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 will 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 the case.

Types of yes/no questions

When I see or write a goal for working on yes/no questions, I ask, is this a yes/no question regarding a request or yes/no to information. These are 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 yummy? Can the child answer an informational question with a yes or no?

Be sure you know the type of yes/no questions you are tackling.

We should be clear about what type of yes/no questions we are considering when working on yes/no questions! We also need to discuss whether a child is ready for the concept of yes vs. no! I know what you are thinking; this is so basic, but yes/no is a concept, and some early communicators may understand that they “want” an item but not truly understand the meaning of yes vs. no.

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, “YES…  do you want a cookie”. We are prompting the correct answer. This is a form of errorless teaching.
    • If the item reinforces, 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 responds with a verbal (verbal approximation) gesture or a picture choice of yes. Some children may pick this up in a few trials, and some may need many attempts.
    • 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, I would 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 its meaning if we are not careful in our teaching.
  2. When teaching yes/no regarding information, I found this task challenging, 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 to information. So we need to teach our students the sentence form for information.
    • First, I start with ten items that I know that they know! It’s crucial that the student understands 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 teach them to overgeneralize YES?
    • So next, I take the same ten pictures and ask them a NO question. I model the statement, “is this a horse? NO, it’s not a horse; it’s 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 lets me know if the child understands yes/no for information.

I am currently working 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 yes and no. If he cannot 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 can understand this concept, so I am excited to see how he grows!