Answering the Question "Why?"

Moving Beyond Rote Responding: Considerations  


There is a profound difference between "teaching why questions" and answering the question "why". To teach "why" questions, to teach 'why' intraverbals,  is to teach children to emit rote, preselected/’scorable’ responses to Sds selected from arbitrary lists often found in popular 'curricula'. To teach "intraverbals" to 'teach and hope' that some magical 'generalization' will occur.

On the other hand...

To be able to answer the question "why" to be able to reason...and then to state your reason.


To be able to reason is "to deduce consequences from assumptions, infer explanations from data, derive conclusions from evidence. To come to a conclusion on the basis of reasons presupposes the ability to weigh different considerations for and against doing something. That in turn requires the ability to judge that 'this' cause of action is better than 'that' one, because... In order to be able to act or think that something is so for a reason, one must be able to deliberate, to make reasoned choices in thought and action and hence to give justifications and explanations. In short, one must be able to answer the question "why". (PMS Hacker, 2013)

...And once one has reasoned, one may state their reason/s for why they did or didn't do something, say or didn't say something, felt some way or other, believed, desired, needed or hoped for something etc..


Quantification and reasons


With all that said, which is to say quite a bit, we need to ask, "Can there be right or wrong reasons. Is there a right reason for questions like, "Why are you going upstairs?, "Why are you so sad?", "Why didn't you tell Mommy?" or just "WHY?" . The answer is unequivocally, "No!”, there are no right or wrong reasons...although there are appropriate and inappropriate moves in the "why" language game. So how do you score and track progress if there is not an absolutely right or wrong response  'controlled' by an antecedent stimulus?  Should we dare consider what it actually takes to get children to begin to answer the question "why"... even if it is difficult to reconcile with our drive for quantification and related insistence on stimulus control? The answer is an unequivocal “Yes!, we should if we are to move children beyond simply "emitting" rote verbal responses evoked by antecedent 'controlling stimuli'.

Drilling down a bit/ A look at explanatory systems related to 'why questions'.

Let's consider a simple 'why' question. "Why did you go upstairs?". The answer to this question is indeterminate. Someone might say they went upstairs in order to go to bed, to see Mommy, to get a glass of water, because they forgot something, because they were told to, to be alone, to go to the bathroom, to watch TV., etc.

If we accept a behavioral framework, "response generalization" is the common 'go to' explanation for how language users come to have the vast collection of 'responses' to a question like, "Why did you go upstairs?".

But this explanation is problematic. There is little agreement about what the phenomenon of "response generalization" is. Some argue that in order to say that there is response generalization, generalized responses need to be similar to each other (Skinner, 1953, Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, and Wallace, 2011). However, we see in the examples above that there is no similarity between the responses.. Others argue that no similarity is required but rather that the responses share function or are of the same operant class (Carr, 1988). But functional (communication) equivalences have no bearing here... and to say that these are in the same response class i.e., "intraverbals" tells us nothing.

More recent efforts to explain varieties of responses to the same stimulus come from relational frame theory. But applications of relational frame theory concern equivalences. Yet, there there is nothing equivalent in the different responses presented above. So scratch that explanation too.  The lack of agreement on a definition of the phenomenon alone disallows efforts at 'scientific' verification or scrutiny. But this doesn't prevent some very smart people from advancing this notion.


Response generalization is a rather anemic and often confused explanation for how we come to offer a variety of responses to the same question. Should we dare consider a conceptual approach, other than a behavioral scheme, to explain how these kinds of responses are possible to the same question? One which better delineates what is involved and what it would take to teach someone to answer the question "why"? Of course. But the explanation is not theoretical. Accounting for this phenomenon is simply a reflection of our intellectual powers that are bound up with acquired linguistic abilities. Hacker doesn't offer an explanation, but rather a description of what is involved when giving reasons. This gives us a good place to begin as we consider how we might begin to teach children to "answer the question why"... to consider how to engineer toward this end.

What does it take to begin to learn to give reasons


To get the ball rolling, many things need to be place first. It can’t be emphasized enough…just teaching children to answer rotely from lists of 'why' teach "intraverbals" in this 'teach and hope' that some magical 'generalization' will occur... is just misguided. 


Rather, as we begin to consider getting children ready to answer the questions 'why', there is much  preparation that needs to take place. Children need to learn to do things; to make things, go places, give and get things, look for things etc. before introducing the concept “why”. And once children are doing things, they should be able to report on what they are doing, where they are going or using and asking for things they are using as they need them.


One starting point we consider before introducing “why” is to leverage “functions”. In "Early Intervention for Children with ASD: Considerations", we teach children language surrounding tool use...answering questions about the functions of things, in the moment, as children learn to actually use tools. For example, as a child is gluing sticks onto paper while they make a car, we ask "What are you using to attach the sticks to the paper?", to which they learn to answer according to the thing they are using (glue, tape, velcro etc). Children need to learn to use all kinds of tools… the hang things up, to carry things, to stick things together etc. and to learn the corresponding concepts related to these kinds of events/ activities. Only then can we consider an attempt to teach children to answer the question “why”.

Piggybacking off of Interrupted Chains


Piggybacking off of interrupted chains, (i.e., sabotaging a child’s effort toward some goal) is a useful strategy to introduce the concept “why”. For example, once a child can make things, e.g., make a house using sticks and glue or some other tool in order to attach the sticks to the paper, remove the glue. By now the child has learned to ask for things she needs, can tell you what they need to attach the sticks to the paper so that now, when the child asks for the glue, we ask “Why do you need it?”… to which our prompts will sound like “I need to attach the sticks”. Simple. And it is. What is not simple is engineering all of the many things which need to be in place before we can hope to help children begin offer reasons. That is the hard part.