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Prompt Hierarchy Education

There are many prompting strategies in the world today, but the approach you will hear about most often in ABA therapy is the use of prompting hierarchies: most-to-least and least-to-most.

A most-to-least prompting strategy is used when the student is learning a new skill for the very first time and has shown no signs of success in the past. The first attempt is prompted with the most intrusive prompt appropriate to help the student catch on to the new skill quickly. The first attempt is then followed by a second attempt, using a less intrusive prompt. The second successful, less prompted attempt is then reinforced.

A least-to-most prompting strategy is used when the learner has shown signs of success with the skill in the past. In this case, the first attempt is prompted with the least intrusive prompt possible and reinforcement is provided.

For example, say we want the child to initiate clapping his or her hands. Starting with the least intrusive prompt, this is what teaching a child to do so, while using the Prompt Hierarchy, would look like:

  • Gesture: A gesture is simply a signal that prompts a response. This can be a motioning with our hands or an exaggerated look at the student’s hands. This could also look like pointing to the child’s hand to signal we want him or her to clap or even giving the sign for “clap hands” if the child’s way to communicate is through basic sign language.

  • Partial Physical Prompt: A partial physical prompt is usually done by starting to physically prompt the child to complete the task and suddenly backing off to allow them to complete the task before we have completely provided full assistance. With clapping, this could look like taking the child’s wrist and placing them together and then letting go to see if they will continue the motions of clapping.

  • Physical Prompt: In short, physical prompting is hand over hand assistance. While teaching the child to clap while using a physical prompt, straighten out the child’s fingers and hold on to their wrists while assisting them to clap. Do this for the child for three claps and start the prompt hierarchy over again, this time ending at a partial physical prompt. If a full Physical Prompt is still required, keep practicing using the prompt hierarchy and make sure you provide positive praise to encourage least intrusive prompting. You can do this by giving more excited cheers and affection with each step towards independence.

  • Verbal Prompting: This prompt level is self-explanatory. Verbal prompting is just that … verbally giving the child the instructions of what to do. With clapping, this would look like saying “Clap your Hands” or “Clap”. We want to avoid verbal prompting as much as possible if we want to encourage independence. The less effort we exert, the more the child is doing for themselves. If we are constantly providing verbal prompting, the child will always look for directions and instructions on what to do from you. If your child’s level of functioning demands that you start with verbal prompting, just make sure that you continue to attempt to fade the prompt by practicing the prompt hierarchy starting with the least intrusive prompt level.

Going from prompt level to prompt level is referred to as “prompt fading.” The main goal is for the learner to eventually not need any prompts and become independent with the skill at hand. As the learner becomes successful at a particular prompt level, the prompt is then faded to a less intrusive prompt. This ensures that the learner does not become overly dependent on a particular prompt when learning a new skill. You will want to move as quickly as possible through the prompt levels, but not too quickly! Moving too fast could cause the student to learn the skill incorrectly. You should allow the student to be successful with a prompt three to five times in a row before moving on to the next prompt level.

Remember to provide a stronger means of reinforcement for each success with least intrusive prompting. This will encourage independence and give the learner a higher success rate. Typically, this means starting off with simple verbal praise at the most intrusive prompt level, and scaling our praise up a notch with each level of prompt mastery. Once you go from Verbal Prompting or Physical Prompting, you will most likely want to move into physical reinforcement, such as high fives or hugs. Leave the best reinforcement for independence to show the learner great things come to those who reach success with their newly taught skills!

All of this may sound like things only an ABA Therapist should know about; however, I strongly believe in Parent Trainings and Parent Education on what we do every day. Once you know our tricks and strategies, you may see more generalization with your child. This means they have the ability to perform tasks in a variety of settings. This also contributes to a more independent child and that’s exactly what we all want for each of our clients and their families!

Michelle O’Neill, AHSS Lead Skills Coach, and mother of a child with Autism, plus two!

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