Prompt Hierarchy: A New Perspective

ABA offers many different strategies for helping children learn 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. Prompts from one hierarchy may naturally be included during prompt fading when using one of the other hierarchies.

Although the prompt hierarchy is often depicted as a pyramid, 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.

Continuum of Prompt Intrusiveness

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.

Fading Prompts

The concept of the prompt hierarchy provides a method of fading prompts along the continuum, either from most-to-least or least-to-most. Whenever you use prompts, you must have a plan to fade those prompts to ensure independent responding.

You can also think about intrusiveness in terms of ease of transitioning to independence through prompt fading. Different learners may respond differently to different types of prompts. Generally professionals consider verbal prompts to be less intrusive than physical prompts, yet many learners become highly prompt-dependent when verbal prompts are used. Understanding this helps you structure your prompt hierarchy so that you consider verbal prompts more intrusive than other 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.

prompt hierarchy

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:

physical verbal visual

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?

There are many ways to teach children, but prompting is especially effective when working with children with autism. This method:

  • Teaches the best way to reach a goal
  • Reduces frustration
  • Provides support with difficult tasks

Teaches the Best Way to Reach a Goal

When we learn a process on our own, we often stick with our solution unless we are shown a better way. For example, let’s say you discover that you can get to the on-demand version of your favorite TV show by:

  • Clicking on the menu button
  • Scrolling through the list to the “on-demand” option
  • Selecting the correct channel
  • Scrolling through the list of shows
  • Finding the current episode of the show

It works, and so you might be satisfied with this solution. It’s not wrong. However, you might never learn that you can also get to the same place by setting up the show as a “favorite” and then clicking the favorite button on the remote control.

Prompting children with autism allows the child to learn the best way to reach their goal without first figuring out a different way on their own. This is especially important when teaching children basic skills such as hand washing, dressing, etc. that they will do frequently.

Reduces Frustration

Children with autism think differently from other people. Changing prompts and increasing the level of prompting works by adapting to what your learner can understand. The prompt hierarchy includes a variety of different cues and levels of assistance that meet a variety of needs.

When we travel to a country where we don’t speak the language, we are often tempted to speak louder when someone doesn’t understand what we’re saying. This is because we don’t know how else to get them to understand what we’re trying to say. However, repeatedly using words that the person doesn’t understand, without trying a different way to communicate can be frustrating.

The prompt hierarchy helps you think of other ways you might teach your learner what you’re trying to get them to do. It offers alternatives that will help your learner better understand what you are teaching her. A hierarchy for communicating while traveling might be:

  • Say the words in English.
  • Look up the phrase and attempt to say it in the other language.
  • Point to what you are asking about.
  • Ask someone to translate.

With this arsenal of ideas, you can see how this would help you communicate better.

Provides Support with Difficult Tasks

Often when children with autism struggle with a task, it’s because they don’t understand what they need to do, or they lack the physical dexterity to complete the task. The prompt hierarchy helps support your learner as they learn complex tasks that they’re not ready to do on their own. As they become able to perform the task better, the level of prompting can be reduced.

Put It into Practice

For more on using the prompt hierarchy as part of an Errorless Learning strategy, read our post Errorless Learning: Complete Guide.

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. Avoid using a general guide such as most-to-least or least-to-most 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.


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis . Columbus: Merrill Pub.