Some Considerations in Prompting the First Mands

This section will include a significant amount of detail. Instructors are advised to study the suggestions and procedures carefully. The following chart summarizes topics that will be covered in this section.

Some Considerations in Prompting the First Mands

  • Transferring operant control from other types of verbal behavior to the mand
  • Echoic to mand prompts and transfer procedures
  • Tact to mand prompts and transfer procedures
  • Physical prompting of signed mand responses and transfer procedures
  • Imitative prompts and signed mand responses and transfer procedures
  • An intraverbal response for use as a prompt in signed mands and related transfer trials
  • Multiple Control of Mand Behavior
  • Use of Repeated Prompt Procedures
  • Mand Transfer Trials as a Time Delay Process
  • Error Correction and Reducing Scrolled Responses

Transferring operant control from other types of verbal behavior to the mand

The analysis of verbal behavior provides a theoretical model that can guide selection of the types of prompts to be used in shaping up the first mands. Students who are beginning mand training present varied patterns of performance in the development of verbal behavior. Some students may be strong at echoic behavior, some strong at tacts, some may even respond well with intraverbal responses for songs or dialogue from their favorite TV programs. A critical early step in teaching students language is to perform an adequate assessment of their skills across the various forms of verbal and nonverbal operant control. Instructors will make better decisions regarding prompting if they are informed about a student’s level of skill in relation to echoic skills, tact skills, imitation skills, match to sample skills, textual (sight reading) skills and intraverbal skills.

Echoic to mand prompts and transfer procedures

A student who has not developed the ability to repeat what is said to them is likely to have difficulty responding when told to say words so that he or she can get what they want. If the child cannot echo saying “apple,” telling them to “say apple” as a mand prompt, is unlikely to be effective. On the other hand, evoking a mand involves use of strategies to put in place strong motivation, so that some students may indeed learn to repeat what is said through mand training quicker than they would through echoic trials.

For the student who can readily echo what is said, an echoic prompt will likely be the most effective way of ensuring that the student says what they want during mand training.

Echoic prompts can be faded through use of a transfer trial in which the prompt is fully faded on a second presentation of the item. If fully fading the prompt is not effective, a partial prompt fading procedure can be used with an echoic prompt. For instance, the teacher can simply say the first syllable of the target word.

Stimulus fading can also be used by reducing the volume of the echoic prompt, in other words whispering the word.

Tact to mand prompts and transfer procedures

Some vocal students who may not be able to respond to echoic prompts may respond to prompts involving presentation of a visual stimulus. In other words they may respond to a prompt that involves emitting a tact. These students would need to have developed an adequate tact repertoire. In other words they would need to be able to say the name of the item when it is presented but not in conditions when motivation to obtain the item is in force. This procedure might involve holding up an item, having the child label the item and then immediately delivering the item when the student emits the response. In most situations, this is the process by which mands are acquired naturally. During the mand training process it may take extended periods of time before a student is able to fade the presence of the item as a controlling aspect of the mand.

Prompt fading procedures would entail presenting a second trial in close proximity to the first in which item is removed. Again partial prompting can occur by reducing the time the item is visible and eventually just “hinting” that the prompt may be given by beginning to raise the item without actually doing so.

Further discussion of fading the use of the item present as a prompt for mands will occur in a later section of this video entitled “Fading to the MO.”

Physical prompting of signed mand responses and transfer procedures

As discussed earlier students with limited or absent echoic and vocal tact repertoires will likely require use of augmentative communications systems. For these students, sign language will often be the response form of choice. Knowing the strength of a student’s imitation skill repertoire will be quite helpful in deciding which prompts to use. If a student has a limited ability to imitate motor actions involving the arms and hands, signed mands will likely need to be physically prompted. Decisions for selecting a physical prompt will depend on several variables. As a general principle it is probably best to use the least amount of physical contact that will be effective in having the child produce the motor movements for the sign. It is better to lightly touch the child at the elbow if it will result in having them move their hand to the position to sign “candy” (index finger to cheek) than it would be to place your entire hand over the student’s hand and move it to the “candy” position. Of course it may be necessary to move the entire hand to have the sign occur.

When physically prompting signed mands, instructors need to be aware of subtle behaviors emitted by the student. Some observations that may help guide the immediate and dynamic prompt decision process include:

  • Fade prompts while you are in the process of prompting if you feel the student beginning to make the movements on their own. When prompting pay careful attention to the students muscle movements.
  • Over-prompting a student (providing a greater degree of prompting than is necessary: moving the hands or arms too much) can result in the student learning that they will get what they want if they allow someone to manipulate their hands: they may not learn that it is their own movements that result in the delivery of the reinforcer.
  • Avoid, when possible, physically prompting a student when they are in the process of reaching toward an item. If the instructor waits to prompt until the student reaches, the reach may become shaped as a generalized mand that interferes with the student learning to emit movements in other directions or fields of motion. Most signs involve movements that do not include reaching toward others; if reaching is followed by being prompted and the prompting is correlated with delivery of reinforcement, the child will learn to reach as a mand. The reaching may be incompatible with arm and hand movements that involve a different direction of movement.
  • As with all prompts, attempts should be made to fade physical prompts as soon as possible. This can be done through an immediate transfer trial without prompts before delivering the reinforcer; using a transfer trial following delivery of the reinforcer without prompts; or a prompt fade transfer trial (a transfer trial of either type that is not completely without the physical prompt but rather includes a lesser degree of prompt.) For certain students you may be able to change to another type of prompt, such an echoic or tact prompt.
  • For some students, fading prompts too soon may result in a slower pace of mand acquisition. This may occur in conditions when the student needs more experience in having the particular movements of a sign contact the reinforcer. In such cases, it will be important for the instructor to provide multiple prompted trials before attempting to fade prompts. The use of repeated prompts as a strategy will be covered in more detail later.

Although it is likely that a student who has strong imitative skills will acquire signed mand responses more rapidly than a student who has poor motor imitation skills, it does not necessarily mean that a student with limited imitation should not be taught to use sign language as a response form. Because the mand involves responding under conditions of strong motivation, some students will learn to imitate through mand training procedures. The process would involve the student learning the value of doing what other people do from learning that such behavior gets them the things they want. Physical prompting of signs when done in combination with an effective model of the sign and a strong motivative operation can establish a value for imitating actions.

Imitative prompts and signed mand responses and transfer procedures

There are students who have developed an ability to imitate the movements of others although they have not learned to make requests. For these students their skill at imitating can be a very useful tool in the mand training process. The basic principle involves first teaching the student to imitate the movements of the signs that will later be transferred through stimulus control procedures to the mand frame. This process can involve the following steps:

  • First teach the student to imitate the movements of the sign when told “do this” while a model of the movements is provided. Provide general reinforcement for successful imitation.
  • As the child becomes able to imitate the specific movements of the sign, add a label for the movement as part of the verbal direction “do this, apple” while again modeling the sign.
  • Transfer the imitative response to the mand by having the student imitate the sign in the situation wherein he or she is motivated to obtain the particular reinforcer associated with the sign. For instance, tell the student “do this, apple” while presenting the hungry student with an apple, when the student imitates the apple sign, deliver the reinforcer.
  • After the student begins to consistently emit the apple sign following an imitative prompt, begin fading prompts through use of transfer trial procedures. Again you may be able to fully fade the prompt on a transfer trial or you may need to use a partial fade of the imitative model as a transfer trial.
  • Once the student is consistent in responding to transfer trials and is occasionally producing unprompted mands, the repeated prompt process can be discontinued.

An intraverbal response for use as a prompt in signed mands and related transfer trials

One additional prompt that can be used in prompting signed mands is an intraverbal prompt. This process involves first teaching the student to imitate the motions of the sign, under control of the discriminative stimulus (SD) “do this” combined with a model of the sign. Following the child being able to imitate the sign, efforts can be taken to pair the sign with a specific verbal stimulus, so rather than saying “do this” the verbal component of the SD would be transferred to “sign apple” along with the model. Once the student has learned to imitate the sign with the SD “sign apple”, transfer of operant control can occur to the condition in which the teacher simply says “sign apple” with no imitative model provided. The result of these steps is having a student who is now able to emit certain signs when told to do so. Keep in mind that the response you have established (signing a word when told to do so) is technically an intraverbal response because the stimulus is verbal, the response is verbal and neither share formal characteristics; there is no point to point correspondence. It is intraverbal behavior in the same fashion that translating a word from one language to another is intraverbal. When someone says “dog” in English and the Slovak response “pes” is emitted, intraverbal behavior has occurred even though dog and pes would serve as equivalent tacts in the presence of a canine.

Once the student is able to emit specific signs when told to do so, instructors can then set up situations where there is motivation for an item, then prompt the appropriate response, by telling the student to emit the sign, for example saying, “sign apple” and then upon the student signing, immediately delivering the reinforcer, in this case a bit of apple. As with other prompt strategies, fading the intraverbal prompt should occur as soon as possible.

A Note on Multiple Control of Mand Behavior

When students are first learning to request items, multiple variables control the student’s behavior of asking for what they want. The instructor will likely hold the item in view of the student and will also model the sign or the word. As you are aware a pure mand is controlled only by a motivative operation. As part of the training process, instructors will need to plan to fade all prompts. Also when selecting prompts, the instructor will need to consider choosing from a variety of prompt forms, such as tact, echoic, imitation and physical prompts as would be appropriate for the student’s skill pattern. Again the skill pattern can be deduced from review of a verbal behavior assessment such as the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills (Partington, 2007; Partington & Sundberg, 1998); or the Verbal Behavior-Milestones Assessment for Program Planning, (Sundberg, unpublished manuscript).

Use of Repeated Prompt Procedures

As noted earlier, with some students it will not be possible to fade prompts through immediate transfer procedures. A more extended series of prompted mand trials will be necessary to establish the relation between the sign or vocal response and the delivery of specific reinforcement. The process of employing a repeated series of prompts will necessarily include certain procedures to ensure establishing the appropriate response and reducing the chances of prompt dependency.

The decision to provide repeated prompted trials needs to made through a careful analysis of data as well as observation of the student’s responses during the mand training sessions. Here are some of the reasons why one may decide to provide repeated prompted trials rather than immediate transfer trials to unprompted conditions:

  • Failure to acquire the correct response form.
  • Attempts to fade prompts result in high rates of errors.
  • The student engages in scrolling of responses and attempts by staff to correct scrolling do not result in acquisition of the correct mand response. Scrolling refers to when the student emits a string of responses before emitting the correct response. It is as if they are scrolling through all the choices of response that might get them what they want. Methods to reduce scrolled responses will be spelled out in a later section.

The Procedure for Providing Repeated Prompts

  • Decide most effective least intrusive prompt that is consistent with the student’s pattern of performance.
  • Set the criteria for the number of prompted trials that will occur before attempting to fade.
  • Determine if a fade schedule for reducing repeated prompt trials for a specific reinforcer will need to be used.
  • Review data and make instructional decisions based on pattern of performance.

The following discussion will provide more detail on the process of providing repeated prompts when necessary.

  • Decide most effective least intrusive prompt that is consistent with the student’s pattern of performance.
  • Set the criteria for the number of prompted trials that will occur before attempting to fade. Although we cannot propose a standard number of prompted trials for any individual student without knowledge of their specific patterns of developing prompt dependency, our experiences suggest that using from 8 to 12 prompted responses before attempts to transfer to an unprompted trial may be effective for many learners. Keep in mind that certain students may request more or less consecutive prompted trials depending on how quickly they respond to the process. Students may also vary on how much prompting they need dependent upon the strength of their motivation. In other words, they may need repeated prompts for one reinforcer which they like but are not crazy about versus another reinforcer which they are always thrilled to receive.

    When providing mand opportunities for those items targeted for repeated prompting, provide an immediate 0 second time delay prompts each time the item is presented until the set number of prompted trials has been reached. 0 second time delay prompts are prompts that are delivered immediately and do not allow the student to make an error are termed However, if other items are also being presented that are not in need of repeated prompting, run these interspersed with no prompts or immediate transfer trials. This means that you don’t need to run all prompted items for the targeted item consecutively. Keep in mind that you will be working on more than one mand target. It is important to intersperse mand trials for various items to ensure that good discrimination is acquired. The student’s motivation and rate of skill acquisition will guide how many items are worked on during mand training.
  • Determine if a fade schedule for reducing repeated prompt trials for a specific reinforcer will need to be used. For some items, if 10 repeated prompts are provided and then a transfer trial occurs which results in a correct mand, it may be feasible to provide unprompted trials on future presentations of the item. More likely, however, you will need to gradually fade both the number of prompted trials (for instance, from 10 trials to 5 trials) and prompt level (for instance, from full to partial prompt) on subsequent mand trials following the correct performance on the transfer.
  • Review data and make instructional decisions based on pattern of performance.

Here is a data sheet that may be helpful in tracking the process of providing repeated prompts in the mand frame.

Chart 12

Student Name: __________________   Date(s):________


TargetPrompt LevelAttempted fade successful?Prompt LevelAttempted fade successful?Prompt LevelAttempted fade successful?









  • - Write in description of prompt under prompt level column
  • - Once 10 trials at current level are completed, attempt to fade
  • - If attempt successful: move to 10 trials at faded prompt level
  • - If attempt to fade unsuccessful: Repeat 10 trials at current prompt level.