The Verbal Behavior Approach


Taken from “Motivation and Reinforcement: Turning the Tables on Autism” By Robert Schramm, MA, BCBA

ABA is evidence-based teaching that has been proven scientifically to be effective. This evidence has been published, reviewed, and in most cases replicated independently. For these reasons ABA has become the most commonly accepted path for families of children with autism to follow throughout much of the world. In addition, ABA is currently the only autism therapy recommended for long-term benefit by the United States Surgeon General. As a treatment for autism, Chapter Three of the Surgeon General’s report on Mental Health, 1999, states, “Thirty years of research demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods in reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing communication, learning, and appropriate social behavior.”

Parents who were exposed to the early methods of ABA often had an extremely difficult choice to make. Although the evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of ABA in teaching children behavior and general learning skills has increased each year, parents had to deal with the use of procedures that were often times difficult to accept. Parents were told that there was a way that they could help their children to learn more effectively, but the methods being used to accomplish this were often distasteful. As it was for many years, ABA was a great benefit to some families while many others decided that the outcome was not worth the process.

In the past decade there has been a change that allows us to say that ABA is now the right choice for almost all families of children with autism and its related disorders. This change was the development of the Verbal Behavior approach to ABA. A good ABA/VB program is designed to teach your child the reasons behind the give and take that is so important in connecting with the social world. It is connecting your child with this natural societal reinforcement that will motivate him to make beneficial relationship and learning choices beyond the teaching setting. VB has moved ABA beyond the rote, repetitive, table learning of its past and developed it into a natural, relationship building, holistic learning program.

VB is both a philosophy of ABA and a series of evidence based teaching techniques that focus the principles of ABA on the acquisition of language skills. The people developing VB, Dr. Jack Michael and others, including, but not limited to, Dr. James Partington and Dr. Mark Sundberg, had founded a series of new techniques to apply Dr. Skinner’s book of 1958, “Verbal Behavior” to the needs of children with language delays. It was from the procedural differences of the Verbal Behavior approach to autism intervention that the true potential of ABA began. The goal of any good ABA/VB program is to identify the child’s naturally occurring motivation, capture it, and use it to help him learn. In doing so, we can begin to add new, more typical or appropriate desires to his list of motivating items while making his less appropriate motivators less important to him.

ABA is the study of interactions and the application of that study to help people be more successful in meaningful ways. Reinforcement is the major principle that has been driving ABA and its successes over the years. This principle states that anything that happens after a behavior and increases the likelihood of that behavior recurring is a reinforcer for that behavior. Additionally, Verbal Behavior offers us a detailed understanding of motivation. Motivation is the reason your child will attempt a skill this time. Reinforcement is the reason he will have more internal motivation and require less external motivation the next time. Using motivation and reinforcement in unison will create an ever-increasing desire to accomplish any skill to which these two principles are consistently applied. This last statement is extremely important as it clearly states why Applied Behavior Analysis and Verbal Behavior help a child desire the learning process. If your child is consistently given motivation to attempt a new skill and finds that the successful completion of that skill is consistently met with a positive experience, your child will have an ever-increasing desire to accomplish that skill again. If you can begin applying these two principles of reinforcement (ABA) and motivation (VB) to every skill you want your child to learn, then he will begin to desire learning every skill you want to teach him.

Thanks to ABA, and in a large part to the advancements of the Verbal Behavior approach to ABA, more children are making important progress and recovering from the effects of autism every year. One of the main reasons for this success is the inclusion of parents as the most important teachers of their children. For too many years, parents were pushed to the sidelines expected to watch as their children became increasingly delayed and controlling. In modern Behaviorism it is now understood that parents and teachers can be taught the principles of ABA and procedures of Verbal Behavior for themselves. Once they know these methods, they can begin grasping the opportunities presented during every daily interaction they have with the child.

Robert Schramm is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), with a Master’s degree in Special Education. He is the lead behavior analyst for Knospe-ABA, Europe’s largest ABA/VB autism intervention institute. Knospe-ABA uses the principles and procedures of behavior analysis espoused by the biggest names in ABA/VB to guide the education of over 250 children worldwide. He is also the author of the very popular autism teaching manual, “Motivation and Reinforcement: Turning the Tables on Autism“.