The Operant Analysis

Behavioral models describe the reasons we do what we do in terms of three relations: what happens before a behavior occurs, what are the characteristics of the behavior and what happens immediately after the behavior. For most behaviors of concern to educators and parents, behavior whose probability of future occurrence is dependent upon how the environment changes following the behavior is called operant behavior. Here is a chart that lists some key concepts related to operant behavior. A working knowledge of each concept on this chart is a key part of developing an adequate skill set for teaching mands.

Chart 1

Motivative Operation (UMO; CMO-t; CMO-r; CMO-s)Response (Dimensions: topography; temporal; magnitude; location)Reinforcement (Positive Social, Positive Automatic and Negative)
Stimulus (Discriminative, Neutral, Delta)No ResponsePunishment (Type I and II)
Prompts (a procedural use of discriminative stimuli) Schedule of Reinforcement (Extinction; continuous; VR; FR; VI; FI)

We will review this chart in sequence from antecedent through consequence. This discussion will provide only a cursory overview of the principles of behavior analysis. Readers are encouraged to further develop their skills in the concepts of behavior analysis by reading any one of several high quality texts on applied behavior analysis (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007; Michael, 2004; Catania, 2006, Alberto & Troutman, 2002.)

Prior to behavior, events happen which alter the probability of the behavior occurring, these events are called motivative operations. Motivative operations describe how the value of certain consequences can change depending on prevailing conditions. We will describe motivative operations in detail later in this training. Also in the period just before a behavior occurs, events may be present which signal that certain consequences are more likely or available, these antecedent events are called discriminative stimuli. Other events can signal that certain consequences are less likely. These are called delta stimuli and finally there may be events that have no effect on behavior, these are called neutral stimuli. One other set of events that can occur in the antecedent condition are “prompts”. Prompts are events that are likely to promote the occurrence of a particular behavior and are usually planned to make the behavior occur under certain conditions: prompts are ancillary or planned events that are used for teaching purposes. In order for a behavior to be learned under the control of naturally occurring discriminative stimuli, prompts must be faded as soon as possible.

Behavior is the movements of an organism, in our case the movements of the students or teachers, in their environment. It is important for teachers and parents, who are concerned about helping students learn, to remember that behaviors are to be defined in observable terms. To accomplish this, physical dimensions of behavior are defined, such as what parts of the body move, how fast or forceful they move, what direction they move in, how often they occur or how soon after certain events they occur.

The probability of any set or class of behaviors occurring again is determined to a large degree by the past consequences of the behavior. Events that increase the likelihood of future behavior are termed reinforcers. If a stimulus is added to the environment (for instance, the student is given something), and that event increases the future probability of behavior, the event is termed a positive reinforcer. If a stimulus is taken away from the environment (for instance, an unpreferred task) and that event increases the likelihood of some behavior (such as various escape behaviors), then the event is termed a negative reinforcer. If any event occurring after a behavior decreases the future probability of the behavior, the event is termed punishment.

Reinforcers delivered by people are termed social reinforcement; events that serve as reinforcement and are not dependent upon people for their delivery are termed automatic reinforcement. Reinforcing stimuli do not need to occur after every instance of a particular type of behavior in order to effect the behavior’s future probability. Events that occur every time a behavior occurs and have reinforcing qualities are said to be delivered on a continuous schedule of reinforcement. Continuous schedules of reinforcement are associated with more rapid rates of learning. Behaviors that are reinforced intermittently will, however, occur more consistently and will be less likely to stop occurring soon after reinforcement procedures are discontinued. A behavior which no longer results in reinforcing consequences is said to be on an extinction schedule of reinforcement and eventually, the frequency of such behaviors will fade or cease. Extinction schedules may have the effect of evoking behavior that may differ in magnitude or variation in topography of behavior before responding fades.

Again, this brief description of the operant analysis is not meant to help you fully understand this complex analysis, it is provided as a brief review. Keep in mind that those who have developed a strong working knowledge of the operant analysis have acquired powerful tools that are critical in designing, delivering and evaluating effective teaching procedures.

Verbal Behavior

As you read this guidebook, keep in mind that we, consistent with the conceptual framework provided by B. F. Skinner (1957), are proposing that language is behavior. As behavior, the principles described in the operant analysis are very relevant to verbal behavior. The mand is operant behavior. Other types of verbal behavior have been reviewed in detail in a previous training video and guidebook produced by the PaTTAN Autism Initiative, Applied Behavior Analysis Supports and will not be repeated here in detail. In 1947 B.F. Skinner outlined in a series of lectures, a conceptual model for classifying language by its function. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University by Skinner were later synthesized into the book Verbal Behavior which was published in 1957. For your review, here is a chart summarizing the classification of verbal behavior and related terms:

Chart 2

Verbal OperantAntecedentBehaviorConsequence
MandMotivative Operation (wants cookie)Verbal behavior (says "cookie")Direct reinforcement (gets cookie)
TactSensory Stimuli (sees or smells cookie)Verbal behavior (says "cookie")Non-specific reinforcement (gets praised, for instance)
IntraverbalVerbal stimulus (Someone says: "What do you eat?")Verbal behavior (says "cookie")Non-specific reinforcement (gets praised, for instance)
EchoicVerbal Stimulus (someone says "cookie")Verbal behavior: repeats all or part of antecedent (says "cookie")Non-specific reinforcement (gets praised, for instance)
Listener responding/receptive (actually not a verbal operant)Verbal stimulus (someone says "touch cookie")*Non-verbal behavior (child touches cookie)Non-specific reinforcement (gets praised, for instance)