The baby’s first form of communication is crying.  New parents quickly learn which type of cry means, “I’m hungry,” “I’m tired,” or “I need a diaper.”  If the caregiver delivers the item and the baby does not stop crying, he will try something different.

As children develop, they will communicate their desires in new ways.  Some children may start to point at what they want.  Others need specific teaching around asking for what they want.  Imagine a two-year-old who lays on the kitchen floor crying hysterically.  His father may ask him, “what’s wrong? what do you need?” and start offering him different food and drink options so that he will stop crying.  When the child is given cereal, his crying behavior has been reinforced by access to cereal.  In the future, the child is more likely to lay on the floor crying when he wants cereal.

What is the alternative?

Give your child specific ways to communicate what he wants through spoken word or sign language.  Children often develop fine motor skills prior to oral motor, so sign language may be less challenging for young children.  Rather than teaching “more,” “please,” and “eat,” identify the specific items that your child likes.  If he likes to drink milk, simply teach the word “milk.” My son’s first sign was “cheese.”  In B.F. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior, the use of language in order to request a particular item is called a mand. More on verbal behavior in future posts.

First, determine what your child wants.  It is easiest to embed opportunities to request in naturally occurring routines like bathtime or mealtime.  Perhaps your child likes to play with boats during the bath. Maybe she eats crackers for snack every day.  If you’re not sure whether or not the child wants something, place the item within sight but out of reach.  If the child reaches for it, take that as a clue that he might want it.

If you’re pretty sure your child wants something, avoid asking “what do you want?”  If children learn that they have to be asked what they want, they are less likely to spontaneously request items, even if the item is in sight and they have asked for that item in the past.  Instead, say the name of the item, or sign and say the name of the item.  You are modeling what you want the child to do and hopefully he will imitate you.

If this is the first time working on manding with the child, she might not know what to do.  Sign the name of the item that she wants, then help the child make the same shape with her hand.  Repeat the name of the item and immediately give the child the item.

Here is what it might look like:

Bobby is finished washing his hair in the bath.  Typically, this is when he reaches into the basket for his boats, but today, the boats are missing.  He looks up at his dad Matt, who has a boat in his hand.

Matt is pretty sure that Bobby wants the boat.  He says, “boat!”  Bobby looks at him, then starts to reach for the boat.  

Matt keeps the boat out of reach and again says, “boat!” this time adding the sign language.  He helps Bobby make the sign for boat and says “boat” while Bobby makes the sign.

Matt immediately hands Bobby the boat and again says the word “boat!” then begins playing with Bobby, using natural language, including the word boat frequently.


Matt took a routine activity and turned it into an opportunity for communication.  Provide manding opportunities throughout the day and teach your child the words to use to get what he wants.  Often, problem behavior develops when children do not have the words (vocal or signed) to communicate.  When your child wants something, say or sign the name of it, and help her do the same, so that she learns to communicate through language instead of problem behavior.

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