Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Communication Repair and Response Classes

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Communication Repair and Response Classes

Article excerpt

A communicative repair has been defined as the ability to persist in communication and to modify, repeat, or revise a signal when the initial communication attempt failed. From an operant perspective, initial communicative acts and communicative repairs can be considered members of a response class in which each response produces the same outcome. The purpose of this paper is to integrate concepts in the child language literature with those in behavior analysis by examining communicative repair in the context of response classes. Communication breakdowns and repair are described and the concept of response class as it relates to communication repair is explained. To illustrate the relationship between communication repair and response classes, data from a larger study that examined communicative repair are presented.

Keywords: communication breakdowns and repair; response class; child language.

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One of the challenges of young children with communication disabilities is learning to communicate in effective ways. Their communication can mirror that of very young children before they acquire speech and language (e.g., reach for food or vocalize to gain attention). Listeners often misunderstand these alternative means and, therefore, providing children with strategies to repair misunderstandings is critical, if they are to effectively influence the behavior of others. In the child language literature a communicative repair is defined as the ability to persist in communication and to modify, repeat, or revise a signal when the initial communication attempt failed (Wetherby & Prizant, 1993).

Consider the following scenario:

   John, a 3-year-old boy with autism, was sitting at the table
   eating. Suddenly, he put his spoon down and reached with his hands
   across the table. "What?" his mother asked. John reached again
   toward a cup on the table that was out of his reach. His mother
   looked at him and asked "Do you want the water?" John pushed his
   mother's hand toward the cup and vocalized. His mother gave him the
   cup and he smiled and drank the water.

This short episode started with an initial communication act. It is suggested that John was communicating intentionally by reaching across the table to request the water. John's mother was unsure of John's request, thus a communication breakdown ensued. John then tried to repair his request by repeating his signal. His mother asked again, this time more specifically, for clarification, "Do you want the water?" (i.e., a second communication breakdown) and John persisted by pushing his mother's hand toward the cup and vocalizing (i.e., a second communication repair). At the end of the episode John received the cup of water and appeared happy and satisfied. John used different signals (e.g., reaching, vocalizing, pushing his mother's hand) to request the water (i.e., the reinforcer). A behavior analyst would refer to John's requests as mands. If each of these behaviors had been reinforced in the past by accessing desired objects, together they would constitute a response class and could be considered functionally equivalent because each member produced a common outcome or effect on the environment (i.e., access to a desired object).

The purpose of this paper is to integrate concepts in the child language literature with those in behavior analysis by describing communication repair in the context of response classes. A response class is a group of topographically different behaviors that produce the same effect on the environment (i.e., have the same consequence) (Carr, 1988). From an operant perspective, initial communicative acts and communicative repairs can be considered as members of a response class in which each response produces the same outcome. Learning to repair communication breakdowns is important because of the limited and unconventional repertoires children with communication disabilities possess and the frequency with which misunderstandings or breakdowns occur (Keen, 2003; Wetherby, Alexander, & Prizant, 1998). …

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