Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Language enriches our lives. It allows us to speak with meaning and listen with understanding. It allows us to build relationships, to contribute to society, and to pursue a values-based life. In fact, language is so useful that it can overgeneralize and create psychological rigidity. Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) and similar approaches exist in part due to the overwhelming success of language for the human condition.
But how do we get there?
Many Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) are tasked with facilitating language development in children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Most BCBAs recognize that a well-developed language repertoire is the foundation for the development of life skills that can enable an individual to realize their greatest potential.
Tools such as the VB-MAPP, ABLLS-R, and PEAK, are commonly used to aid language development training programs. However, such tools can sometimes detract us from the notion that the basic verbal operants (i.e., mands, tacts, echoics, and intraverbals) in a well developed language repertoire are actually functionally interdependent.
In other words, behavior analysts are commonly trained under such frames as “a mand is under the control of…”, while “a tact is under the control of…” and so on. Such a view is overly simplistic and misses the complexity inherent in a well developed language repertoire characterized by functional interdependence among the basic verbal operants. Naturalistic language development isn’t so clean cut.
Along these lines, Mason and Andrews (2018) ask “does the purest mand not inherently tact the motivating operations in effect? Does a genuine tact not ever so softly mand the attention of the listener? Although Skinner’s functional distinction affords scientific analysis, verbal operant strength is not mutually exclusive.” They developed the Verbal Behavior Stimulus Control Ratio Equation (SCoRE) as a way to precisely measure the complexity and interdependence of your learners’ verbal repertoires to facilitate your treatment goals.
They noted that typically developing individuals tend to develop relatively proportional levels of strength across the basic verbal operants. However, for children diagnosed with ASD, highly disproportionate levels of strength are commonly seen. Mason and Andrews suggest that the relative strength among the operants, and the ease to which stimulus control is transferred across the operants, is a key measure. Moreover, the SCoRE can show the emergence of untaught verbal relations and the “concomitant effects of conditioning a single verbal operant.”
How it works:
SCoRE quantifies the strength of a verbal repertoire between values of 0 and 1. A score of one would indicate a well-developed, proportional, and complex repertoire across the four major verbal operants. However, as the score approaches zero, the repertoire becomes increasingly disproportionate, with each element becoming functionally more independent.
The SCoRE assumes that a perfectly balanced repertoire would show equal strength across the four operants, known as the null verbal repertoire. The extent to which your learner’s performance matches the null forms the basis for the equation. Sometimes your learner may show particular strength in one domain, well over 25% of all language emitted, while other times your learner may show a particular deficit, well under 25%. The differences between the null values and actual performance across the four domains forms the basis for the equation. The final value can be regarded as a measure of repertoire complexity and strength.
How it can help your language programs:
Guiding Instructional Decisions. The focus on relative strength within a repertoire can guide a practitioner’s decision making regarding ways to build up weaker components. SCoRE may tell you, for instance, that an increase in manding should be achieved through echoic prompts. Or, it could tell you that “the convergence of echoic stimuli and establishing operations” can aid in tacting and intraverbals.
Precise Benchmarks of Complexity. SCoRE values can be seen as a precise way to describe repertoires and benchmarks for treatment. The authors suggest that a score below .20 may be considered an emerging repertoire. A score of .20 and greater may be regarded as practical. A score of .50 and above may be moderate, and .80 and above may be regarded as strong. Such values can be seen as more precise alternatives to “non verbal” or “high functioning” when describing repertoires.
Greater Functional Control. SCoRE tackles complexity head on, and regards functional interdependence as the rule rather than the exception. Thus, analyzing verbal operants in isolation can hinder treatment gains. SCoRE can facilitate treatment gains by facilitating the analysis of emergent or untrained verbal relations that denote a complex and developed language repertoire. They note ”when a response is reinforced with one operant class, we can easily document where, and the extent to which, it emerges across other classes.”
Input Data from VB-MAPP, ABLLS-R, PEAK, and others. The authors cited several examples of using SCoRE with popular criterion-referenced assessments such as the VB-MAPP, ABLLS-R, PREAK, and others. SCoRE can be seen as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, such assessments, by adding the dimension of relative strength and interdependence to the analysis. In their original article, Mason and Andrews walk the reader through several case studies, and provide a succinct step-by-step way to show your own data in the SCoRE format.
Fore more details on the SCoRE, be sure to read the full article, from Perspectives on Behavioral Science. You can also reach Drs. Mason and Andrews through verbalbehavior.com for consultations, speaking engagements, or questions.
Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way. Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar. He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues. His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition. He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas. Dr. Ward can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Sponsored content by the University of Texas, San Antonio Autism Research Center.