Prompting 101

I had a supervision session yesterday with a new hire, that made me think of a topic for a blog post: Prompting!

Prompting in ABA is a method or tool used to move the learner from incorrect responding to correct responding. When done correctly, prompting increases the rate of responding, lowers frustration, and helps the individual learn more efficiently.
If I know you don't know how to bake a pie, I wouldn't say to you: "Make me a cherry pie" and then just stand back and watch you struggle. Practicing errors impedes learning. I would step in to provide you with prompting and guidance as much as you needed, in order to help you be successful.

There are many ways you can prompt:

(Some prompts will be much more intrusive than other prompts. This is not an exhaustive list of ALL possible prompts. it is simply a way to understand types of prompting)

  • Physical - Hand over Hand (HOH), leading a child by the hand, or physically moving a child
  •  Verbal - Can be partial verbal or full verbal
  •  Model - Demonstrating for the child what you want them to do
  •  Gestural - Gesturing, pointing, making a non verbal motion to show the child what to do (*note: don’t combine with words, that’s actually 2 prompts) 
  •  Visual - Larger stimuli, brightly colored stimuli
  •  Spatial (proximity) - Putting the correct choice nearer to the child than the incorrect choice
  •  Sequential (order in which things are presented) - Working on easy tasks first and building up to difficult tasks
  •  Textual (written) - Writing out the steps of the task
  •  Tactile - Using the actual stimuli as a prompt/reminder, such as placing a briefcase by the front door so you don’t forget it the next day

To increase prompting to improve learning, move UP the prompting hierarchy (from least to most intrusive).  To fade out prompts and prevent prompt dependency move DOWN the prompting hierarchy (from most to least). Generally, the most to least prompting hierarchy would be: Full physical, partial physical, full vocal, partial vocal, modeling, gestural. *This is a general guideline, and is leaving out many other types or prompts

During a therapy session you will use many different types of prompts at different times, usually when teaching a brand  new skill. The client shouldn't need much prompting for a known skill. If they do you may want to examine your teaching procedure and also make sure the client has the prerequisite skills needed for the current target.

The therapist I supervised yesterday was making a common error that can happen with new therapists and also with parents. She was over -prompting and then reinforcing those prompted responses.
I brought this to the therapists attention who was completely unaware of her error. She asked me, "How do I know if something I am doing is a prompt?"  There is an easy way to determine this. Ask yourself, "If I remove this step, would the client still be able to do the task?" If the answer is no then you are over -prompting and need to remember to fade prompts as rapidly as possible.

Something I used to do as a new therapist was arrange learning materials with the correct item closest to the client. There was no particular reason I did this other than a bad habit that went on for too long. During a training session with my supervisor, this was pointed out to me and then we did a few practice trials where the materials were arranged in a different way each time. My supervisor was able to demonstrate to me that the position of learning materials can absolutely serve as an inadvertent prompt, if I'm not careful. Lesson learned for me!

Sometimes you have to purposely change the way you do something to see if you are using a prompt.

If you remove a glance, a touch, a word, a facial expression, or a gesture, and the client "suddenly" can't perform the task anymore then you were likely over- prompting the task all along.


  1. Where are some of the sources you lifted your prompt stuff from? I know about the cooper book. Are their other sources that you like to pull form on this topic?

    1. Absolutely, beyond the Cooper book (which I love) I also frequently pull from A Work In Progress and Behavioral Interventions for Young Children with Autism. All 3 are just overflowing with so much amazing information.


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