How Children Learn vs. What Children Learn: A Lesson on Verbal Developmental Cusps and Capabilities

Many preschool programs focus on the structure of what is learned instead of the function of what is learned. Here at the Scottsdale Children’s Institute (SCI), we set ourselves apart from different programs by not only focusing on what children learn but on how children learn the things they do.

How children learn from verbal behavior development theory

Our program at SCI focuses on a verbal behavior development theory model and as such there are various verbal developmental cusps and capabilities we take into consideration when determining the best ways to teach your child. These developmental milestones allow us to ask the question of “How do children know the things they know?” instead of “What do children specifically know?” Switching our focus from what to how allows us to tackle a much broader scope of knowledge when it comes to your child’s education.

Verbal developmental cusps and cusps that are capabilities are behaviors that, when present, allow children to learn new things by contacting new contingencies, and allow them to learn in new ways that they could not before (Greer & Ross, 2008; Greer & Speckman, 209). Rosales-Ruiz and Baer (1997) defined behavioral cusps as any behavior change that brings the organism’s behavior into contact with new contingencies that have even more far-reaching consequences. Of all the environmental contingencies that change or maintain behavior, those that accomplish cusps are developmental. Greer and Ross (2008) and Greer and Speckman (2009) have defined a verbal developmental capability as a behavior that allows children to learn in ways that they could not learn before and have defined three verbal developmental capabilities as a result of their research: 1) Generalized imitation, 2) Full naming, and 3) Observational learning. The following list below highlights these three important verbal developmental cusps/capabilities that we assess for in our students. When the assessment shows us that the child is missing this skill, we then implement programs to induce the missing skill in order to change the way your child learns and picks up information in their environment.

Generalized motor imitation

Generalized motor imitation, or GMI, is an important skill that allows children to imitate not only specific movements that may have been previously directly taught, but any motor movement that is observed. When children are able to imitate motor movements in a generalized fashion, their ability to learn from their environment and “pick up skills” incidentally greatly increases. Some research suggests that a generalized motor imitation sequence, a series of rapid motor imitations that occur immediately before a vocal model, may facilitate imitative vocal speech (Baer, Peterson, & Sherman, 1967; Sloane, Johnston, & Harris, 1968; Ross & Greer, 2003) thereby increases children’s’ first instances of speech.


Naming was first defined by Horne and Lowe (1996) as a verbal developmental stage signifying the fusion of both listener and speaker capabilities within the individual child. Horne and Lowe highlighted that the presence of naming allows children to learn both listener and speaker repertoires incidentally and simultaneously. For example, if a child is walking down the street with his or her mother and the mother points to a dog and says “Such a cute dog!” and the child is then later able to identify a picture of a dog by both pointing to it when asked or labeling it when asked, regardless of never having been directly taught what a dog is, then the child has naming. The experience of simply seeing the dog and hearing it’s name simultaneously when the mother pointed to and labeled the dog, is sufficient for a child with naming to learn new object-label relationships. The child can also observe other features of the stimulus, such as how it feels or its smell (Greer & Longano, 2010). If a child does not have naming in his or her repertoire, the child must be directly taught using reinforcement and corrections procedures to identify and label new objects.

Naming has important educational implications. For example, Hranchuk, Greer, and Longano (2018) found that children who demonstrated naming were able to learn twice as fast from the use of visual models within the classroom than children who did not demonstrate the naming capability. Therefore, it is important to ensure that your child acquires naming in order to accelerate their learning trajectory. The presence of naming significantly increases a child’s ability to pick up information from their environment incidentally and decreases the amount of targets a child must be directly taught.

Observational learning

The third verbal developmental cusp/capability that is important to discuss is observational learning. Catania (1998) defined observational learning as learning following observing the behavior of another individual. Therefore, put simply, when a child has observational learning within their repertoire, they are able to acquire new skills simply by observing another child being taught that skill. Like with naming, the presence of observational learning within a child’s repertoire means that they do not have to be directly taught a skill in order to be able to perform that skill themselves. On the other hand, when a child does not have the observational learning capability within their repertoire, they require direct contingencies of reinforcement or correct to learn new skills. As such, observational learning also has important educational implications for students as it allows them to pick up new information and skills quickly through observing the peers in their environment.

Functional and efficient education

When educators are aware of the advanced methods available to accelerate your child’s learning trajectory, a much more individualized and effective curriculum and program book can be developed. When these important milestones are left to the wayside, an important chunk of your child’s learning goals run the risk of not being targeted. At SCI, we make it a priority to design the most functional and efficient programming to help your child learn new skills as quickly and easily as possible.

Kieva Hranchuk, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA