The ABCs of Verbal Behavior

Submitted by: Maria Whiteway, M.Ed., BCBA

In 2010 I became a special education teacher for children with autism. Given that my classroom was part of the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program, I sincerely needed to learn a thing or two about ABA. Since I had several students who were non-verbal and others with limited verbal abilities, BCBAs trained me in Verbal Behavior. Simply put, Verbal Behavior applies ABA principles to language. While my intense training led me to become a BCBA, I still understand what it was like to hear unfamiliar terminology.

As parents, you are debriefed every session on your child’s progress. However, when a therapist uses terms like tact or intraverbal to describe your child’s accomplishments, you may walk away confused instead of delighted.

We know that knowledge is power, so here is a little cheat sheet on the ABCs of Verbal Behavior.

First and foremost, ABA is the science that implements behavioral procedures to improve socially significant (acceptable) behavior.

Again, Verbal Behavior is simply the application of these principles to language. Verbal Behavior can include talking, gestures, sign language, writing, using augmentative devices or utilizing picture systems. Verbal Behavior has been broken down into different verbal operants, so that we, as listeners, can respond appropriately to what a person is saying.

The main verbal operants will be explained using an ABC chart:

A= Antecedent (what happens before the child speaks)

B= Behavior (what the child said)

C= Consequence (what happens after the child speaks)


Antecedent Behavior Consequence
Child wants a cookie. Child says “cookie”. Child gets a cookie.

The first verbal operant is the Mand. Some common terms for this are request, ask, command, and/or demand. This operant is different from all others because when someone mands for something specific, they get it. Every other operant’s consequence is not specific to what was said.


Antecedent Behavior Consequence
Child smells a cookie.

Child sees a cookie.

Child tastes a cookie.

Child says “cookie”. Parent says, “I smell cookies too”.

The next operant is the Tact. Some common terms are labeling or naming. A tact has to do with the 5 senses. One can see, hear, smell, feel or taste something, so they will name what it is.


Antecedent Behavior Consequence
Child hears parent say “cookie”. Child says “cookie”. Parent says, “Good job saying cookie”.

Another operant is the Echoic. This is repeating what someone else says.



Antecedent Behavior Consequence
Parent says, “What has chocolate chips in it?” Child says “cookie”. Parent says, “Yes, pancakes can also have chocolate chips”.

The next operant is the Intraverbal. Common terms for this are fill-in-the blank phrases (a pig says oink), word associations (socks and shoes), typical conversations and answering questions.


Antecedent Behavior Consequence
Parent says, “Point to the cookie”. Child points to a picture of a “cookie”. Parent says, “Yes, that is the cookie”.

Another operant is Listener Responding. This generally involves people following directions. Think of it as the person is responding to what they are listening to or responding as a listener. 



Antecedent Behavior Consequence
Parent claps. Child claps. Parent says, “Good job copying me”.

Motor imitation involves copying someone else’s movements.

Now that you know the ABCs of the main Verbal Operants, have some fun with them. When you are out and about, see if you can identify different operants that your family and friends produce. I know what it can be like to hear ABA jargon and wish you knew more. Hopefully this cheat sheet will help you, but if you still have questions, do not hesitate to ask your child’s therapist. You and your child are the most valuable members of the team at Reaching Milestones and we are always here to help!