Teaching the First Few Mands

Decision making and timing the beginning of formal mand instruction

As discussed so far, the process of pairing instructors with the delivery of reinforcement cannot be rushed. It is important that other people become established as a source of improving conditions for the student. Likewise, students lacking in mand repertoires will need a significant amount of experience in learning the conditioned relationship between a particular word and the specific reinforcement. The time necessary to establish this relation will vary. For some students in may take months to develop strong approach behavior. On the other hand, there are students who quickly acquire approach behavior and for whom adults readily become conditioned reinforcers. Some students are able to successfully acquire some mands on the first day or even in the first hour of initiating the pairing and manding procedures.

The decision to begin teaching formal mand responses needs to be made based on an ongoing analysis of student responding. When students approach and demonstrate strong motivation to interact in order to obtain preferred items and activities from adults, they are probably ready to begin learning to emit formal mands.

At times teachers have delayed initiating formal mand instruction in order to insure that sufficient pairing has occurred. While initiating formal mand instruction too soon presents the risks of frustrating the learner by reducing motivation or evoking escape behavior, delaying onset of formal mand instruction may also present problems. The main problem with delaying the onset of formal mand training is one may inadvertently strengthen non-specific gestures or movements as generalized mands. We have often noted that some children learn to obtain items by reaching with their hands toward the item. That reaching behavior may interfere with their ability to use their hands for using sign language or for making a picture exchange. Students who develop a strong history of acquiring reinforcers with almost no response requirement may resist having to exert a more effortful response such as speaking or signing to obtain the things they like.

Instructors need to make the decision on when to begin prompting and shaping specific mand forms based on a dynamic and ongoing assessment of student approach behavior, the degree to which untaught attempts to mand emerge, and the relative strength of motivation for currently available stimuli. In other words, decide when to begin teaching the child to use specific mands based on observing the student. Do not set a time line in advance, rather make sure that the child is staying near you and accepting things from you.

Here are some guidelines to assist you in deciding when to initiate introducing the teaching of formal mand forms.

When to Initiate the Teaching of Formal Mand Forms

  • Observe the amount of effort necessary to keep the student in proximity to the instructor.
  • Take approach data and review the data frequently.
  • Keep record of the student’s approach to specific reinforcers.
  • Begin mand training when the presentation of certain item or activities are observed to evoke strong and consistent approach behavior.
  • Consider how many items evoke approach behavior. Instructors will need to teach more than one mand, so it will be important to assess whether the student approaches for at least two or more items or activities.
  • Notice whether the student is in any way attempting to make requests such as beginning to imitate words or sounds, reaching, looking intently at the reinforcer, and so forth.
  • Also consider the relative strength and consistency of wanting items that will serve as mand training targets.