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Teaching Attributes


Attributes are great for teaching language expansion and vocabulary development. There’s no real data to say how many nouns a student should have before teaching attributes, but probably around 200+. Then students can start putting descriptive words in front of those nouns. For example, “I want the big chip” or “That plate is dirty.” 

Nouns and Attributes

I had a student one time that we were teaching attributes to, and she just couldn’t get them. She didn’t understand. Everything was the color red. She also didn’t have nouns, it was really tough for her. So we looked at how many nouns – tacting and receptive language – she actually had. And she had only learned probably about 50 to 100. While she had enough, it just didn’t seem to be a lot. So we went back, we stopped attributes, and we taught more nouns. When she got to about 200 nouns we tried to reintroduce attributes again and she got it. 

Kids need to know a certain amount of nouns before you teach those attributes. Otherwise, you could hold up two books and say, “which one’s big and which one’s little?” And they’ll just say, “book,” or they will start labeling the book as big. 

It’s more important to have more nouns than it is to have longer phrases sometimes. They need to know more items instead of being able to say big book or full cup. So thinking about your learner and what’s going to be relevant and functional for them is going to be really important in thinking about introducing attributes. We have some great resources on teaching attributes located in our Bx Resource Pro Membership.

How to Introduce Attributes

Usually, when I introduce attributes, I start with manding. Do you want the big chip or the little chip? Do you want the full cup or the empty cup? They’ll start manding for which one they want. And a lot of times manding for attributes actually leads to learning attributes. 

But if you actually do need to teach receptive attributes and expressive attributes at the table, we typically do it with multiple exemplars and across operants. So here’s how that looks:

We would start by choosing a set of three opposite teaching targets. Full/empty. Big/little. Clean/dirty. We teach it using cards and also using real-life items. So the first step would be for the learner to receptively identify which one is empty and which one is full with cards. Then receptively identify which one is full and which one is empty with items. And then from there also expressively identify full and empty both with cards, multiple exemplars, and with items.

Oftentimes, when I’m holding up two items and asking which one’s full and they can say full back to me, by the time I go to teach it expressively, they have it right away. If I do need to teach it expressively, typically what I would do is I would say, “let’s talk about full and empty. Which one is this?” 

The reason I give them that prompt is if I just hold a cup up and say, “what is it?” They’re just going to say cup. So I need to say specifically, “let’s talk about full and empty.” And then I can say “this one is…” for them to say “full” or “empty.” That’s how we would teach it expressively.

How to Take Data on Teaching Attributes for ABA

I can typically take data just on the receptive at first, but I would teach both right away. So if I’m teaching full and empty I can say, “show me full,” and the student points to full. Then I can say, “what is it?” And they say “Full.” But I’m only going to take data on whether they pointed to full at the beginning.

For the purposes of the datasheet, that would be 1A. We’re just taking data on 1A, but we’re still teaching B and C. So we’re still having them expressively identify, pointing out other things that are full and empty, but then only taking data on the B and C when they’ve mastered the A.

I would define A as receptively identifies 2D and 3D items. Then B would be let’s generalize that to novel items and make sure they understand receptively that if I grabbed something completely novel, they understand that that’s full and empty as well. And then maybe by step C, I’m looking at expressive language. 

A Quick Note on Attributes

Attributes are relative. Something’s only big in relation to something small. So we don’t want our kids to start memorizing that when I hold up a ball and I say big, the name of the ball is big. We’re talking about big and small. This is a ball. So is it big or small? Students need to have somewhat of an understanding that it’s in relation to something else.

For instance, we have two books, one is big and the other is small. But then let’s say I introduce an even bigger book next to the book we just labeled big. All of a sudden, the original big book is now the small book. So again, attributes are always in relation to something else. Having lots and lots of exemplars when you’re teaching will really help.

Conclusion – Teaching Attributes

After we’ve taught one set, we move on to the second set of three. Now we have six potentially mastered sets of attributes. The third step, which is really important, is the random rotation of all the previous six sets that were taught. Instead of moving on to the third set, we pause and do a random rotation of all six sets at the expressive label phase. This is just a probe of all of those six sets that they’ve now mastered. We’ll always keep those mastered sets in the rotation and add to them as we collect more master targets. 

Really make sure you’re teaching functional attributes at the beginning. I wouldn’t teach more and less, for instance, as my first attribute. I would be more likely to teach full and empty because it’s functional and age-appropriate for someone who’s just learning attributes.

For more information on teaching attributes and a list of attributes to get you started, join our Bx Pro Resource Membership.

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