Teaching "Yes" and "No" | A Gift of Speech

Yes or No… Not so simple!

So this seems like such a simple concept… Yes or no!  How many times a day do we respond to or ask a yes/no question?  I don’t have any scientific data, so I am going to just estimate that it is a ton!  Since we use this so much, it would seem like a simple thing to teach, but I have found that this is not always a case.

Types of yes/no questions

When I see a goal for yes/no or write a goal, I ask, is this a yes/no question regarding a request or yes/no to information.  They are two very different skills.  A child may be able to emphatically say YES they want a cookie or NO they don’t want peas, but what if you ask them a yes/no question regarding information.  Is this a cookie?  Can the child answer an informational question with a yes or no?

Be clear the type of yes/no form you are working on.  

When we contemplate working on yes/no, we should be clear about what type of yes/no are we looking at!  We also need to discuss whether a child is ready for the concept of yes vs no!

So to recap, I am talking about two types of yes/no questions:

  1.  Yes/no in regards to a request or desire
  2. Yes/no regarding information

So how do we teach children to respond to yes/no?

  1.  Yes/No with a request or refusal:  When teaching yes/no in response to a question like, “do you want a cookie”, the following is a possible scenario.
    • Using a highly reinforcing item, ask a child if they would like a cookie, including YES in the model.  For example, “do you want a cookie, YES?”  or you could say it “YES…  do you want a cookie”.  We are prompting the correct answer.  This is a form of errorless teaching.
    • If the item is reinforcing, they may be saying YES because they know this is the correct response.  It may be more of a rote answer.
    • I do multiple trainings with a YES item until the child is responding with a verbal (verbal approximation) gesture, or picture choice of yes.  Some children may pick this up in a few trials, and some may need many trials.
    • Once I feel they understand the concept of yes meaning that they want and get an item, I introduce the foil.
    • I introduce NO with a “foil” or item that I know the child does not want.  I would use the same question form, “No…do you want the washcloth” or “Do you want a washcloth, NO”?  If I were to say, “do you want the washcloth?” and the child responded YES, then I give them the washcloth.  It is important to know that the child is asking for what they want!  Yes/No can become a rote response like “want”, “please”, or “thank you”.  It can lose the meaning if we are not careful in our teaching.
  2. When teaching yes/no regarding information:  This is a task that I find challenging to do, so I started using a system of prompts.  I have found this a positive technique for teaching yes/no.
    • One of the issues that I found is that our children aren’t always used to the yes/no sentence format.  They may have been taught to label or to give the function, but they might not have learned the form for a yes/no as a response for information.  So we need to teach our students the sentence form for information.
    • First, I start with 10 items that I know that they know!!!  It’s important that the student knows the item.  We aren’t teaching them that the dog is the dog, they should already know this.
    • I go through each care individually and ask “is this a dog?”  “Yes, it is a dog”.  I then prompt the sentence again, “is this a dog”.  If the child doesn’t say yes, I will prompt the child to say YES.
    • I do this activity over multiple sessions, depending on the child, until they start responding with a YES.
    • Now comes the tricky part. Do they understand yes/no or did I just teach them to overgeneralize YES?
    • So next, I take the same 10 pictures and ask them a NO question.  I model the statement, “is this a horse, NO it’s not a horse its a dog”  Is it a horse?
    • We go through this activity over multiple sessions, depending on the child.
    • Once I have gone through teaching the question form for yes/no, I start mixing it up.  This let’s me know if the child is understanding of yes/no for information.

I am currently work with a student on the autism spectrum on this activity.  I went through teaching him YES and NO.  Now we are in the process of mixing us yes and no.  If he is not able to do this task, I will go back to teaching YES to known items and NO to known items.  YES, this is a challenge, but NO I won’t give up.  I know this student has the ability to understand this concept, so I am excited to see how he grows!