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Skill Building

Prompting - What You Need to Know in Order to Effectively Teach New Skills

Oct 21, 2020
Jess Baldwin and Sasha Yazdgerdi
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What is prompting

In ABA, we talk a lot about prompting. According to Miltenberger, R. G. (2008), “...prompts are used to increase the likelihood that a person will engage in the correct behavior at the correct time”. To take it a step further, “They [prompts] help behavior occur so that the teacher can provide reinforcement.” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 1987). 

We all depend on prompts. A calendar can provide a prompt that a meeting is coming; the alarm clock prompts that it is time to wake up; when you enter a store, a salesperson will prompt you about buying something. Prompts occur all the time without us realizing it. 

In a teaching perspective, prompting is used when a child is struggling to learn independently. You implement a prompt to support teaching, then can fade the prompt as the child becomes more comfortable with the task.

When behaviors are reinforced, they are more likely to occur in the future. So in other words, prompting is an ABA tool that helps people learn new things. Prompts can also be thought of as “hints” “reminders”, or help to complete a task. 

On this Parent Support University video, Adam Dreyfus, AnswersNow Co-founder and Chief Science Officer, talks about Prompting and how to use it without creating prompt dependence:

Types of prompts

There are many types of prompts that are used in ABA. Depending on the skill you are trying to teach, some work better than others. The following are common prompts.

Physical: Using hand over hand guidance to teach a child to pick up puzzle pieces and put them in the correct place on the puzzle

Verbal: Saying, “Remember to raise your hand” to teach a child how to get the teacher’s attention. 

Model: Demonstrating how to put your seatbelt on in order to teach a child to do the same. 

Gesture: Pointing to the teacher in order to teach the child to pay attention during lessons. 

Text: Having a note taped to a child’s desk that says, “Put papers in your folder” in order to teach the child what to do after she finishes her work. 

When to use prompting

Prompting is a critical part of the teaching process, particularly when introducing new and challenging skills. If no assistance is given, the learner would likely respond incorrectly over and over and eventually get very frustrated. Practicing these errors impedes learning. 

For example, if you were given an address in an unfamiliar area and told to drive there, you would probably try a number of different routes without success and therefore never learn how to get to your destination.  

Prompt fading

It’s best practice to “fade” prompts (i.e. decrease the level of assistance) as soon as the learner can perform the skill on their own. If prompts are not faded at the appropriate time, the learner could start to use them as a “crutch” and have difficulty with independence. This is called prompt dependency.

For example, if you tell your child to brush his teeth every night he will start to rely on that prompt. If you are away for the night,  it’s unlikely that your child will brush his teeth because he is so used to that reminder. 

Another component of prompt fading is called “differential reinforcement.” This term refers to providing a lot of reinforcement for certain responses and not as much for others in an effort to shape behavior and increase independence. 

For example, let’s say you are teaching your child to put her coat on by herself. To start, you help her put her arms in the right sleeves, find the zipper, and zip the coat. Because she completed the task, you say, “Great job putting on your coat.”. 

The next time, she puts her arms in the right sleeves by herself and you help her find the zipper and zip the coat. You provide even more reinforcement because she’s starting to demonstrate independence. You say, “That’s so awesome! You put on your coat by yourself! I love it!” and give her a big hug. 

This momentum continues. After some time, you tell your child to put on her coat, and she does it all by herself. You immediately pick her up and hug her, say how great it is that she put on her coat without any of your help, and you give her a lollipop because she did such a great job. 

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Cooper, John O, Timothy E. Heron, and William L. Heward. Applied Behavior Analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co, 1987. Print.

Cooper, John O., Heron, Timothy E.Heward, William L. Applied Behavior Analysis. Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall, 2007. Print.

Miltenberger, Raymond G. Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.

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