Teaching Students to Ask Questions: Intro to Verbal Behavior Mand Training {Applied Behavior Analysis}

The mand is a verbal operant or type of language that is controlled by a want or need.  A mand could be seen as a request, question or command.  There are mands for different parts of speech (verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns), mands for information, and mands for permission.  All of the following are classified as mands: up, milk, I want milk, stop, look at me, talk louder, what is it, who is it, may I… 

Mands are driven by establishing operations which are the motivation to use the verbal operant.  For example, if you want to eat cereal and there is no milk, the motivation to get milk is high; therefore, you are likely to ask for milk.  If you wanted to exit a room and someone is standing in your way, the motivation to leave the room is high; therefore, you would ask the person to move out of the way. 

It is easy to teach mands, if you contrive and manipulate establishing operations.  One way of contriving an establishing operation would be to put the child’s favorite candy in a container that he or she could not open.  The motivation to get the piece of candy would be higher if the child had not had that particular type of candy in one week (deprivation); therefore, the child would mand “open” or “open the jar” or “get the candy”…

It is important to understand the difference between a tact and a mand.  The tact involves the child labeling something in the environment.  For example, the child sees an apple and says “apple”.  A tact is functionally different from a mand in that tacting an item does not mean the child desires the item; he/she is simply labeling it.

Mand Training Ideas: Asking WHAT Questions

Step 1: Unfamiliar objects 

The therapist/teacher will play a turn-taking game using unfamiliar objects and/or pictures.

For example, the therapist places unknown objects and pictures in front of the child and asks, “What is this?”  Immediately prompt the child to say, “I don’t know. What is it?” utilizing a verbal and written prompt cue card.  It is extremely important to utilize things that the student can NOT label.  I like to utilize pictures of obscure tools or gadgets.  Reinforce the response and name the item for the child.  In other words, give the student a name for the object such as “It’s a trowel”.  You will practice this step until the student is able to independently respond, “I don’t know. What is it?” before moving forward to the next step.

insta mand examples what is it

When the student is achieving 80-90% accuracy in the previous step, move on the reverse function.  At this level, you will place unknown objects or pictures on the table or floor and prompt the student to ask, “What is it?” after choosing an item.   You might say, “It’s your turn” while pointing to an object.  After the student asks, reinforce the mand and name the item (It’s a windmill.  That was amazing!  Great asking the question, “What is it”)  You may play this game in any environment (outside, while in the car, grocery store…).

Step 2: Actions

After turn-taking is established, the therapist or teacher may start asking the student, “What do you want to do” and allow the student to respond.  The student will respond with a preferred action or activity (initially, you may need to utilize a choice board).  After the student responds, you will perform the task or action with him/her.  For example, the student may respond that he/she wants to go swing.  You must allow the student to perform the action for a short period of time.  After the task or action is completed (after swinging for a few minutes), prompt the student to ask you, “What do you want to do?” (Prompt: Say, “What do you want to do” or “What do you want to do Ms. Jennifer).  You will answer/respond with a reinforcing task (choose a task that the child will like to participate in) and perform the task with the student.  You may practice in many different environments!

Step 3: Food and Drink

The therapist or teacher may start by asking the child “What do you want to drink/eat?”  Allow the child to respond with a desired food item or drink.  It is important that you have the food or drink item the child requests; therefore, you may want to give the child choices.  For example, place four different food or drink items on the table before asking the child “What do you want to drink/eat?”  After the child requests an item, allow him/her to eat/drink the item.  Next, prompt the child to ask you, “What do you want to eat/drink?” and respond with a food or drink item the student can easily give you.  This is a great game to play at meal times!

Prompts: Verbal, Visual, Physical, Pointing, Tapping

Note: The therapist/teacher must establish a turn-taking system with the student.  Gradually fade all prompts in order for the child to independently ask “What” questions.

Asking WHERE Questions

Step 1: Different Location

The therapist or teacher may move an object (one that is always in the same location) to a different location.  For example, the student’s favorite stuffed animal is always in his/her backpack.  When the child looks for the object, prompt him/her to ask, “Where is  ___?” and respond by giving the location of the object.  The student may locate and gain access to the object.

Step 2: Where Card Game

When the student is asking, consistently, the locations of missing items, the therapist/teacher may start prompting him/her to ask questions about his/her day.  The therapist may write prompts on index cards and place them, face down, on the table.  The therapist will turn a card over and read the WHERE question (“Where did you go today”).  Prompt the child to answer using verbal and/or written prompts.  Next, allow the child to turn over a card and ask you a WHERE question.  Continue taking turns, until all of the cards have been used.

Prompt: Verbal, Visual

Note: Remember to prompt “Where” questions in the natural environment.  For example, when the therapist is leaving, prompt the child to ask, “Where are you going?”  Gradually fade prompting procedures in order for the child to independently ask “Where” questions.

Asking WHO Questions

Step 1: Unfamiliar people

Using unfamiliar pictures of people, characters, or community helpers, the therapist or teacher will play a turn-taking game with the student.  The therapist will ask, “Who is this?” and prompt the student to answer, “I don’t know.”   Next, name the person, character, or community helper for the student.  Finally, prompt the student to ask, “Who is this?” while pointing to or holding up a picture of a person, character or community helper.  The therapist will reinforce the mand (student asking the question) and identify or name the person for the student.  This is fun to play using photo albums, coloring books, kindergarten dictionaries of professional/community helper card such as receptionist, cashier, florist….

Step 2: Reinforcer

After the turn-taking is established, the therapist may give the desired item to another individual in the same room.  For example, give an M&M to the teacher’s assistant.  Ask the student, “Do you want an M&M?” and wait for the student to respond.  If he/she responds, “yes” the therapist then responds, “I don’t have any ___. Someone in the room has the ___.”  Next, prompt the student to ask, “Who has the ___?”  Written prompts are extremely helpful!!

Step 3: Mysteries

Allow the child to observe a situation.  For example, play this game after an event (dinner time, bath time, playtime, outdoor time…).  Next, go over to an item, point and ask the child, “Who did it?”  The therapist may be pointing to a broken crayon that another student broke while coloring a picture next to your student.  Prompt the student to answer correctly (“Addy did it” or “Addy broke it”).  The therapist then says, “Your turn” and requires the student to ask a “Who did it?” question.  The student may walk over to the sink where water has been splashed from someone washing his/her hands.  The student would point to the sink (or therapist would prompt the student to do so) and ask “Who did it?”  The therapist will respond with the name of the person.

Prompt: Verbal, Visual, Written

Note: Gradually fade prompting procedures in order for the child to independently ask “Who” questions.


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