How to Encourage Verbal Operants in ABA Therapy

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verbal operants aba

I need to use the restroom. I had a good day at school. Look at that big dog! Verbal operants are essential for effective communication, allowing us to express our needs and share information. However, it can be challenging to teach and reinforce these skills, leaving our clients voiceless. So, how can we encourage the use of verbal operants and ensure these skills are generalized across different settings and people? Let’s explore this topic further.

What Are Verbal Operants

Verbal operants, a concept first introduced by the behaviorist B.F. Skinner, refers to the basic units of language that make communication possible. There are several specific categories of operants that serve different purposes, however all with the goal of enhancing communication to better express needs, wants, and thoughts.

Different Types of Verbal Operants in ABA Therapy


Manding is the ability to make requests or express desires and needs. By teaching manding skills, we can reduce the frustration our clients experience from their needs not being met, while instilling a sense of control. For example:

  • Saying, “I want water” when feeling thirsty.
  • Pointing at a cookie jar and saying, “Can I have a cookie, please?”
  • Using a communication device to request a break or a specific activity.


Echoic responses involve repeating or imitating sounds, words, or phrases that are presented by others. This is an essential skill in speech and language development as it provides the foundation for learning and acquiring new vocabulary. While this is a teaching concept commonly used in speech therapy, it can also be used in ABA to reinforce those skills and establish deeper understanding.


In ABA, tacts refer to labeling objects, actions, and events in the environment. For instance, when a child points to a dog and says “dog,” they are tacting. Tacting promotes expressive language skills, expands vocabulary, and improves overall communication abilities. Through tact training, our clients gain confidence in identifying and labeling their surroundings effectively.


Think of intraverbals as the glue that holds conversations together. Intraverbals involve answering questions, responding to comments, and engaging in meaningful dialogue. This operant allows our clients to understand and generate appropriate responses within a given context. By focusing on intraverbal skills, we enable our clients to actively participate in social interactions and build dynamic relationships.

Listener Responding

The listener responding operant involves understanding and responding to spoken or written language. Developing strong listener responding skills enhances our client’s ability to understand and follow instructions from others, improving their overall communication abilities. For example, following instructions like “Pick up the toy” demonstrates listener responding.

Motor Imitation

Motor imitation operants involve replicating or imitating others’ physical actions or movements. This skill is crucial for learning and acquiring various motor tasks, actions, and gestures. An example would be a child clapping their hands after seeing someone else do it at a performance.

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Strategies for Encouraging the Use of Verbal Operants

We know what verbal operants are and why they’re important, but what are some practical and effective strategies for enforcing them with our clients?

  • Prompting and Prompt Fading: Prompting is a valuable tool to support our clients as they learn and practice new skills. Use physical, gestural, or verbal prompts to guide the client’s responses initially. Over time, gradually decrease the level of prompts provided, allowing them to respond more independently. This process is known as prompt fading. By gradually removing prompts, we promote skill generalization and independence.
  • Incidental Teaching: With incidental teaching, you take advantage of situations where the client is motivated to use language to request items, answer questions, or engage in conversations. For example, during play or mealtime, create opportunities for the client to express their wants and needs.
  • Modeling: Demonstrate the desired verbal operants by using clear and concise language. Modeling provides our clients with examples of how to use language effectively. Encourage them to imitate your language and reinforce their efforts.
  • Data Collection and Analysis: Regularly collect data to track the client’s progress and identify areas that may require additional focus or modifications in your teaching strategies. Use this information to adjust your intervention plans, reinforce successful attempts, and target areas that need further development. Data-driven decision-making is crucial in guiding your client’s progress.
  • Individualization: Remember that each client is unique, and their learning needs may vary. Tailor your strategies to the individual’s preferences, interests, and strengths. By individualizing your approach, you create a more personal and engaging learning experience that promotes the acquisition and use of verbal operants.
  • Collaboration with Team Members: Foster open and collaborative communication with parents, caregivers, and other professionals involved in the client’s care. Share strategies, provide training, and seek their input to ensure consistency across settings and maximize opportunities for practicing verbal operants.

Take Away

It is important that everyone has the necessary tools and skills, whether they are expressed verbally or nonverbally, to live independently and form meaningful connections. Enforcing verbal operants ensures our clients have that chance. Use the strategies mentioned above to enforce verbal behavior, and be sure to share the most effective strategies with your peers so we can continue to increase the overall impact of ABA therapy.

Catalyst is designed to help ABA providers make data-driven decisions, by making it easier to collect, graph, and analyze client data. See why Catalyst is the #1 trusted data collection software for BCBAs. Schedule a free personalized demo today.



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