ABA offers many different strategies for helping learners develop new skills. Prompts are one of the most foundational strategies, but can be tricky to use effectively. Prompts are an added stimulus that assists in occasioning a correct response in the presence of the SD (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 1987 ). When using prompts, professionals must plan to fade prompts to build independent responding. This fading occurs along a continuum referred to as a prompt hierarchy.
Although professionals often refer to this prompt hierarchy as one sequence of prompts that can be followed in ascending or descending order of intrusiveness, in reality, there are 3 distinct hierarchies that offer prompting strategies of varying levels of intrusiveness. Prompts may be faded within or between hierarchies to promote independent responding.
Although the prompt hierarchy is often depicted as a single pyramid (as pictured in the image above), the levels of intrusiveness are somewhat more fluid than this visual implies. Let’s look at this from a slightly different perspective.
Level of Prompt Intrusiveness
Before we dive into the different hierarchies, let’s get clear about level of intrusiveness. The level of intrusiveness refers to how much assistance is provided to the learner. Physically guiding a learner is more intrusive than simply pointing to stimuli, for example.
Considering the level of intrusiveness allows you to determine the sequence of prompts used when fading prompts. Interventionists either move up or down the continuum based on predetermined criteria.
Depending on the learner, you may choose least-to-most or most-to-least prompting which dictates the direction through the continuum. Although many factors impact the decision regarding which prompting strategy to use, here’s a simplification to get you started:
Use least-to-most prompting for learners:
- With some solid foundational skills
- Who become easily prompt dependent
- Who don’t exhibit high-intensity or high rates of escape-maintained behavior
Use most-to-least prompting for learners:
- Who acquire new skills slowly
- With few prerequisite skills
- Who exhibit high-intensity or high rates of escape-maintained behavior
Most-to-least prompting is also referred to as errorless learning. Learn more about this important teaching strategy in the article: 4 Things You Need to Know About Errorless Learning. Deciding which end of the continuum to begin prompting greatly impacts the success of your skill acquisition plan so make this decision carefully.
Prompt fading is a process of gradually reducing or removing prompts as a learner masters a skill. This is done to help the learner become more independent and to prevent them from becoming dependent on prompts.
There are several different ways to fade prompts in an ABA skill acquisition program. Some of the most common methods include:
- Most-to-least fading: This is the most common method of prompt fading. It involves starting with the most intrusive prompt and then gradually fading the prompt until it is no longer necessary. For example, you might start by physically guiding the learner through the task, and then gradually fade the prompt by providing verbal prompts, gestural prompts, and finally, no prompts at all.
- Least-to-most fading: This method involves starting with the least intrusive prompt and then gradually increasing the level of prompt as needed. For example, you might start by providing a verbal prompt, and then if the learner does not respond, you might provide a gestural prompt, and then finally, a physical prompt.
- Time delay: This method involves delaying the delivery of a prompt for a set amount of time. For example, you might wait 1 second after giving a verbal prompt before providing a gestural prompt, and then wait 2 seconds before providing a physical prompt.
The best method of prompt fading for a particular learner will depend on the individual learner and the task being taught. However, the general principle is to start with the most intrusive prompt and then gradually fade the prompt as the learner becomes more independent.
Here are some tips for fading prompts in an ABA skill acquisition program:
- Be patient and consistent. It may take some time for the learner to become independent, but with time and effort, they will be able to complete the task on their own.
- Monitor the learner’s progress closely. As the learner becomes more proficient, you can start to fade the prompts more quickly.
- Be flexible. If the learner is struggling with a particular prompt, you may need to use a different method of prompt fading.
- Reward the learner for independent responding. This will help to encourage the learner to continue to try to complete the task on their own.
Prompt fading is an important part of ABA skill acquisition programs. By fading prompts gradually, you can help learners become more independent and to prevent them from becoming dependent on prompts.
The 3 Prompt Hierarchies
The 3 prompt hierarchies presented here are often pictured as part of the same continuum, but this can be misleading. The following pyramid is a common depiction of the prompt hierarchy. The challenge is applying these prompts to different types of tasks and the unique learning styles of your learner.
Here’s an example:
You are working with a 4-year-old with autism using the VB-MAPP to guide intervention. You create a skill acquisition plan using most-to-least prompting to teach an intraverbal skill.
Look at the pyramid above. Using most-to-least prompting, you would start at the bottom and fade prompts up the pyramid, but how do you use physical prompts for a verbal target? The short answer is: you don’t. Physical prompts don’t fit programming for a target requiring a verbal response.
Picturing 3 separate hierarchies that intermingle can help clarify your decision-making process. If you consider physical, verbal and visual prompts to be each distinctive continuums, then you determine which continuum best suits the current target. Take a look at the image below:
Each of these continuums include several prompt levels as pictured below.
Physical prompts involve some form of physical guidance from the interventionist. Due to their nature, these types of prompts allow for simple fading techniques such as moving the interventionist’s hand to a less-intrusive position or applying gradually less pressure during guidance.
In order of most intrusive to least intrusive, physical prompts are:
- Full: the interventionist physically moves the child’s body to complete the behavior
- Partial: the interventionist uses less pressure or support during the behavior, allowing the child and interventionist to complete the behavior jointly
- Light touch and shadow: the interventionist applies very light pressure or just follows the child’s movements without touching
Each of the levels of physical prompts can be gradually reduced creating a continuum more than a true hierarchy. The more seamless the transition between prompt levels, the more successful you are likely to be when fading prompts, especially for children who easily become prompt-dependent.
Verbal prompts occur when you provide some form of auditory cue that guides the learner to the correct response. Although verbal prompts are most commonly used to teach verbal skills, they can also be used in a variety of other situations as well. Verbal prompts are often difficult to fade and should be used with care.
In order from most intrusive to least intrusive, verbal prompts include:
- Full: the interventionist provides the complete auditory response required of the learner
- Partial: the interventionist provides a portion of the auditory response required of the learner
- Phonemic: the interventionist provides only the initial sound of the response required of the learner
Verbal prompts could be seen along a continuum similar to physical prompts; however, they are slightly more distinct than the transitions between physical prompts.
As the name implies, visual prompts provide a visual cue to the learner that indicates the correct response. Visual prompts offer the most diversity, although creating them may take some time. The level of intrusiveness for visual prompts is relatively fluid and may depend on your individual learner.
In a loose order from most intrusive to least intrusive, visual prompts include:
- Model: the interventionist performs the behavior required of the learner
- Stimulus: the stimulus itself is altered in some way to indicate the correct response
- Positional: the position of the stimuli improves the likelihood of a correct response
- Gestural: the interventionist performs some movement (i.e. pointing, eye gaze, etc.) to indicate the correct response
When choosing visual prompts, you often create a unique system to fade the prompt you choose. Rarely will interventionists fade from model to stimulus to positional to gestural. It’s more likely that an interventionist includes a visual prompt as part of a prompt fading strategy in combination with one of the other hierarchies listed above.
Why Use Prompts?
Prompts are a valuable tool in ABA skill acquisition programs. They can help learners:
- Learn new skills more effectively: Prompts can provide learners with the extra support they need to learn new skills. This can help them learn the skills more quickly and easily.
- Become more independent: Prompts can help learners become more independent by gradually fading them over time. This teaches learners how to complete tasks on their own.
- Reduce frustration: Prompts can help reduce frustration for both the learner and the teacher. When learners are struggling to complete a task, prompts can provide them with the support they need to succeed. This can help prevent frustration and promote learning.
Learn new skills more effectively
Prompts provide learners with the extra support they need to learn new skills. This can help them learn the skills more quickly and easily. For example, if a learner is struggling to tie their shoes, a prompt could be to physically guide their hands through the steps of tying the shoes. This would provide the learner with the support they need to learn the skill, and they would be more likely to be able to tie their shoes independently after the prompt is faded.
Prompting allows the learner to more consistently come into contact with reinforcement while learning new skills. The learner can initially receive reinforcement for a prompted response, motivating the learner to continue to perform the skill.
Many learners develop problematic behavior chains that can be prevented through appropriate prompt and prompt fading strategies. Here’s a real-life example:
I worked with a 9-year-old girl who loved the alphabet and doing the foam alphabet puzzle that’s available everywhere. She always built the puzzle starting with the letter A and going through to Z in sequence. Once she removed the pieces of the puzzle, she picked up the letter A, licked it, and placed it in the spot for A. She then repeated the same process with the letter B. She licked each puzzle piece before placing it in its correct spot.
In this example. licking the puzzle piece became part of the chain for assembling the puzzle. She learned that this was part of the steps for putting the puzzle together because she previously had earned reinforcement when this was included as a step. With a solid prompting/prompt fading strategy in place, these types of chains can be avoided.
Become more independent
Prompt fading allows learners to become gradually more independent while still receiving the help and support they need to complete a task correctly. The gradual reduction of prompts allows learners to master the skills they have practiced, promoting genuine understanding and retention. This process not only encourages independence in the target skill but also nurtures the confidence and self-esteem of the learner, knowing that they can accomplish tasks on their own.
For example, when teaching a learner is learning to wash their hands, prompting might begin with physical guidance, physically assisting their hands in completing the steps. As the learner becomes more proficient, prompts would be faded to a light touch on their wrist, verbal cues, then, gestures and eventually the presence of the sink is a signal to wash hands. Through this systematic fading of prompts, the learner gains the ability to wash their hands independently.
By offering a gradual and individualized approach to fading prompts, learners are empowered to take ownership of their abilities, build confidence, and achieve greater autonomy in various aspects of their lives. As behavior analysts and therapists implement the prompt hierarchy effectively, they unlock the potential for lasting growth and development in their clients, paving the way for a more independent and fulfilling future.
Frustration often accompanies the acquisition of new skills, and this emotional response can impede progress and hinder the overall effectiveness of ABA interventions. To address this issue, the prompt hierarchy in ABA is strategically designed to reduce frustration levels and facilitate smoother skill acquisition.
The prompt hierarchy serves as a valuable tool for behavior analysts and therapists as they gradually guide learners through the learning process. The hierarchy offers a structured system of prompts, ranging from more intrusive to less intrusive, to support the learner as they approach a new skill or behavior. Initially, more intrusive prompts are used to help the learner understand the desired response. These prompts may involve physical guidance or direct instruction. As the learner gains understanding and proficiency, the prompts are systematically faded, allowing for increased independence in performing the skill.
By using the prompt hierarchy, ABA professionals can tailor their approach to match the unique needs and abilities of each learner. This personalized approach is crucial in reducing frustration levels, as it prevents overwhelming the learner with excessively challenging tasks or leaving them to struggle with tasks they are not yet equipped to handle independently. The gradual progression through the prompt hierarchy ensures that learners experience success at each step, fostering a sense of accomplishment and bolstering their confidence in the learning process.
Learn more about how the right prompting strategy can reduce frustration in our post: Errorless Learning: Complete Guide.
Put It into Practice
While the traditional prompt hierarchy provides a general overview of some of the prompting strategies available in ABA, it fails to depict the fluidity that actually exists. When creating programs, consider specifying the prompt fading strategy that best fits your learner. If using a general guide such as most-to-least or least-to-most, specify which prompting strategies to include in this hierarchy as many interventionists misinterpret this to mean moving along the traditional pyramid of prompting strategies.
Download our infographic as a reminder of these key points.
Ethical Considerations When Using Prompting Strategies
The table below presents some important ethical considerations when using prompting strategies with your learners. The table includes specific action steps to help you ensure you practice in an ethical way.
|Concern||Description||Action Steps to Ensure Ethical Practice|
|Client Consent||Obtaining informed consent from clients or their legal guardians is essential to ensure they are fully aware of and agree to participate in ABA interventions involving prompts and prompt fading.||Clearly explain the purpose, benefits, and potential risks of using prompts. Use understandable language and provide an opportunity for questions. Document consent in writing.|
|Individualized Treatment||Each client’s treatment should be tailored to their unique needs and characteristics. Prompting strategies should be individualized to ensure they are effective and respectful of the client’s abilities.||Conduct comprehensive assessments to identify individual strengths and areas of need. Develop treatment plans that consider the client’s preferences, culture, and communication style. Monitor progress and make adjustments accordingly.|
|Privacy and Confidentiality||Protecting client privacy and confidentiality is crucial. Using prompts and prompt fading may involve observing and providing support in various settings, so it’s important to ensure privacy and confidentiality are maintained.||Obtain written consent for any video or audio recording. Establish secure protocols for storing and accessing client data. Use de-identified case examples when discussing client progress or sharing information with other professionals for consultation or supervision.|
|Cultural Sensitivity||Consider cultural factors when implementing prompts and prompt fading. Ensure that prompts and their fading techniques are sensitive to the cultural background and beliefs of the client and their family.||Educate yourself and the treatment team about the client’s cultural background. Seek input and feedback from the client and their family regarding culturally appropriate prompt strategies. Adjust prompts and prompt fading techniques accordingly.|
|Least Restrictive Environment||Strive to provide interventions in the least restrictive environment possible. Prompting and prompt fading should aim to promote independence and functional skills, while minimizing unnecessary dependence on prompts.||Conduct functional assessments to determine the client’s current level of independence and identify environmental supports. Develop strategies to gradually reduce and fade prompts, promoting independent functioning. Consider natural environment training whenever feasible.|
|Generalization and Maintenance||Ensure that prompted skills are generalized to various settings and maintained over time. Overreliance on prompts without a plan for fading may hinder generalization and maintenance of skills.||Develop strategies to systematically fade prompts across different environments and with different learners. Teach natural cues and reinforce independent responding. Include maintenance goals in treatment plans and regularly assess skill retention.|
|Respect for Autonomy||Respect the client’s autonomy and preferences throughout the prompt fading process. Collaboration and shared decision-making should be emphasized.||Involve the client and their family in the goal-setting process. Solicit feedback and preferences regarding the use of prompts and prompt fading. Adjust the fading plan based on the client’s comfort level and rate of progress.|
|Potential Harm||Prompting and prompt fading techniques should not cause harm or undue distress to the client. Careful consideration of the client’s emotional well-being and potential negative side effects is essential.||Continuously monitor the client’s emotional and behavioral reactions during prompt fading. Modify or discontinue prompt fading if it leads to significant distress, frustration, or adverse effects. Provide|
Research Related to Prompting, Prompt Fading, and the Prompt Hierarchy
|Article Title||Summary||Action Steps|
|A Review of Prompt-Fading Procedures: Implications for Effective and Efficient Skill Acquisition||This article reviews prompt-fading procedures and their implications for skill acquisition. It discusses various types of prompts, fading strategies, and factors influencing prompt effectiveness.||Familiarize yourself with different prompt-fading procedures. Consider the specific needs and abilities of the learners you work with when designing prompt fading programs. Use evidence-based strategies and monitor progress closely to ensure effective and efficient skill acquisition.|
|Using least-to-most assistive prompt hierarchy to increase child compliance with teacher directives in preschool classrooms||This study examines the use of a least-to-most prompt hierarchy to improve compliance with teacher directives in preschool classrooms. The results suggest that this prompting approach can effectively increase child compliance.||Consider implementing a least-to-most prompt hierarchy when working with young children in educational settings. Gradually increase prompts to guide compliance while allowing opportunities for independent responding. Monitor progress and adjust the prompt hierarchy based on individual needs and progress.|
|A comparison of most-to-least and least-to-most prompting on the acquisition of solitary play skills||This study compares most-to-least and least-to-most prompting strategies for teaching solitary play skills. The findings suggest that both prompting strategies are effective, but the most-to-least approach may lead to faster skill acquisition.||Consider the specific skill you are targeting and the learner’s learning needs when selecting between most-to-least and least-to-most prompting strategies. Monitor progress and make adjustments as necessary based on the individual’s response to each prompting approach.|
|Prompts and prompt-fading strategies for people with autism||This article provides an overview of prompt and prompt-fading strategies specifically for autistic individuals. It discusses the importance of individualization, error correction, and fading techniques in promoting independence.||When working with autistic learners, carefully select prompts that match their learning needs. Use error correction procedures to guide them towards correct responses. Systematically fade prompts to promote independent functioning. Continuously assess progress and adjust prompting strategies accordingly.|
|A comparison of time delay and decreasing prompt hierarchy strategies in teaching banking skills to students with moderate handicaps||This study compares time delay and decreasing prompt hierarchy strategies for teaching banking skills to students with moderate handicaps. The results indicate that both strategies are effective in promoting skill acquisition, but the decreasing prompt hierarchy may lead to faster skill transfer across settings.||Consider the specific skill you are targeting and the learner’s learning needs when selecting between time delay and decreasing prompt hierarchy strategies. Implement generalization and maintenance procedures to ensure skill transfer across settings.|
|Comparison of prompting hierarchies on the acquisition of leisure and vocational skills||This study compares different prompting hierarchies for teaching leisure and vocational skills. The findings suggest that varying prompt hierarchies can be effective depending on the complexity of the skill and the individual’s learning needs.||Consider the complexity of the leisure or vocational skill when selecting a prompt hierarchy. Tailor the prompt hierarchy to match the learner’s abilities and systematically fade prompts as they acquire the skill. Monitor progress and adjust the prompt hierarchy as needed.|
|A Comparison of Most-to-Least and Least-to-Most Prompting on the Acquisition of Solitary Play Skills||This study compares most-to-least and least-to-most prompting strategies for teaching solitary play skills. The findings suggest that both prompting approaches can be effective, but the least-to-most approach may result in higher levels of independent play.||Consider the learner’s play skills and abilities when selecting a prompting strategy. Use most-to-least prompting for learners who require more guidance, and least-to-most prompting for those who exhibit some independent play skills. Gradually fade prompts to promote independent play.|
|Steps for Implementation: Least-to-Most Prompts||This resource provides a step-by-step guide for implementing least-to-most prompts in the context of autism spectrum disorders. It covers the initial steps, error correction, and prompt fading procedures.||Follow the step-by-step guide provided in the resource when implementing least-to-most prompts. Use error correction procedures to guide the learner towards the correct response. Systematically fade prompts to promote independence. Continuously monitor progress and adjust the prompt hierarchy as needed.|
|Discrimination training for persons with developmental disabilities: A comparison of the task demonstration model and the standard prompting hierarchy||This study compares the effectiveness of the task demonstration model and the standard prompting hierarchy in discrimination training for learners with developmental disabilities. The findings suggest that both methods can be effective, but the task demonstration model may lead to faster acquisition of discrimination skills.||Consider the discrimination task and the learner’s learning needs when selecting between the task demonstration model and the standard prompting hierarchy. Use error correction procedures and reinforcement to promote accurate discrimination. Monitor progress and adjust the training approach as necessary.|
|Task Difficulty and Aberrant Behavior in Severely Handicapped Students||This study investigates the relationship between task difficulty and aberrant behavior in severely handicapped students. The results suggest that an appropriate level of task difficulty can reduce aberrant behavior and increase task completion.||Consider the learner’s skill level and abilities when assigning tasks. Ensure that the tasks are challenging but within the learner’s reach. Monitor the occurrence of aberrant behavior and adjust the task difficulty if necessary. Provide appropriate supports and reinforcement to facilitate task completion.|
Please note that the action steps provided are general recommendations and may need to be modified based on the specific needs and context of each learner or situation.
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