Teaching Verbal Requesting

The ability to use communication to get basic needs met is of major importance to our students. Requesting (AKA: manding) is a skill that we emphasize from the beginner all the way through to the advanced learner.  It is an underlying theme taught in direct instruction, in NET and in play.  Requesting should remain at the forefront of all of our sessions and goals so that our students are progressing in their abilities to communicate.   A lot of challenging behaviour is manifested as a result of an inability to get an individual’s needs met.  By working on enhancing their ability to communicate, we are also reducing negative behaviour as a positive by-product.

There are many types of requesting, not all of them being verbal.  We want out students to have multiple modes of asking for things – by pointing, nodding their head (yes/no), using pictures, signs, and also words.  During this post, we’ll be discussing verbal requesting.

At the most basic level, verbal requesting involves asking for preferred items and activities.  We might start by teaching an early learner to say “bubbles” when he wants bubbles or “push” when she wants to be pushed on the swing.  At this level, the reinforcement is immediate – as soon as they say the word, they get what they want.   As the student advances, we implement goals such as “Requesting for Attention”, “Requesting for Help”, or (my favourite)”Appropriate Protests”.  We want our students to spontaneously ask for “help” when they need it and also be able to say “No thank you” or “Stop it” when they don’t want something. At this level, the reinforcement can be more built into the activity. For example, if they want be able to play with the marble run, they may have to ask you for help in building it.

So how do we start to teach requesting?

We want to use errorless teaching to make the learner as successful as possible.  We want the learner to feel like it’s worth it to use their words. However, we also want to shape requesting so that we’re building towards more independence and spontaneity.

Echoic Procedure (with Picture Prompt)

With a beginner learner who is just learning to use words, an echoic procedure (with picture prompt) is one way to start.   With this procedure, the learner only has to repeat after the model to be able to access the reinforcer.  As long as the students repeats “chips” after the therapist’s model, the student receives chips.

Instructor: Set up motivation – e.g., eat chips beside individual

Learner: Indicates that he wants it (e.g., reaches, says something, etc.)

Instructor: Presents a visual + models phrase, “_________”

Learner: Repeats phrase

Instructor: Learner gets what he/she requested

Echoic-to-Mand Transfer Procedure (with Picture Prompt)

Once the echoic procedure is mastered, we want to move the echoic towards being more of a mand.  The definition of a mand is that it is under the stimulus control of the EO or motivation.  A proper mand is when a student wants something (eg: is thirsty) and is able to ask for an item (eg: asks for water).   How can we teach a student to respond to his own motivation? We want to use the echoic procedure but then transfer it to a mand.  In the echoic-to-mand transfer, the verbal model is given and the student repeats.  But instead of giving the reinforcement directly after the echoic, there is a transfer trial in between (“Huh?” “What do you want?”) so that the learner is requesting by themselves and not exclusively in repetition of the model.   With a picture prompt present, it helps support the learner in asking for the item without the need for extra verbal prompting. 

Instructor: Set up motivation – e.g., eat chips beside individual

Learner: Indicates that he wants it (e.g., reaches, says something, etc.)

Instructor: Presents a visual + models phrase, “_________”

Learner: Repeats phrase

Instructor: (Transfer trial) – “Huh?” “What do you want?” – visual is still present

Learner: “________”

Instructor: Learner gets what he/she requested

Echoic-to-Mand Transfer Procedure (without Picture Present)

Once the student can request using the echoic-to-mand transfer with a picture prompt, you can fade the initial prompt so that the student is responding more to the motivation than the prompt.  Once you see that the student is motivated for an item, either present ONLY the picture or present ONLY the verbal (not both).  When the learner repeats (or labels the picture), use a transfer trial to transfer the stimulus control from the prompt to the motivation itself.

Instructor: Set up motivation – e.g., eat chips beside individual

Learner: Indicates that he wants it (e.g., reaches, says something, etc.)

Instructor: EITHER FADE VISUAL OR FADE VERBAL – Presents a prompt (1 of visual or verbal)

Learner: “_________”

Instructor: (Transfer trial) – “Huh?” “What do you want?” – nothing present 

Learner: “________”

Instructor: Learner gets what he/she requested

Expanding the Mand

Now is the real deal.  We want to be able to fully transfer stimulus control from a verbal or picture prompt to only the motivation.  This is an important step because we would be doing our students a disservice if they always needed someone to prompt them or remind them of what to ask for.  Real independence in an environment requires the ability to spontaneously request for what they want.  A true mand is when a student is able to request for an item based on motivation alone.  Then, you can work on expanding the mand.  If the student is able to say “bubbles” as a mand for bubbles, you can shape that into “blow bubbles”.

Instructor: Set up motivation – e.g., eat chips beside individual

Learner: Indicates that he wants it by saying phrase

Instructor: Expands on the phrase by one more word, better grammar, etc.  “_________”

Learner: Repeats phrase

Instructor: (Transfer trial) – “Huh?” “What do you want?”
Learner: “________”

Instructor: Learner gets what he/she requested

In many of these scenarios, the transfer trial is key.  Without it, we may be unintentionally creating prompt dependency.  We don’t want our learners to only use their words when given a verbal or picture prompt.  The transfer trial is an important step in transferring the stimulus control from the prompt to the motivation or item itself.

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