Tip of the Week: Teaching Language—Focus on the Stage, Not the Age

Teaching language skills is one of the most frequent needs for children with autism, but also one of the most misunderstood skillsets amongst both parents and practitioners. The desire to hear your learner speak in full sentences can be overwhelming, making it especially difficult to take a step back and consider what it means to communicate and how communication skills develop in neurotypical children. Many times we get hung up on what a child should be capable of communicating at a certain age, rather than focusing on what they are capable of communicating at this stage of development.

Many practitioners and curricula utilize Brown’s Stages of Language Development.* Brown described the first five stages of language development in terms of the child’s “mean length of utterance” (or MLU) as well as the structure of their utterances.


From aacinstitute.org

Sometimes it is necessary to compare a child to his or her same-age peers in order to receive services or measure progress, but it can be detrimental to focus on what a child should be doing at a specific age instead of supporting them and reinforcing them for progress within their current stage.

Research has suggested that teaching beyond the child’s current stage results in errors, lack of comprehension, and difficulty with retention. Here are some common errors you may have witnessed:

  • The child learns the phrase “I want _____ please.” This phrase is fine for “I want juice, please” or “I want Brobee, please,” but it loses meaning when overgeneralized to “I want jump, please” or “I want play, please.” It’s better to allow your learner to acquire hundreds of 1-2 word mands (or requests) before expecting them to speak in simple noun+verb mands.
  • The child learns to imitate only when the word “say” is used. Then the child makes statements such as “say how are you today,” as a greeting or “say I’m sorry,” when they bump into someone accidentally. Here, the child clearly has some understanding of when the phrases should be used without understanding the meanings of the individual words within each phrase.
  • The child learns easily overgeneralized words such as “more.” This is useful at times, but the child can start using it for everything. Instead of saying “cookie” he’ll say “more.” Instead of saying “train,” he’ll say “more.” And he may say “more” when the desired item is not present, leaving the caregiver frustrated as he/she tries to guess what the child is requesting. Moreover, as language begins to develop, he may misuse it by saying things such as “more up, please.”
  • The child learns to say “Hello, how are you today?” upon seeing a person entering a room. A child comes into the classroom and the learner looks up, says “Hello, how are you today?” The child responds, “Great! Look at the cool sticker I got!” Your learner then doesn’t respond at all, or may say “fine,” as he has practiced conversations of greeting.

These are only a few of the common language errors you may see. While you may want your learner to speak in longer sentences, your goal should be to have them communicate effectively. With this goal in mind, it becomes essential to support them at their current stage, which means it’s essential to assess them and understand how to help them make progress.

This is why I always use the VB-MAPP to assess each child and make decisions about language instruction. I need to have a full understanding of how the learner is using language, and then move them through each stage in a clear progression. I may want the child to say “Hello, how are you today?” But when I teach them that, do they understand those individual words? Do they comprehend what today means as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow? Do they generalize the use of “how” to other questions?

As you make treatment decisions for your learner, think about their current stage and talk about how to support your child with both a Speech Language Pathologist and an ABA therapist.

*Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSEd, BCBA

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.

Newly Released: The VB-MAPP Guide, 2nd Edition

VB-MAPP Guide 2014 Cover.inddUpdate: The Second Edition of the VB-MAPP Guide has just been released. The 2nd Edition of the VB-MAPP Instructor’s Manual and Placement Guide contains an upgraded description of how to use Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior for language assessment, the assessment instructions, and the specific scoring criteria for each of the 170 milestones. In addition, the manual contains a placement guide that offers specific suggestions for programming and direction for each of the 170 milestones achieved, as well as suggestions for IEP goals for each skill presented in the three levels of the VB-MAPP.

Don’t worry – the Guide is still compatible with the original Protocol! The Second Edition of the VB-MAPP Guide corresponds with the existing VB-MAPP Protocols and will not affect any Protocols you currently own.

Bulk discounts will continue to apply to the VB-MAPP Guide, 2nd EditionSave 10% on the unit price if you buy 10 or more, and save 20% if you buy 25 or more of the Guide.

5 Essential Resources for Your ABA Program

Our focus here at Different Roads to Learning is always on supporting the language and social skills in children on the spectrum through evidence-based interventions. We’re staunch believers in Applied Behavior Analysis and we’ve built our extensive product line around the tools that will best support these programs. As we continue to focus on Autism Awareness this month, we asked our BCBA Sam Blanco to choose five of her go-to resources and tell us a bit about why they’re integral components in her work. This week, we’re are also offering a 15% discount* on these five essential resources from our catalog. Be sure to use our promo code ESSABA5 when you check out online or mention it when you call us at (800) 853-1057.

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When you work with children with autism, you typically are focused on four goal areas: developing language and communication skills, improving social skills, increasing independence in both academic and daily living tasks, and addressing any maladaptive behaviors. While there are a wealth of resources available to help achieve goals in these areas, there are five resources I really can’t live without.

VB-MAPP: The Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program by Mark L. Sundberg, Ph.D. is essential. It’s easy to use, provides a wealth of information in a relatively short period of time, and allows you to prioritize the unique needs of your particular learner. Beyond the milestones assessment, I love that the VB-MAPP provides a way to assess and measure barriers to learning such as aggressive behaviors, prompt dependence, and defective scanning skill. Finally, as a special educator, it can be difficult at times to know how your student is doing compared to his/her peers in a general education environment. The Transition Assessment portion of the VB-MAPP allows you to assess and measure progress towards specific skills necessary for transitioning to a less restrictive environment.

Language Builder Picture Cards: After the VB-MAPP, these cards are the first investment you should make if you’re working with learners with autism. They are designed to help you teach a wide range of skills including receptive language, expressive language, matching, sorting by category, and identifying feature, function, and class. I use these cards to play games with my learner to practice prepositions (such as hiding a card picturing a frog and having the learner find it by listening to directions like “the frog is under the pillow.”) I also use the cards as prompts for a “What am I thinking of” game. For this game I can look at the picture, then give the learner clues so he/she can guess what I’m describing (such as “I’m green. I have four legs. I hop.”) I then trade turns, and the learner has to look at a picture and provide clues for me to guess what is pictured. All in all, the Language Builder Picture Cards provide so many opportunities for language development you’ll never regret the investment.

Time Timer: I love the Time Timer so much that I actually own the 3-inch, 8-inch, and 12-inch models. For young learners, the clear visual indicator of the passage of time helps prepare them for transitions, complete transitions with greater levels of independence, and begin to understand the passage of time. Older learners use it to manage their time better during tasks, regulate their own behavior, and increase independence in both academic and daily living skill tasks. For all students, it helps facilitate a better understanding of the concept of time. When I taught in the classroom, I used the 12-inch model so that it was clearly visible for all students. I love the 3-inch model for older students who still need the visual tool.

A Work in Progress: When I first began teaching learners with autism, a colleague recommended A Work in Progress to me, and I have come back to it again and again over the years. It provides strategies and a curriculum for addressing the needs of learners with autism, including topics such as self-stimulatory behaviors, sleep problems, eating problems, toilet training, and social play. Most importantly, it describes how to meet the needs of learners with autism in language that is accessible. The curriculum portion of the book describes in detail what a teaching session should look like and how to run discrete trials. It also provides comprehensive instructions for dozens of programs.

Verbal Behavior Targets: Unlike A Work in Progress, this book is not a curriculum, but, as Luckevich states in the introduction, a guide to selecting targets “to meet the unique language goals of each individual child.” Verbal Behavior Targets provides hundreds of targets for each stage of language development (split into 6 chapters: words; multiple words; instructions and questions; sentences; category, feature, and function; and conversation topics. I know there have been many moments in the past, especially when I was first starting out, in which my learner would master a target skill and I would struggle to come up with additional targets. This book helps you continue to push your learner towards independence by providing a vast number of targets in developmentally appropriate sequence. And did I mention she also included data sheets?

As a therapist, finding quality teaching resources can be challenging. There are so many products to choose from and the choice and cost can be overwhelming. The items described above are not only high-quality, but are essential to providing the best possible learning environment. Investing in a few versatile, solid products saves you money over the long term, makes both teaching and prep time more efficient, and helps provide a vast range of possibilities for student learning.

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This week only, you can save 15%* on any of these products on Sam’s list of 5 essential ABA resources by using promo code ESSABA5 when you check out online.

*Offer expires at 11:59pm ET on April 22, 2014. Not valid on past orders or with any other promotions and offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at check out!

Suggestion Sheets for VB-MAPP Kit Now Available!

DRK_700_VB_MAPP_Assessment_KitThe VB-MAPP Assessment Kit now comes with suggestions for use! Based on your feedback, we’ve carefully put together a supplemental packet that correlates each product in the VB-MAPP Assessment Kit with the task in the Milestones Assessment in the Protocol.

Additionally, we’ve gone ahead and added an interpretation of each task along with suggested materials, activities, and reinforcers for each level in the Milestones Assessment.

Finally, the packet contains language and word lists along with Data Sheets to keep you organized. Lists include Verbs, 300 Common Nouns, the Intraverbal Assessment Subtest, Self-Care Checklists, compiled by Mark Sundberg and Rikki Roden, along with lists and data sheets for Motor Imitation with Objects, Gross and Fine Motor Imitation, Mand for Actions.

The VB MAPP Kit Suggestions for Use now come included with every VB-MAPP Assessment Kit. This item is NOT available for purchase or download by itself. If you purchased the kit previously, please email us at abigail@difflearn.com with your order number or the name you ordered under and we will email you a copy.

Pick of the Week: The VB-MAPP Set

DRB_680_VB_Mapp_SetAssessment and data collection are critical for every student on the spectrum…and can get expensive. This week, we’re thrilled to give you a bit of a break by offering the VB-MAPP Set by Dr. Mark Sundberg as our Pick of the Week. This week only, SAVE 15% on the VB-MAPP Set, VB-MAPP Guide or VB-MAPP Protocol by entering in the promo code BLOGVBM9 at checkout.

Dr. Mark Sundberg’s Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP) is an assessment with a curriculum guide and skill-tracking system that assists educators, speech pathologists, psychologists, and parents in creating individualized intervention programs for children with autism or language-based learning disabilities. Continue reading

The Importance of Assessment in Treatment Planning, by Mark Sundberg, PhD

Did you know that the Different Roads’ catalog features exclusive articles by experts, parents, and teachers working with students with autism? This article by Mark Sundberg, author of the The Verbal Behavior Milestone Assessment & Placement Program (VB-MAPP), focuses on the importance of assessment in any treatment or intervention program. We’re sure you’ll find it informative!