What is Prompting, and How is it Used in ABA Therapy?

In applied behavior analysis (ABA) or any other form of behavioral therapy, the term ‘prompting’ refers to providing assistance or cues to encourage the use of a specific skill.

Prompting encourages the client to perform a task until they learn how and when to do it, but naturally, the ultimate goal is for them to eventually perform the skill independently in the appropriate situations without needing to be prompted.

What is a Prompt?

A prompt can be anything the ABA practitioner finds effective and that the client responds to. Prompts are always antecedents, which means they are given before the behavior starts. In other words, if the client is already completing the skill or task, a prompt is not needed – though positive reinforcement might be appropriate to encourage the behavior in the future.

Types of prompts include:

  • Verbal Prompt: A verbal prompt involves providing the client with a verbal cue. An example of this would be giving the client the beginning sound of the word to be learned.
  • Gestural Prompt: Any type of gesture, such as nodding the head or pointing to an object, is considered a gestural prompt.
  • Modeling Prompt: This type of prompt involves the teacher demonstrating the prompt first and then asking the client to repeat the task or skill.
  • Full Physical Prompt: This type of prompt, also known as hand-over-hand assistance, involves physically guiding the client’s hands to complete the skill.
  • Partial Physical Prompt: This type of prompt still provides guided assistance, but only when necessary.
  • Visual Prompt: A visual prompt involves the use of a picture, photograph, video, or other type of visual cue.
  • Positional Prompt: A positional prompt is the act of placing the correct response near the client.
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How and When Are Prompts Used in Applied Behavior Analysis?

When ABA practitioners use prompts, the goal is to always use the least intrusive prompt possible that produces results. The frequency and types of prompts the ABA practitioner uses will depend on a number of factors, including  the environment, and will always involve considering what prompts work best for an individual client. In some instances, the teacher will only use the prompt if the client gives the wrong response; in other instances, the prompt may be given if the client fails to provide the right answer in a specific amount of time.

To use prompts, the ABA practitioner first identifies the target behavior and then identifies suitable prompts. The general order of prompting and fading is: Prompting—reinforcing—fading.

The following are prompts that may be used by an ABA practitioner teaching a client how to use a spoon to eat:

  • Verbal Prompt: May include the command: “Please pick up your spoon,” or a question, “How will you eat your cereal?”
  • Gestural Prompt: The ABA practitioner points to the spoon or makes a gesture that resembles picking up the spoon.
  • Modeling Prompt: Sitting beside the client, the ABA practitioner completes the task of picking up the spoon and raising it to her lips to show the client how the task is completed.
  • Full Physical Prompt: The ABA practitioner places her hand over the hand of the client, guides it to the spoon, and wraps the client’s fingers around the spoon.
  • Partial Physical Prompt: The ABA practitioner moves the client’s hand toward the spoon.
  • Visual Prompt: The ABA practitioner shows a picture of a child holding a spoon.
  • Positional Prompt: The ABA practitioner places the spoon next to the child’s hand.

A number of different prompts may be used. For example, the ABA practitioner says, “Please pick up your spoon.” After a chosen number of seconds, if the child does not respond, a more supportive prompt may be used.

For example, the practitioner may move the spoon closer to the child or demonstrate the process of picking up and holding the spoon. In all cases, the ABA practitioner should always attempt to use the least amount of prompting necessary to get the client to complete the task. Within a few sessions, the prompts should begin to fade, thereby allowing the positive reinforcement of completing the behavior to take over.

Prompting and Fading

Prompting is an ABA strategy that’s often used alongside ‘fading’. These two tactics go hand in hand. Prompting involves the use of strategies to encourage correct responses, whereas fading involves reducing the prompt as the client becomes accustomed to providing the correct response. The goal of fading is to ensure that the client doesn’t become dependent on the prompt to complete the desired task. When done correctly, the techniques of prompting and fading will eventually result with the learning performing the behavior independently.

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