Before You Teach



*Recommended Reading:

Discrete Trial Teaching
Pre-Requisite Skills to Group Instruction
"Learning to Learn" skills 


One of the most important components of quality instruction, in addition to accurate assessment, ongoing data collection, and an individualized system of reinforcement, is the understanding of how Pre-Requisite Skills impact learning and progress.

Think of any skill you are trying to teach like a ladder. For some clients, moving from rung 2 straight to rung 5 is fairly simple, and for others that is nearly impossible. What is a logical mastery progression for one client, could cause another client to derail any progress gains. Skill acquisition is an art, and requires some serious fine-tuning at times in order to ensure the client continues to progress.

What cannot be left out of this conversation is the pre-requisite skills to what you are working hard to teach. Or, what is underneath what you are teaching. Have you broken the skill down as far as you can? Are you sure?

Some examples:

Teaching playing with toys according to function --> How many toys can the client interact with for more than a few seconds?

Teaching motor imitation --> Does the client attend? If not, how will they see the action to imitate?

Teaching a listener responder instruction ("sit down") --> How many adult demands does the client currently follow/Who else in the client's life is requiring sitting behavior?

Teaching play behavior through coloring/drawing --> Does the client interact with crayons/markers ever? Do they have any idea what to do with a crayon?

Teaching a vocal manding repertoire --> How many sounds does the client currently make per hour, if any? 



When designing intervention it can be quite overwhelming to decide where to start first, what skills should be prioritized, and which deficits are impacting the client the most on a day-to-day basis. BUT, once you start to examine the underlying skill deficits that are causing many responding errors, it gets much easier to streamline/maximize therapy sessions by focusing on those pivotal areas of learning that will positively impact other areas. 

When progress on a particular program or target stalls, regresses, or is inconsistent, beyond modifying prompt levels, reinforcement, or changing the stimuli, along with the suggestions below, it's a good idea to also focus on the skill(s) underneath the skill you are teaching:


  • Examine the data closely, what kind of progress has the client made on the specific program/target over time?
  • Are all the programs demonstrating need for troubleshooting, or just one particular program?
  • Is it necessary to return to some previously mastered concepts? 
  • Is therapy happening frequently enough/is the program being taught frequently enough?
  • Is the teaching method consistent across the team?
  • Watch the client carefully during teaching trials to learn about the types of errors that are occurring (or if non-responsiveness is occurring)
  • (Super helpful tip) Observe a typically developing peer perform the specific target or skill. Compare that to how the client performs the target or skill. What's different/missing? 



Reference: (2005). A Model for Problem Solving in Discrete Trial Training for Children with Autism

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