TEACHING THE CHILD TO ANSWER QUESTIONS
Many children with Autism have difficulty answering questions. Parents often report that their child "knows the answers but doesn't understand the questions!" For example, the child may be able to point to (receptive) and label (tact) colors, but when asked, "What color?", may respond with the name (tact) of the item instead. When we teach a child to answer questions, we have to "link" types of questions with their responses. We have to be sure the child discriminates the response required for particular questions. The child typically already has a great deal of experience with questions. Unfortunately, the most typical learning history we see is that the child has "learned" to NOT answer questions! Parents, day care providers and others typically begin asking children questions when they are very young. If the child does not know how to respond, they don't! Those people asking the questions often don't know how to prompt the child or teach the child to answer the question so when the child doesn't respond, they do nothing. When reinforcement occurs after the child has not answered the question, it increases the future likelihood that the child will not answer a question the next time he is asked! For example, let's say a child is in a daycare and the teacher asks, "What are you doing?". If the child doesn't know the answer, he might just ignore the teacher. A typical response to this ignoring might be that the teacher asks again, a little louder. Again, the child wouldn't respond. The teacher might ask the question yet again, with some irritation in her voice. The child may find this interaction quite distasteful! (Aversive) Finally, the teacher might "give up" and walk away from the child. When this aversive interaction is "removed" as the teacher leaves, negative reinforcement may occur. (Taking away something aversive). This might result in the child responding the same way the next time he is asked a question. In fact, because of the child's history of finding this "question interaction" aversive, he may attempt to avoid the situation all together. (Creates an EO for escape) So, the next time someone asks him a question he may walk away! To avoid this type of "learning" it is best not to ask children questions to which they don't know the answer! When questions are asked, the child should be taught to respond appropriately using transfer, prompting and correction procedures. Just as in other learning situations, we can accomplish this by "using" the responses the child already has and "transferring" them to a response to a question. It is important to understand that questions become part of the set of stimulus conditions that specify which response will be reinforced. Because they contain controlling stimulus conditions, questions require a child to make conditional discriminations. The number of conditional discriminations required depends on the number of items present in the environment as well as the controlling stimuli involved in the question itself. For example, if a child has been taught to label objects (tact objects), he is taught to respond (by being reinforced when he does so) with the object name when he hears "What" as part of the question. Later, when taught to tact actions, the child must discriminate between "What" and "What.. doing" as part of the question in order to respond correctly. For this reason, it is suggested that instructors be careful to control the verbal stimuli (questions) used to initially teach tact responses to be sure the child is responding to the controlling stimuli present in the question. However, once discrimination has been achieved, it is also important to "loosen" the stimulus control of the question. Otherwise, the child will only be able to respond correctly if a very specific question is asked. For example, if stimulus control of the question is "too tight", the child may be able to respond "big" if asked, "What size?" but not if asked, "What does it look like?", "What kind?" or "Which one?". Or "What size is that?" Once the child is able to discriminate the controlling variables in the questions, generalization can be programmed by transferring mastered responses to new conditions and "loosening" the control of the specific question.
Prerequisite Skills Before beginning to work directly on teaching the child to respond to questions, he should already be able to ask for (mand) a wide variety of objects and actions. Manding (requesting) should still be the primary focus of teaching. Continue to build the number of things the child is able to ask for with a goal of 1,000 mands (requests) per day! In addition, the child should have strong skills in labeling (tacting) objects. Refer to the sections on teaching the child to mand and tact if this is not the case. If this type of teaching has occurred, the child would already be able to answer questions that serve as a stimulus for labels (tacts) for objects such as "What's this?", "What's that?" and "What do we call this thing?" as well as be able to respond to the question, "What do you want/need?" when he has a desire (EO) for an item.It should be noted however, that some children have a very difficult time learning to label (tact) items but can respond to FFC fill ins. If this is the case, the response to the FFC fill in can be used to "transfer" to the tact. For example, some children may not be able respond to "What's this?" in the presence of a "cookie", but can respond correctly when "We eat a ..." is presented in the presence of a cookie. In this case, the FFC can be transferred to the Wh? for the tact of the object.Inst: We eat a ...Child: cookieInst: What's this?Child: cookieThe important thing to remember is that the goal is to determine the conditions under which a child can respond correctly and then transfer it to a different condition.Another important consideration is to always correct error responses by repeating the question and prompting the answer. Doing so helps insure that the child not only learns the correct response but also discriminates the question as being an important part of the stimulus conditions for the reinforcement of the correct response. For example:Inst: What flies in the sky?Child: CarInst: What flies in the sky? AirplaneChild: AirplaneInst: What flies in the sky?Child: AirplaneConsider the alternative: (What NOT to do)Inst: What flies in the sky.Child: carInst: No silly. Cars drive on the road. Airplane.Child: AirplaneInst: That's right!The child has given the "correct" response and has been reinforced but the question is "too far removed" from the event to be part of the stimulus conditions. There's no "connection" between the question and the response and the reinforcement.First Questions**AVOID YES/NO** Some types of questions are best to avoid when teaching an "early learner". In some programs, "yes/no" questions are the first to be taught to children when in actuality, their use could inhibit language development. It has been suggested that Yes/No are sometimes taught in attempts to provide the child a way to let people know what they want. For example, the instructor might hold up a ball and ask, "Do you want the ball?" and teach the child to say "yes" if he does want the ball and "no" if he doesn't. One concern is that the instructor may not really "know" if the child wants the item or not. If the child has been playing with the ball for a while and is reaching for the ball, an EO (desire) can be inferred; however, the child may prefer something else at the moment. The instructor really can't be sure he/she is prompting the "correct" response.A bigger problem arises if the child wants an item but no one has asked him! The only "behavior" taught as a response to this desire (EO) is "yes". So, the child goes to an adult and says or shakes his head "yes". Unfortunately, the adult has no idea what the child wants. This resulting lack of reinforcement will most likely result in the child tantruming due to an extinction burst or the fact that the child reverts to a previously reinforced behavior in the same functional response class of "gaining objects/attention" (socially mediated positive reinforcement). A preferable way to teach the child to have his needs met is to teach him to request (mand) for individual items rather than teaching him to respond to "yes/no" questions.**Avoid asking questions you don't know the answer to** In general, you should avoid asking any questions about things that are not present during teaching because it may be difficult if not impossible to prompt the child. For example, if you ask the child, "What did you do at school today?" you wouldn't be able to prompt the child to answer because you don't know what the response should be! The child will eventually be taught to respond to questions about past events but not until after he has had a great deal of instruction in answering questions regarding things that are in the current environment. In addition, the answers will always be "known" by the instructor when teaching the child to respond to questions about past events.Who? (G3) After we teach the child to label (tact) objects, we can begin teaching the child to label (tact) people. This adds another question form to teach the child. The child is taught to respond to "Who's this?", "Who's that?, "Who's here?" etc. The discriminative part of these types of questions is the word "Who". The child learns that when he hears "Who?", the response should be the tact for the person. Be aware of this when teaching receptive actions in pictures. I've often heard instructors ask, "Who's climbing?" as the SD for the receptive action target. The response the instructor is expecting is that the child touches the picture of the person climbing. The correct response to this should be the person's name or a general "people tact" such as "girl" or "boy". To help avoid later discrimination errors, make sure your question (verbal SD) matches the response you want. For example, in the example above, use "touch climbing" as the verbal SD for teaching the child to touch action pictures..What...doing? (G5, G6) As we begin to teach the child to label (tact) actions, we are teaching him to respond to "What...doing?" type of questions. Again, a variety of questions that evoke the "action label" response should be taught. The child is first taught to label ongoing actions so he will learn to respond to "What are you doing?" and "What am I doing?". Once the child masters ongoing actions, pictures can be used. This is important because you can't "see" actual movement in pictures and that is what we are teaching the child to label! The child can be taught to answer these types of questions by transferring from a simple instruction or request.Transfer from simple instruction:Inst. "Clap"Child: Claps hands and says "clap"Inst: What are you doing? clapping (full prompt because of form change)Child: clappingInstructor: What are you doing?Child: ClappingTransfer from mand:Child: (wants juice and mands for action) pourInstructor: What am I doing? pouring (full prompt because of form change)Child: pouringInst: What am I doing?Child: pouringReceptive to tact transfer· Used for children who are saying the name of the action (tacting) as they are pointing to picturesInst: Touch eating.Child: touch picture of "eating" AND says "eating"Inst: What's he doing?Child: "eating"Some types of programs teach the child to label (tact) both objects and actions but do so in isolation. In other words, the child first labels a number of items then, at a separate time, labels a number of actions, both with pictures used as stimuli. When this is done, the actual question may not be serving as the stimulus for the response. Once the first question is asked, the child "knows" the type of response that is expected and really doesn't have to pay attention to the question at all!To avoid this, different types of questions should be mixed up as soon as the child is able. For example, the instructor or parent may ask, "What's this?" and after the child responds ask, "What's he doing?". Full prompts should always be used when first teaching a response and correction procedures should always be used if the child doesn't respond. The author also feels it is important to not always use the same pictures or objects to teach the child to tact objects and actions. Otherwise, the child may respond to the actual picture or object rather than the question. For example, if the child is always asked, "What's this?" when shown a picture of a dog in a book and asked, "What's the girl doing?" when shown the picture of a girl swinging, the stimulus to which he is responding may be the picture rather than the question. Instead, if he is playing with a dog and is asked both, "What's this called?" and "What's the dog doing?", he must "pay attention" to the question because the visual stimulus remains the same.At this point, the child should be able to respond correctly and discriminate between "What" questions to label (tact) things, "Who" questions to label (tact) people and, "What...doing?" questions to label (tact) actions.Teaching the child to answer personal questions (H5)- Some of the first questions that typically developing children learn to answer involve personal information such as their name and age. These can be taught either with echoic prompts or by transferring from receptive (pointing/touching) to labeling (tacting) responses.Receptive to tact transfer (If child is speaking as he points)Inst: Find Sam Child: touches picture of himself and says "Sam"Inst: What's your name? Child: SamOnce the child is able to respond correctly to the question without asking him to touch the picture first, the picture can be faded:Inst: What's your name? (picture present)Child: SamInst: (hides picture) What's your name?Child: SamTeaching the child to respond to "How old are you?"Inst: Find 3.Child: touches the "3" and says "3"Inst: How old are you?Child: 3Fade visual stimulus- transfer to intraverbalInst: How hold are you? (number 3 present)Child: 3 (tacts number)Inst: (hides 3) How old are you?Child: 3Echoic prompts:Inst: What's your name? Sam Child: SamInst: What's your name? Child: SamInst: How old are you? Three Child: threeInst: How old are you? Child: three