The Benefits of Mand Training

Mand training is a central focus of instruction for many programs that utilize the principles of applied behavior analysis. There are many reasons why this is so.

The following chart summarizes some of the benefits of mand training.

The Benefits of Mand Training

  • 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.

1. Mands have been said to be the first type of verbal behavior acquired by children.

From early in development, mand behavior helps the infant control their environment. Early mands can include events such as:

  • A baby crying when hungry and then being fed.
  • A baby being tired, crying and then being rocked to sleep.

As infants mature, they learn from interactions with their parents and other people that certain behaviors result in specific consequences. Subtle differences in the type of cry emitted as the baby is hungry may result in an increased frequency of a certain type of crying if such cries are reinforced by the baby being fed. Another type of cry may be shaped to control the tendency of the parents to hold the baby. Eventually the differentiated responses to more discrete events will lead to rather complex patterns of behavior. A coo may result in playful interaction; making sounds like those made by the mother may result in more playful tickles; saying “ba” may result in someone giving the infant a bottle. Eventually vocalizations in the form of spoken words begin to help the child control their social environment. Saying “tickle” gets the infant a tickle, saying “bah-dul” gets the child a bottle. The child learns to say words that result in being given things or attention. Saying words under certain conditions, then, results in direct reinforcement.

It makes sense to focus on mand training early in programming because mands occur early in the developmental sequence of behavior-environment relations. If children naturally develop the ability to mand early in life as a result of such environment-behavior relations, it is likely they should be taught to mand early in planned programming for children in which such a repertoire fails to develop.

2. Mands help the student control their environment.

For children with skill deficits related to communicative competence, often problem behaviors serve as mands. This is true for children presenting autism as well. It is important to teach appropriate mands in order to replace any inappropriate behaviors that may serve as a mand.

Often children who are taught to ask for what they want show a marked decrease in the frequency of problem behaviors. Here is a graph showing the change in the occurrence of aggressive behaviors as a result of mand training for a student with autism who received services in a class served by the PaTTAN Autism Initiative, Applied Behavior Analysis Supports:

Chart 4

Chart 4

3. Mand training makes social interaction more valuable.

For children with autism, the value of social interaction may not be established. Children with autism often show little interest in other people. They may not initiate social interactions as often as other children. Mand behavior is generally maintained by the delivery of a specific reinforcer. The delivery of the reinforcer is the result of the behavior of a listener. It is by definition, social.

If an adult provides a child with some preferred event, the child learns to seek out that adult. As the result of mand training the adult becomes a stimulus associated with improving conditions. Technically, the adult has become a conditioned reinforcer. The process of establishing listeners as conditioned reinforcers is central to mand training. When a neutral stimulus (the adult in this case) is paired with a stimulus that is already an effective reinforcer (whatever the adult delivers as result of the mand), the neutral stimulus will become effective as a reinforcer. “Pairing” means the two stimuli occur simultaneously or close in time. The delivery of the reinforcer by a person makes that person a conditioned reinforcer.

Here is an example of the pairing process. If a child likes to eat pieces of apple and an adult gives the child apple pieces with no demands, the adult is likely to be conditioned as a reinforcer: the child will seek out the adult in order to get pieces of apple. If the adult then learns that the child also likes having bubbles blown, and again freely blows bubbles at the child, the adult’s status as a generalized conditioned reinforcer will be furthered established.

Soon the child will seek out the adult regularly because the adult is associated with the availability of “good things” or improving conditions. The greater the variety and quality of reinforcers delivered, the more valuable the adult becomes to the child. This process happens without planning for most young children, but will often need to be carefully planned for children with autism. As adults become conditioned reinforcers, the rate at which the child initiates interactions with them increases. Thus the act of conditioning adults and peers as reinforcers through mand training establishes a value for social interactions.

4. The focus on motivation in manding and developing new reinforcers may serve to reduce the value of repetitive/stereotyped actions

Another defining characteristic of students who present with autism is the tendency to engage in repetitive or stereotyped patterns of activity. From a behavioral model, such behavior is not usually social in nature. The child will rock or spin in place. The rocking and spinning is apparently fun for the child. It produces its own reinforcement and does not require the action of another person. Such behavior is said to be maintained through automatic reinforcement. In common terms, the child engages in the behavior because it feels good.

By learning to ask others for what they want in conditions wherein a teacher captures and contrives motivation, the student is able to access a variety of reinforcers. We are thus able to establish a wider range of interests that compete with the enjoyment of stereotypical behaviors. As a result, the value of social interaction and other reinforcers increases and the value of repetitive solitary behaviors may decrease.

5. Mand training may assist in developing the value of communication and thus spur the acquisition of the other verbal operants.

When a child learns to ask for many things they want, they may in certain cases, also learn to name things or to respond to the things when they are named by someone else. Mand training may be indirectly valuable in the process of teaching a child to use language for many functions. Through acquiring a few mands, a student may learn the value of verbal behavior for other functions. Communication in and of itself may become valuable. If we fail to teach manding early, it may be more difficult to directly teach tacts and intraverbals because the value of verbal behavior may not be established. Remember that the mand is the only verbal operant that directly benefits the speaker.

6. Mands are an integral part of complex verbal behavior: they are a major component of conversation.

When considering mands, one should remember that mands can occur for a wide range of reinforcers. Mands for information and mands for attention are important components of conversational interactions. Many conversations begin with a mand.

An example of mands as they may occur in a conversation

  • conversant 1: “What did you do last night? (mand for information)
  • conversant 2: “I went with my son to see that new fantasy film.”
  • conversant 1: “Was it good?” (mand for information)
  • conversant 2: “I liked it but my son found certain parts a bit scary.”
  • conversant 1: “Really?” (mand for more verbal behavior)
  • conversant 2: “Yes, some of the dark magic stuff was too much, but he did like the flying wizards.”
  • conversant 1: “I haven’t seen the movie yet.”
  • conversant 2: “Oh, I think you should go, you seem to like that kind of stuff” (mand for action)
And so on...

Fully half of the statements in the above conversation included mands. If students are to become skilled at conversing they will need to develop the ability to use conversational mands.

7. It is relatively easy to do because you are using the child's own motivation as a tool.

It makes sense that the child would be more motivated to participate in a process that is intrinsically tied to their own immediate preferences.

This is not to say that teaching a child to effectively make requests is not challenging.

The fact that mands are controlled by the child’s interests and motivation reduces the need for instructors to plan arbitrary means of keeping the child engaged. If the instructor has identified reinforcers that are currently effective for the child, both the content of instruction and the motivation have been identified. Remember that teaching the other verbal operants requires developing arbitrary, non-specific motivation.