Manding: The Foundation of Communication in ABA

Guest Authored By Elizabeth L-M, RBT

Like any other person, children receiving ABA services need verbal behavior to communicate their wants and needs. Ability to communicate not only grants them access to reinforcement, but also pairs us as therapists and caregivers with that access (making our presence reinforcing as well!)  

Before we dive in, it is important to clarify the difference between vocal and verbal behaviors. In this context, vocal behavior refers to our speech; anything that is spoken aloud. Verbal behavior, on the other hand, is any form of language used in order to communicate with another person. To name just a few, this can include sign language, gestures, written language, and the previously mentioned vocal behaviors.

Mands 

Mands are usually one of the first verbal behaviors that is taught to a child starting ABA because they do not necessarily have to be vocal and are functional ways for a child to express their individual needs. Simply defined, mands are a person’s requests! For example, think comMAND and deMAND. Some examples of mands during an ABA session include: 

  • Asking for a break 
  • Asking for preferred reinforcers  
  • Asking to use the bathroom 

Manding is an essential starting point for teach self-advocacy to children. Being able to communicate their needs and advocate for themselves is a skill that can be continuously built upon within and outside of their ABA sessions.  

The way that manding is taught will look different for every child because it is designed based on the child’s capabilities and strengths. 

Gestural Gestural manding includes pointing or reaching for the desired item or person. Some ways that you may encounter gestural manding is when a therapist conducts preference assessments with a child. In this case, a therapist may present 2+ items and reinforce pointing to or reaching for the item. The beautiful thing about mands is that they literally signify their reinforcer! Reinforcement for gestural manding is immediate access to item identified by the child.  

PECS  Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is another manding program that is taught to many of our early learners in ABA. PECS teaches relationships between pictures and the physical items that a client is manding for. For example, a client will learn that picking up and handing a BT an image of goldfish cracker will access physical goldfish crackers as a reinforcer for the behavior. Training for PECS often starts within a field of one and then is broadened to wider arrays of preferred items previously identified.  

Vocal Mands When setting up interventions that build on the use of vocal mands, it is important to gauge a child’s vocal abilities.  One word responses are more than acceptable for early learners and should be reinforced with both immediate access and high levels of praise. Often times, we try to teach children to make sure to say “please” with their requests; however, when initially introducing the demands of vocal manding, we want to make sure that we’re continuously reinforcing the contingency between vocalization of what the child wants and the actual item. 

Once a child’s vocal capabilities are more established, it may be appropriate to start introducing sentence starters such as “I want…” or “Give me…” to have a child use full sentences to express their needs. 

No matter how manding is taught to a child, it is important for us to pay attention to our own behaviors when setting up environments and situations for the child to independently mand. For example, when initially teaching and contriving situations for manding, we need to build up the “buy in”! For example, if a child doesn’t initially display any interest in playing with the toys available, you can model dancing with the toy to a highly preferred song to increase motivation of play. In this case you could reinforce any form of manding for “dance” or “song” or the toy used.  

In the same vein, it is necessary for us to create deprivation states of highly reinforcing objects to encourage spontaneous manding. If a child is satiated with a toy or snack, they’re less likely to continue asking for it. More information on reinforcement and satiation can be found here 

Finally, it is too easy for us as therapists and caregivers to fall into a pattern of using the same vocal phrase to assess a child’s mand. It is important for us to avoid overuse of language such as “what do you want?”, “tell me what you want” to prevent a child from becoming prompt dependent on these phrases. We want to encourage manding both when contrived as well as any instance of spontaneous manding! 

Eyas Landing is a therapy clinic with a mission to provide evidence-based and family-centered therapy services for children, adolescents, and their families. The primary goal is to deliver relationship-based interventions within the most natural environments and to empower families to reach their full potential. To achieve this goal, our highly educated, compassionate staff dedicates time and expertise to create experiences that maximize therapeutic outcomes. The strength, determination, and perseverance of our clients are evident as they succeed in therapy, and ultimately in their daily lives.

Eyas Landing offers a wide range of comprehensive services including Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, ABA Therapy, Social Work, Family Therapy, and Neuropsych testing. Services are provided throughout the Chicagoland area via Telehealth, In-Home, and in our state of the art clinic.

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