Selecting Targets for Mand Training

Doing a good job teaching requires that you first know what it is you are going to teach. When teaching children to mand, the first question we need to ask is “what are we going to teach them to ask for?” Although the simple answer “teaching them to ask for what they want” is very relevant, there are other variables that need to be considered when selecting what to teach.

At this point, instructors will have determined through the preference assessment process which items are highly likely to serve as reinforcers. Likewise, instructors will have worked to establish themselves as a source of reinforcement for the student. It then becomes important to decide which reinforcing items or activities will be taught to the child as mands. In the course of our discussions about mand training, those reinforcing items or activities selected for teaching as mands will be referred to as target mands.

Keep in mind that not all events that are potentially reinforcing will be appropriate to target for mand training. For instance, some reinforcers may not be able to be delivered frequently. The child may have a hard time learning to mand for such items because the opportunities to practice requesting are so limited. On the other hand, some reinforcers may be difficult to control by adults, thus the student may be able to obtain them without ever learning to ask for them. Other reinforcers may involve emitting complex movements or vocalizations that will be hard to teach. For instance, a student may enjoy eating pomegranates, but pomegranate may be too hard for an early learner to say.

Guidelines for Selecting Reinforcers to Be Used in Early Mand Training

  • Chose items that are consumable or allow only duration of contact
  • Use items and activities that are consistently motivating for the student. Focus on teaching mands for items that the child consistently wants.
  • Chose items that are easy to deliver
  • Select words that are familiar to the child, words that have been heard frequently in their day to day experience.
  • Consider words for the vocal responder that are easy to pronounce
  • Consider signed words whose movements are easy to produce and easy to prompt
  • Avoid selecting words that can be used to control multiple types of reinforcers.

When choosing items that are consumable it may be wise to use small bits of edibles that will be consumed quickly and allow the instructor to deliver many trials. Pushing a child on a swing or pulling in wagon will only last for a brief period of time; adults can push or pull often. On the other hand a favorite toy doll can only be delivered once, unless the instructor removes the doll. Removing the doll may lead to problem behaviors if the doll is important to the child. Note that it is important to teach children to give up reinforcers, none the less; early in mand training removing a preferred item can lead to problem behaviors that will compete with the development of appropriate mands. In some circumstances, such reinforcers may be quite valuable, in which case you may use strategies that do not involve removal of the item, for instance delivering lots of little dolls that the student may like. Some toy items may be easy to remove: a ball that rolls down a ramp can be retrieved by the instructor and then can be immediately available for rolling again thus providing an opportunity for another mand trial.

A walk to the store may be reinforcing, but in most circumstances it will be difficult to provide a trip to the store as soon as the child asks for it. On the other hand a small bit of cookie or a tickle can be delivered within seconds of the mand occurring.

As we discussed earlier a child may once in a while like a certain fruit that may be available in the classroom for a day or so, but won’t be regularly available for consistent mand training opportunities. It may also be a fruit that the child will have heard said in their day to day experiences. The student will be better served if fruits that are more regularly available are taught as target mands.

As noted above, avoid selecting words that can be used to control multiple types of reinforcers. Such words can include “more”, “help” and “please.” Such generalized mands may prevent a student from acquiring a broader mand repertoire for specific reinforcers. While it will eventually be important to teach children to ask for help and to say please, introducing these mands too early may interfere with the acquisition of other mands.