many different types of tools or systems. These components are very similar to those that you may see in effective applied behavior analysis or performance management programs (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968; Daniels & Bailey, 2014). At its most basic level this process involves specifically identifying important goals and related behaviors, measuring progress, determining how to affect those behaviors and reach your goals, and evaluating and modifying your program as necessary (Cooper et al., 2007). While Cooper et al. (2007) present a wide range of self-management tactics, here are a few specific suggestions for making your self-management program more effective:

  • Define your goals and the related behaviors. Creating a goal is a very important part of this process, as specific goals have been repeatedly shown to be more effective than vague goals (Locke & Latham, 2013). By identifying what you ultimately want to accomplish in the future it becomes much easier to identify things you can do today to get you there. Here are some specific tips for setting your goals:
    • Set a long term goal in terms of an accomplishment, not an activity (e.g. “save $5,000 for a vacation” rather than “spend less money”).
    • Make these long-term goal challenging yet attainable.
    • Set many short term goals, and direct these towards behaviors and results.
    • Make these short-term goals realistic – err on the side of making them too easy.
    • Make both short-term and long-term goals as specific as you possibly can.
    • Use your short-term and long-term goals to identify day to day behaviors that will allow you to reach your goal.
    • When you are selecting the goals that you want to focus on, pick only a few at any given time. It is reasonable to focus on around 4-6 goals at a time, too many and it becomes easy to lose focus – if everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority.
  • Identify measures. Tracking and measuring your progress is critical, and a large part of that involves clearly defining how you will measure the goals and behaviors you identified. For example, if you want to reach a set of parent training goals will you measure it in time spent working on that goal, milestones accomplished, appraisal from a clinical supervisor, or some other means? The more objective and countable, the better.
  • Change the behavior of interest. There are a number of ways to try and change your behavior. Often times, simply measuring behavior can produce change. If that is not enough, enlist the help of a friend to help you set and track your goals, keep you accountable, and deliver consequences. You can use Facebook or some other social media tool to make a public commitment and regularly post on how you are progressing. Paid programs such as Stickk can help you to track and measure your progress towards a goal. It is also possible to rearrange your environment in a way that makes the desired behavior more likely, B.F. Skinner wrote extensively on this in this in Enjoy Old Age: A Program of Self-Management (Skinner & Vaughan, 1983).
  • Track and measure. Record data on your progress every day, or at least several times per week. Frequently tracking your performance will also serve as a regular source of feedback, which can by itself change behavior.
  • Evaluate and modify your program. Taking frequent data will also allow you to make much more informed decisions about the effectiveness of your program. When recording your data spend some time evaluating your self-management program. Determine whether the goals you have set are realistic, you have enough time in your week to accomplish what you want, your environment is set up to help or hinder your progress, etc. This step is a lot easier to do if you are frequently taking data. If you are not making the progress you want (or aren’t even able to track your progress!) that means something needs to change. Reflect on what has been done thus far and consider other changes you could make that will lead to greater success.

Here are a few other points that are not specifically part of the self-management process, but may help you in your efforts:

  • Before you go to bed, make a list of the things you need to do tomorrow. Keep that list next to your bed, so you can jot down a task you think of in bed, rather than fixating on it.
  • Consider whether there are tasks that you do better at different times in the day. For example, I find that I do my heavy mental activities best in the morning, and try not to schedule anything too mentally demanding during the post-lunch lull.
  • Honestly appraise how well you respond to prompts and lists. For some, having a to-do list can control a lot of behavior, for others it is not nearly so effective. If you find that you don’t respond well to to-do lists, no amount of listing and planning is going to change your behavior. You may find that you need to recruit a friend to help in your program.
  • Schedule in some breaks. Most of us cannot tackle tasks back to back to back all day at the energy level needed. Even if it is 10 or 15 minutes, plan in some time during the day to take a quick break. You may find that this has the effect of making your time on task much more effective.
  • Avoid multi-tasking with important activities at all costs. The act of shifting your focus from one activity to another can take up more time than you expect, and eliminate any perceived efficiency from doing two things at once.

Self-management is no easy task, but the benefits can make the effort well worth it, not just for you, but for those you work with as well.


Daniel Sundberg is the founder of Self Management Solutions, an organization that operates on the idea of helping people better manage their time. Towards this end, he created the Self Management Planner, which is based on an earlier edition created by Mark Sundberg in the 1970s. Daniel is currently a PhD candidate and continues his work helping individuals and organizations better themselves.

Tip of the Week: Two Essential Considerations When Toilet Training Boys

Last year, I had the opportunity to interview Gary Weitzen, the Executive Director of POAC Autism Services and the Autism Shield Program. (You can see the blog post about that interview here.) In the months since our interview, many of his comments have stuck with me, but one in particular has impacted my daily work with students. He said, “A lot more boys have autism than females but the vast majority of educators in special ed, and in particular with autism, are females.” He went on to provide examples of how this fact influences some skill development, specifically with toilet training.

Child on Toilet 2 BlogThis leads to several considerations to take into account when toilet training boys. I agree with Weitzen that some of these issues arise from the simple fact that women are predominantly toilet training boys. However, it’s also possible that such issues arise from the fact that many boys are trained in early intervention or preschool years without consideration of the implications of those training techniques several years down the line, and without further intervention or training later in life. Either way, it’s important to recognize that training of life skills should be completed in such a way as to develop effective skills that are similar to those of the child’s same-age peers. To that end, here are two considerations:

Consider hygiene. Something I had never thought about prior to my conversation with Weitzen is that after boys use the bathroom, then zip up their pants, it’s easy for a little urine to drip onto their pants. Especially once children reach upper elementary and middle school grades, a spot of urine can be socially isolating or an invitation for bullying. Weitzen acknowledges that it can be difficult to teach boys to gently shake their penis before zipping up, especially because teachers don’t want to inappropriately touch the students. However, for the long term, it’s essential that teachers find a way to teach this simple action.

Consider the topography of the behavior. When we think about topography, we basically mean, “What does the behavior look like.” When initially toilet training, teachers will typically have the student pull his/her pants down to the floor. Weitzen shared a personal experience from several years ago, when he was a chaperone on a field trip with his son who is autistic. At one point, the teachers asked him to take the boys to the bathroom, so Weitzen went in with eight 14-year-old boys with autism. He said, “They took their pants and pushed them right down to their knees at the urinal at Medieval Times. So we had seven hairy tushies in the room. Out in public! And what happens is other dads and other boys came in there and everyone’s laughing and commenting and pointing.” This is the type of situation that teachers and parents do not want students to experience. When toilet training, it’s essential to recognize that the topography of the behavior in the male restroom is to unzip the pants, and then pull the fabric aside in order to urinate in the urinal. While it may be easier to teach students to pull their pants down in the initial phases of toilet training, it’s important to continue shaping behavior until it has the appropriate topography.

If our students continue to pull their pants down completely, they become targets for bullying, or worse. Weitzen says that on multiple occasions, he’s had parents report to him that their child used the bathroom at the urinal, and when they pulled their pants to the floor, another student took a picture of them. “Four different moms told me that, and if four moms told me that, I can’t imagine how often that’s happening,” Weitzen said. “And even if they’re not sharing the photo, well now you’re the weird kid who sticks his butt out. And you’re isolated and you’re picked upon, so we have to be real. We have to realize our guys live in the real world and teach them the skills that they need.”


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Simplifying the Science: Teaching Siblings About Behavior

When I first came across this study, Behavioral Training for Siblings of Autistic Children, I was immediately hesitant. There’s something about the idea of sibling-as-therapist that makes me cringe a little bit. When I work with the families of children with autism, the hope is that the siblings of the child with autism still have a childhood without being pushed into the role of caregiver. And I also want the child with autism to have independence and feel like an individual who is heard, which may be more challenging if their siblings are issuing demands just as a parent or teacher would. But as I read the study, I realized that the work they completed had incredible social significance.

Siblings Playing Together BlogIn the study, there were three pairs of siblings. The ages of the children with autism ranged from 5 years old to 8 years old. The ages of the siblings ranged from 8 years old to 13 years old. The researchers trained each sibling of a child with autism how to teach basic skills, such as discriminating between different coins, identifying common objects, and spelling short words. As part of this training, the researchers showed videos of one-on-one sessions in which these skills were taught, utilizing techniques such as reinforcement, shaping, and chaining. What the researchers did next was the part that really stood out to me: they discussed with the siblings how to use these techniques in other environments. Finally, the researchers observed the sibling working with their brother/sister with autism and provided coaching on the techniques.

It should be noted here that the goal of the study was not to have the siblings become the teacher of basic skills. Instead, it was to provide a foundation of skills in behavioral techniques for the sibling to use in other settings with the hope of overall improvement in the behaviors of the child with autism. The researchers demonstrated that, after training, the siblings were able to effectively use prompts, reinforcement, and discrete trials to effectively teach new skills. But, perhaps the most meaningful aspects of the study were the changes reported by both siblings and parents. The researchers provide a table showing comments about the sibling with autism before and after the training. One of the most striking comments after the training was, “He gets along better if I know how to ask him” (p. 136). Parents reported that they were pleased with the results and found the training beneficial.

This study provides excellent evidence that structured training for siblings has real potential for making life a little easier for the whole family. The idea isn’t that they become the therapist, but instead that knowledge truly is power.


Schriebman, L., O’Neill, R.E. & Koegel, R.L. (1983). Behavioral training for siblings of autistic children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 16(2), 129-138.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Workshop with Mary Jane Weiss, PhD, BCBA: Identifying the Elements and Process for Ethical Decision Making in Behavior Analysis – Andover, MA, April 23rd, 2015

Mary Jane WeissMary Jane Weiss, Ph.D., BCBA-D, speaks to the complexities of being an ethical behavior analyst and the complex skill set required. In this workshop Dr. Weiss will review the Guidelines for Responsible Conduct, and will identify core themes and responsibilities.  She will also review several sample scenarios, and discuss the decision making tree that would assist a behavior analyst in identifying the best and most ethical course of action. This workshop is geared toward professional with BCBA Type II CEU credits available.

Workshop presented by Melmark New England. For registration or more information, visit the Eventbrite page here.

Pick of the Week: NEW! Time Timer Watches in Bright Colors

We’re thrilled to announce that the popular Time Timer Watch PLUS (Youth Size) now comes in new, bright colors! The Time Timer Watch PLUS allows you to visually see how much time has elapsed while simultaneously displaying the actual time. It has a sporty design and uses simple icons and a large display to ensure ease of use for all age and ability levels.

This week only, take 15% off* your order of a brand new Time Timer Watch PLUS with promo code TIMER15 at checkout!

Ideal for anyone who wants a discrete and portable visual timer, the Time Timer Watch PLUS is customizable: there are two Time Timer modes (Original 60 minutes and Customized), vibrating and/or audible alerts and repeatable time segments for interval training. There is also a 12- or 24-hour clock with one alarm.

Water-resistant, the soft, silicon watch band measures from 4.75″ to 7″, making it perfect for children or adults with small wrists. The Youth Watch PLUS comes in bright, vibrant bluegreen or berry and in charcoal.

Watch the video below to see how the Time Timer Watch PLUS works!

Don’t forget to use our promo code TIMER15 at check-out to save 15%* on your order of the Time Timer Watch PLUS (Youth Size).

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EST on April 14th, 2015. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at check out!

Autism Awareness Month Interview Series: Essentials of Verbal Behavior with Mark Sundberg, PhD, BCBA-D

Today marks the start of Autism Awareness Month. This year, we’re thrilled to introduce a series of exclusive interviews with renowned experts on topics that are of interest and importance to both parents and professionals working with students on the autism spectrum. We can’t think of a better way to kick off this series than with an information-packed interview with Mark Sundberg, PhD, BCBA on the Essentials of Verbal Behavior.

Dr. Sundberg hardly needs an introduction. He is the author of the VB-MAPP, Teaching Language to Children with Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, and co-author of the original ABLLS. Additionally, he has published over 50 professional papers and 4 book chapters and taught more than 80 university courses on behavior analysis, verbal behavior, sign language, and child development. He is a licensed psychologist with over 40 years of clinical experience.

We’re honored that Dr. Sundberg agreed to kick off Autism Awareness Month here at Different Roads and answer these questions on Verbal Behavior from BCBA Sam Blanco. A big thank you to Cindy Sundberg as well for her help with the interview.

Essentials of Verbal Behavior
with Mark Sundberg, PhD, BCBA-D

SAM BLANCO: There is often confusion about what differentiates ABA and Verbal Behavior. Can you tell us what Verbal Behavior is and how it relates to ABA?

MARK SUNDBERG: In the 1950s B. F. Skinner published the book Science and Human Behavior (1953). In that book he described how the basic concepts and principles of behavior analysis could be applied to human behavior. This book is credited for starting the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) (Morris, Smith, & Altus, 2005). A few years later Skinner published the book Verbal Behavior (1957) which contained a detailed analysis of language, a topic he addressed frequently in Science and Human Behavior and other writings. The verbal behavior (VB) approach (or ABA/VB) to autism treatment is based on these two Skinner books, and over 60 years of conceptual and empirical research that has evolved primarily from this original material.

Regarding the similarities and differences between ABA and VB, first they both make use of the same principles, procedures, and research basis of behavior analysis (Skinner, 1953). That is, they both use the basic procedures of prompting, fading, shaping, reinforcing, and so on (cf. Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). The primary difference between the two approaches is the analysis of language that underlies the assessment and intervention programs. The VB approach makes use of Skinner’s (1957) behavioral analysis of language along with ABA principles and procedures, while most ABA and cognitive-based programs use the traditional expressive and receptive framework of language. Although this seems to be changing in that more ABA approaches and outcome studies are incorporating aspects of Skinner’s analysis (e.g., manding) into their intervention programs (e.g., the Sallows & Graupner, 2005 outcome study).

The main advantage of Skinner’s treatment of language for children with autism is that he breaks down expressive language more thoroughly and functionally. He suggests that the “mand,” “tact,” and “intraverbal,” are functionally different from each other because they are controlled by different environmental variables. For example, the mand is under the functional control of motivational variables (what a child wants), while the tact is under the functional control of nonverbal discriminative stimuli (what a child sees, hears, etc., but may not want). It is not uncommon to encounter children with autism who have dozens of words as tacts, but no words as mands (their mands may occur in the form of tantrums or other negative behavior). In the traditional analysis of expressive language this distinction between the mand and the tact is not made, thus a resulting intervention program may not completely or accurately address a child’s needs. These important differences in verbal skills are not typically assessed by most of the common assessment tools used for children with autism (Esch, LaLonde, & Esch, 2010). For more details on the value of incorporating Skinner’s (1957) analysis of verbal behavior into ABA programs, the reader is referred to Petursdottir and Carr (2011) and Sundberg and Michael (2001).

SB: Can you tell us a bit about developing the VB-MAPP? It must have been quite an undertaking!

MS: I’ve been working on applying Skinner’s (1957) analysis of verbal behavior to language assessment and intervention since the 1970s when I was one of Jack Michael’s graduate students at Western Michigan University. This topic became the foundation of my doctoral dissertation (Sundberg, 1980), and has been the main focus of my professional career. The VB-MAPP was designed to be an assessment tool that is comprehensive, precise, developmentally matched, and functionally valuable to the child. As a result, the information obtained from the VB-MAPP can assist in IEP planning and help to establish intervention priorities, and serve as a curriculum guide for the program. The VB-MAPP is also designed to serve as a dependent measure in empirical research, and outcome research. In addition, problem behavior and various other “barriers” impact learning and should be assessed along with language, learning, and social skills. If left unattended, these barriers can slow down a child’s skill acquisition or possibly bring any gains to a complete standstill, and leave the child susceptible to other problems. Thus, the VB-MAPP also contains an assessment of 24 barriers that might affect a child (e.g., escape and avoidance, prompt dependency, demand weakens motivation).

The VB-MAPP has greatly benefited over the years from the many parents and professionals who have provided feedback or conducted field-testing with typical children and children with special needs in schools, homes, clinics, and community settings. This feedback and field-testing provided us with a wealth of information that influenced many aspects of the VB-MAPP, such as checks for generalization throughout the assessment, tips for the tester, more information in the Guide about the skills being assessed, and a placement program to provide general direction for intervention and IEP development. Our own field-testing activities also helped us with many of the improvements, such as the refinement of the sequence and validity of the intraverbal assessment (e.g., Sundberg & Sundberg, 2011), and separating play skills into independent play and social play for a tighter assessment of this area. In addition, there is now a more extensive body of conceptual and empirical research that has advanced our overall understanding of language acquisition and the treatment of autism.

We were also fortunate to have Barbara Esch, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, BCBA-D include her Early Echoic Skills Assessment to the VB-MAPP. Her tool presents a state-of-the-art method to quickly assess a child’s echoic repertoire, and it fits well within the VB-MAPP. The VB-MAPP also contains a short transition assessment that resulted from many years of consulting to special education classrooms and attending IEPs. We thought it would be useful to create a piece of the assessment that could help to determine what type of educational format might best suit an individual child (e.g., 1:1 vs. small group instruction, inclusion). The targeted milestones in the VB-MAPP have been carefully chosen and matched to those of typically developing children, thus providing a clearer picture of how a child with autism is performing. We aligned the VB-MAPP with standardized, and well-respected assessments, including the APES, Bayley-III, PLS-IV, and the Vineland-II. As a result of these various features, the VB-MAPP moves beyond just an assessment of basic skills to a more thorough and functional assessment of the whole child.

The work on the VB-MAPP and making ABA and verbal behavior understandable and accessible continues to be an on-going process. After the VB-MAPP was published in late 2008, we received interest from professionals wanting electronic versions and foreign language translations. The VB-MAPP is now also available as an app and web-based format, as well as in several different languages including Chinese, French, Italian, Polish, Russian, and Spanish, with other languages in various stages of development.

SB: For a learner who is just developing language, what does research show is the appropriate developmental order for teaching verbal skills? (For example, do you teach “I want _______” to a learner who only has ten words?)

MS: The design of the VB-MAPP directly addresses the issue of using typical developmental milestones as a framework for the assessment and the intervention program. For example, it is common to have adjectives, prepositions, and answering WH questions on an IEP for a child who may only have a 30-word vocabulary. Developmentally, that small of a vocabulary size indicates that the child may not be ready for tasks that require the child to modify nouns with their properties or location, let alone answer WH questions about them. Likewise, adding carrier phrases such as “I want” to a mand may be of little value to a child who only has ten words. The child would probably benefit more from first learning more mands and tacts. There are many aspects to developing a child’s verbal skills, even though the learning patterns demonstrated by typical children can guide us, each child is different and still requires an individual analysis of what curriculum sequence might work best for him.

SB: Why is it important for a learner to have a certain number of mands before moving on to other verbal skills?

MS: There is no magic number of mands. My point (from Skinner) has been that manding is the only type of verbal behavior that directly benefits the child. Mands allow a child to get access to things and activities that are important to him. That’s motivating for the child, and increases chances that he will initiate verbal interactions and emit language in a more natural way, as well as participate in other instructional activities. The other types of verbal behavior (e.g., echoic, tacting) don’t have the same effect. I have found repeatedly that it is often quite easy to establish a mand for a nonverbal child (especially using sign language or PECS), and it becomes much easier to use this newly established rapport to teach the child other skills. A variety of different verbal skills are necessary for a functional communication repertoire. Sooner or later the child must learn other language skills such as tacts, intraverbals, and listener skills. My tendency to encourage practitioners to emphasize the mand has been mainly due to its value to the child, but also to offset the historical tendency by many ABA programs to ignore the mand, teach it late in an intervention program, not appreciate the difference between motivational control and stimulus control, or assume that the mand will just emerge from other types of training.

SB: How do you measure verbal behavior?

MS: Verbal behavior can be measured by using many of the same recording systems common to behavior analysis (e.g., Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007), such as rate, frequency, time samples, discontinuous measurement, etc. However, it is important to carefully identify all the antecedent variables that are involved. For example, it is not enough to simply record that a child says the word “ball” 10 times in a 1-hour period. The measurement system, like all ABC recording systems, must also include the antecedent sources of control that evoked that response. If the ball is present, the response is part tact, if an EO for the ball is present, the response is part mand, if an echoic prompt is given, the response is part echoic, and so on. A child who emits “ball” 10 times as an echoic is not behaving in the same way as a child who emits “ball” 10 times as a mand or tact. In short, a verbal behavior measurement system not only records the topography of responses, but their function as well. Thus, there may be several different data sheets that all measure a child’s acquisition of the word “ball,” but each differ in important ways (e.g., “ball” as a tact vs. “ball” as an intraverbal). More detail on measuring and recording verbal behavior can be found throughout the VB-MAPP Guide, as well as in Sundberg & Partington (1998).

SB: One resource I frequently use is the 300 Common Nouns list. Can you talk about how this list is useful?

MS: The goal of the list is to take some of the guesswork and randomness out of selecting new targets for vocabulary development by providing a group of common nouns that young typically developing children might acquire. In addition, the lists are designed to track the acquisition of a new word (e.g., spoon) across a variety of conditions. For example, there are columns for both tacting and listener skills, as well as for generalization and more complex demonstrations of a skill. The list also provides the basis for moving an individual word to more complex types of verbal behavior. For example, when adding a verb or an adjective to a noun (e.g., “white plastic spoon”) staff should cautiously select nouns that have been acquired and generalized as identified by the data entered on the list. Movement to intraverbal and LRFFC tasks should also involve nouns that have been mastered and the list provides an initial guide for making this progression. There is a common verbs list as well posted in the downloads section at www.avbpress.com.

SB: What recommendations do you have for a parent or practitioner who is first encountering verbal behavior?

MS: Language and the ability to communicate is perhaps the single most important aspect of human behavior, correspondingly, it is quite complex. Language is a part of everyday life and can be taught not only in formal (discrete) sessions, but in everyday activities including play, bath time, arts and crafts, in the grocery store, and while out on a family drive. Our book “Teaching Language to Children with Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities” (Sundberg & Partington, 1998) was designed to be an easy-to-understand application of Skinner’s analysis, and I would recommend that book, or other user-friendly VB books (Barbera, 2007; Weiss & Demiri, 2011). In addition, there are websites that contain tips, materials, data sheets, YouTube videos, and a variety of other material that can be useful for helping parents and teachers to understand how to apply a behavioral analysis of language in an ABA program.


Mark SundbergMark L. Sundberg, Ph.D., BCBA-D received his doctorate degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from Western Michigan University (1980), under the direction of Dr. Jack Michael. He is the author of the Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP), and co-author of the original ABLLS and the book Teaching Language to Children with Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities. He has published over 50 professional papers and 4 book chapters. He is the founder and past editor of the journal The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, a twice past-president of The Northern California Association for Behavior Analysis, a past-chair of the Publication Board of ABAI, and has served on the Board of Directors of the B. F. Skinner Foundation. Dr. Sundberg has given hundreds of conference presentations and workshops nationally and internationally, and taught 80 college and university courses on behavior analysis, verbal behavior, sign language, and child development. He is a licensed psychologist with over 40 years of clinical experience who consults for public and private schools that serve children with autism. His awards include the 2001 “Distinguished Psychology Department Alumnus Award” from Western Michigan University, and the 2013 “Jack Michael Outstanding Contributions in Verbal Behavior Award” from ABAI’s Verbal Behavior Special Interest Group.

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