Many toddlers with signs of autism or older children with a diagnosis are delayed with language and need to be taught how to ask and answer questions so that they can hopefully become conversational. Asking questions such as “where are we going?” or “why did you do that?” are considered mands for information which is an advanced skill that can only be taught once a child learns to mand for more basic needs.
Today, we are sharing a lesson about advanced manding (with videos of me teaching these abstract language skills to children with autism). This lesson is from my Verbal Behavior Bundle online course which was first created in 2015 with participants from over 90 countries!
Mand training starts with teaching children to ask for reinforcers – usually single nouns and we build from there – until we begin teaching how to ask questions, for information that we will discuss here.
Once a child has learned single-word mands for items (both in and out of sight) and can also request actions (open, up, come here, etc.), it’s time for the next step – advanced manding..
Table of Contents
What is a Mand?
The term was first used by the American psychologist B.F. Skinner. Basically, a mand is a request for an item, action, attention or information followed by access to the requested item or information the child or adult was asking for. A mand is one of the four primary verbal operants defined by B.F. Skinner in his 1957 book, Verbal Behavior.
How to Define Mand?
The simplest way to define mand is when you request something you want or ask a question to request information from someone. In order for anyone to mand, they have to be motivated by an item or information, and they need to request it in some way. The request does not have to be a vocal-verbal request. A basic mand can also be a gesture, sign language, or made on a speech generating device. Problem behavior can also be a mand and we see this often in kids with severe autism who might cry or flop to the ground because they can’t communicate that they want something (or don’t want to do something) . Even if a child is nonverbal or non-vocal, they are manding every day!
The mand is the most important verbal operant because of the motivation in the antecedent condition (before the behavior) and the item or information is received as the consequence.
A mand can be a request for:
- An item (Banana)
- An action (Open)
- Help (help me)
- To remove an Aversive (No)
- Attention (Look a plane!)
- Information (What, Where, Who, Which, How & Why)
For example, by signing or reaching for a toy car or by saying the word ‘car,’ a child requests to gain access to a toy car. They can also mand by saying:
- Can I have the car?
- Red car
- Where is the car?
- How do I make this car go faster around the track?
The way a child mands can depends on their language and articulation articulation ability and skill level. Mands can be used to gain access to different items and information, both tangible and intangible.
It’s important that intermediate learner skills like talking in sentences are taught carefully and systematically. It is much better to let language develop as naturally as possible as teaching with carrier phrases and teaching children to speak in phrases before they are ready can often lead to prompt dependency and rote responding.
So to put it short, here’s what you need to know about manding:
- It is the most important verbal operant
- A basic mand can be vocal-verbal but can also be a gesture, sign language, or the request can be made on a speech generating device. Problem behavior can also be a mand.
- A child mands when they are motivated to get access to an item, information, or if they want attention and they need to receive the thing they requested.
Why is it important to focus on manding?
As human beings, one of the most important skills we develop is communication. When we talk about it, communication includes practicing it by different means, including in verbal and non-verbal ways. When we can get our wants and needs met through requesting, it almost always reduces problem behaviors.
Manding is an integral part of communication, which we use throughout our entire lives. That’s the reason it’s so important to focus on manding and keep it as a central focus in all verbal behavior programs.
Benefits of Mand Training
Since manding is the first type of verbal behavior young children acquire, this suggests it serves as a foundation for building more complex and advanced communication skills. That’s why mand training can bring multiple benefits for the kids:
- Mands have been said to be the first type of verbal behavior acquired by children.
- Mands help the student control their environment. Mand training makes social interaction more valuable.
- The focus on motivation in manding and developing new reinforcers may serve to reduce the value of repetitive/stereotyped actions.
- Mand training may assist in developing the value of communication and thus spur the acquisition of the other verbal operants.
- Mand training makes social interaction more valuable.
- It is relatively easy to do because you are using the child’s own motivation as a tool.
The Pre-Requisites: VB MAPP Level 2
Many children with autism or signs of autism who also have significant language impairments need to be directly taught to mand or to ask for what they want. And if you want to be able to do that in the best possible way for your child, we need to know where they are in their development. A great place to start is the VB MAPP assessment.
What is VB-MAPP?
VB-MAPP stands for Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment & Placement Program which was created and published by Dr. Mark Sundberg in 2008. It’s an assessment tool for children with autism and other language delays. The milestone assessments in the VB-MAPP can help determine a child’s current skills level. I also did a full podcast with the creator of the assessment, Dr. Sundberg, here.
There are three levels of VB MAPP, as follows:
- Level 1 – Age up to 18 months typical development
- Level 2 – Age from 18 to 30 months
- Level 3 – Age from 30 to 48 months
Within each level of the VB MAPP, there are 170 milestones designed for testing various skills.
Within each level of the VB MAPP, there are 170 milestones designed for testing various skills.
We’ll go in detail through VBMAPP Mand Level 2 and just overview Levels 1 and 3.
VB-MAPP Level 1 – Up to 18 Months
Level 1 includes the assessment of:
- Early mand
- Social, Visual-perceptual, and Match-to-sample
- Independent play
- Motor imitation
- Echoic skills
- Spontaneous vocal behavior
In the VB-MAPP level 1, the first five milestones related to mand include the basics, like emitting:
- Two word requests
- Mands without prompts
- Ten different mands without any prompts
While we are talking about higher level mands today, here are the basics of teaching some level 1 mands.
How to teach basic mands?
If you wonder how you can teach a child with autism simple mands, an idea could be for you to block the door when they want to go out. Just stand in front of it, and once you have established that the child genuinely wants to go outside, say ‘open’.
At this stage, it is crucial to only teach the basic single-word mands. You must say ‘open’ instead of ‘open the door’ or other advanced mands. Combining actions and nouns together is a level 2 VB-MAPP skill and we don’t want to start teaching this too early to prevent language errors and rote responding.
This happened to Lucas, actually. Because we were trying to teach more advanced mands before he knew the basics, he’d say ‘open cabinet’ when he wanted to open a bottle. This took me a long time to straighten out this error so please be careful when teaching mands (and every other skill) to intermediate learners..
VB-MAPP Level 2 – From 18 to 30 Months
In Level 2, the evaluation of the skills from Level 1 continues (except for spontaneous vocal behavior), and new ones are included. VBMAPP Mand Level 2 assessment covers how the child:
- Responds to function, feature, and class
- Classroom/Group routines, and
- Linguistic skills
Let’s go over some of the level 2 milestones that are necessary before we start teaching a child to ask “wh questions”.
VB-MAPP Level 2 Milestone 6
In the VB-MAPP Level 2, the milestones related to mands start at milestone six since the first five are already covered in level 1. So, technically, it’s the first milestone of Level 2, but overall, it will be the 6th mand milestone in the VB-MAPP assessment. Before moving to teach level 2 skills, we want to ensure level 1 is fully mastered.
The 6th milestone in the VB MAPP Level 2 is for a child to mand for missing items, 10 to be exact. For example, if a child is given paper, they’d mand for a crayon. If they are given yogurt without a spoon, they’d request the spoon.
Reinforce Manding for Out of Sight Items
In order to move forward with teaching manding for information, we need to ensure that the above milestone of requesting an item that is out of sight is mastered. When teaching this skill we are reinforcing the mand by giving them the out of sight item when they ask for it.
Remember, a child can be motivated to mand for a missing item by placing what they want or need, somewhere they can’t see it.
When the child is presented with one item, which requires the missing object, they will mand for the missing item.
VB-MAPP Level 2 Milestone 7
The 7th milestone in the VB MAPP Level 2 is when a child spontaneously requests an adult to complete an action.
Here are some examples:
- Asking an adult to push them when they are on a swing.
- Asking an adult to open a door to get outside.
This skill is necessary before moving on.
Advanced Manding with Yes/No
The ability to say Yes and No, to respond with Yes or No, to a question is a very complex skill involving different operants – which is a combination of a mand, a tact, and an intraverbal.
In my experience:
- First, a child must master Yes/No mands and answer Yes or No to a question, such as, “Do you want a cookie?”, with the cookie in sight.
- Then, they should learn to mand Yes/No appropriately when the cookie is out of sight.
- After that, you should attempt to introduce Yes/No tacts such as “Is this an apple?” or “Is this a bed?”
Read more about teaching kids with autism to reply to questions with yes and no in my other blog post.
Learning to respond to yes/no is a pre-requisite for manding for information.
Manding for Attention
A mand for attention is when a child requests attention from someone, whether that’s an adult or a peer. This is another important pre-requisite before you begin teaching a child to ask WH questions.
This can look like a child looking towards a peer or adult to get their attention or to share joy in something they are looking at, or it can involve touching something or saying their name like “mommmm” .
I struggled to teach this to Lucas to mand for attention. This is often a difficult skill to teach because it is hard to contrive a capture a child’s motivation for attention. Lucas used to enjoy labelling items in a book but did not look at me to get my attention before labeling so this was not a mand. Teresa Mckeon, the founder of TAGteach, came to my house and taught me how I could get Lucas to first gain my attention and then to show me what was in his book instead of just naming items to himself.
I also used tag teach to teach Lucas how to tie his own shoes. It is a game-changer.
Once all the above is mastered, we can move on to teaching a child to mand for information by using what, where, who, which, how, and why.
VB MAPP Level 3 – From 30 to 48 months
To advance to Level 3, a child should:
- Be at least 30 months old
- Have mastered all the skills from Level 2
Level 3 includes 3 new domains:
But since we are covering advanced mands here,, we will just be focusing on the mand column of level 3.
Mand Training Steps: Order to teach asking WH Questions
Now, let’s look at the mand training steps required for advanced manding, especially those related to asking the ‘WH Questions.’
As stated above, you want to start with VB-MAPP level one manding. We start the mand training by having a child request with a single word, like “cookie” when they want a cookie. But as we progress, we want to teach a child to request information they may be motivated for.
The critical part here is that they must be motivated for the information, or else we will get a lot of rote responses and errors.
So when it comes to teaching advanced manding and asking WH questions autism diagnosed kids, it is vital to start with the easiest mands: What and Where.
- What is it?
- What is in the bag/box?
- Where is the toy?
- Where are we going?
Once a child with autism masters the easiest WH questions: What and Where, the next step is to teach them the Who and Which questions, such as:
- Who is at the door?
- Who is that?
- Which hand/cup?
- Which toy can I have?
The last advanced mands you’d teach are the questions starting with How and Why:
- How do I get it?
- How do we open it?
- Why is it wet?
- Why can’t we go?
Asking WH Questions Activities: How to Teach
Now that we have understood what manding is, the prerequisites and the steps involved in the mands training, next is how to teach a child how to start asking the WH Questions. It can be done in various ways, but the best way is to deliberately create conditions that would motivate the child to mand for information.
Basically, to teach asking questions, we have to sabotage situations and set them up so that the child is motivated for the information they are asking for. Teaching manding for information is different from teaching a child to respond to these questions, which is often taught first. Read more about teaching inferences & WH questions to kids with autism in my other blog post.
How to Teach asking WH Questions?
Asking questions activity in speech therapy is of high importance to children with autism. It is actually easy to encourage children to start asking questions, and the best way to do it is to start by making a statement that would provoke curiosity. This is called using a primer. For example:
- You can say: “I have something fun in the bag.” Since children tend to be highly curious, this might encourage the child or we could prompt them to ask, “What is it?” We would then want to answer vocally and tell them what it is (give them the information first) before showing the item to them.
- A statement could be, “We are going somewhere special later!”. This question might prompt the child to ask, “Where are we going?” to which you would answer with the information.
But we want to fade the use of primers and prompting as quickly as possible.
Examples of things we can say to teach a child to ask WHAT:
- I have a new toy.
- I have something for you.
- There’s something in this cup.
- Something fun is happening today.
- There is something special behind this door.
- I have bought a special gift for you.
The purpose of all of these statements, primers, or prompts is to motivate a child to ask “What is it?”
If you look at how these statements are structured, you’ll notice that all include a hint of curiosity and provocation. This motivates the child to ask a question in return. But if you ask a question about which a child has no motivation whatsoever, then it will not work.
Examples of things we can say to teach a child to ask WHERE
- Here you can play with the playdoh (give an empty container).
- We are going to go somewhere fun today!
- I’m going out tonight.
- I hid a ____ for you!
As you can see, questions of this type might naturally cause the child to ask “Where?”. In fact, this method will even cause most adults to ask questions starting with where, too.
Examples of things we can say to teach a child to ask WHO
- Someone has a fruit snack for you!
- Someone is at the door!
- I know someone who has a cat!
- Someone you know has a blue house!
- I know someone who likes _____.
In these sets of questions, the basic idea is to get a child to ask “Who?”
Examples of things we can say to teach a child to ask WHICH
I have a ______:
- In one of my hands.
- Under one of these cups.
- In one of these bags.
- In one of these pouches.
- On one of the desks.
You’re probably already seeing the pattern in these statements, and you’d most likely have a bunch of ideas yourself.
Practice helps children master advanced manding
Here’s the thing with these questions. You do not have to limit yourself only to the asking WH questions activities listed above. Sure, it can be a great start to use these statements in the beginning, but you should get creative over time and continue to come up with new and exciting versions.
The idea behind each of these statements should be to motivate the child to ask a question and get the information they need from it.
And when a child starts asking What, Where, Which, Who, and similar types of questions for requesting information, that’s an indication that they are on the path towards learning and mastering advanced manding!
Mand Training Data Sheet
Step 4 (final step) in the “Turn Autism Around” approach is collecting the data in a Mand training data sheet. The main goal is to increase the frequency of unprompted requests. Ultimately, this causes the spontaneous mands to go up, as well!
The data sheet is used to track progress in the mand training. If you inspect it closely, you’ll see that it includes information about prompted and unprompted mands in:
- A contrived setting
- Throughout the day
Each of the situations has its own column for tracking.
So if you said “I have something for you in the bag” and you prompted the child to say “what is it?” then you would put a mark under prompted, beside “what” because you prompted a what question.
You can use this data to help see if your methods are increasing requesting information not only in teaching sessions but throughout the day too! . I talked about this and how practitioners can actually create and publish their own studies related to manding for information on this podcast: Research Topics in ABA for Practitioners with Dr. Amber Valentino. There isn’t a lot of research on this topic, but it is attainable for practitioners like myself to develop studies using their data on programs like this.
It’s important to remember that many children with autism spectrum disorders and kids with other kinds of communication delays experience manding challenges. But these challenges can be overcome by creating a communication environment where manding skills are a central focus!
Don’t forget that the best way to encourage your child to use new words and improve their verbal skills is to practice manding while engaged at the learning table and in everyday interactions. We teach you more in depth how to this in my book Turn Autism Around and in our online courses. You can take a behind the scenes tour of the Verbal Behavior Bundle course here (which includes the early and intermediate learner courses).
Do you experience difficulties teaching manding skills to your child on the spectrum? Has your child mastered the prerequisites to requesting information? Are you struggling with the asking WH questions activities?
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