A Complete Guide For Using Prompts To Teach Individuals With Special Needs

Grandfather reading with granddaughter

Years of research has demonstrated prompts to be an effective teaching tool for people on the Autism Spectrum. Prompts are therefore an important and integral part of most ABA programs. However, their benefit doesn’t end there.

Prompts can be equally useful for helping people both with and without special needs. Have you ever pointed your finger to direct a person’s gaze in the right direction? If so, you’ve prompted someone. And have you ever used an alarm clock to wake up or set a timer to remind you to take something out of the oven? Consider yourself having been prompted!

What is a prompt?

Prompts have been defined by world-renowned behaviorists, Lynn McClannahan and Patricia Krantz of Princeton Child Development Institute as: “Instructions, gestures, demonstrations, touches, or other things that we arrange or do to increase the likelihood that children will make correct responses.”

Why use prompts?

Prompts usually go hand-in-hand with errorless teaching. There are many benefits to this approach:

  • The utilization of prompts is a positive way of teaching and therefore encourages learning because students continually make progress and aren’t thwarted or discouraged by hearing the word “no” time and time again.
  • When the word “no” is overused, learners can easily become desensitized to it. Using an errorless approach, “no” is infrequently used and therefore still retains its meaning which is especially important in potentially dangerous situations like quickly stopping someone from touching a hot stove, running in front of a moving vehicle, etc.
  • Because there are so many different types of prompts, there is a wide selection from which to choose to accommodate different learning styles and abilities. Learners who are excellent readers can benefit from written prompts; those who are visually impaired can be assisted with hand-over-hand prompts, etc.

9 Types of prompts

As mentioned, there is a wide range of prompts from which you as a teacher, parent or therapist can choose. You can base your selection on how much assistance your learner requires as well as by taking into consideration his unique learning style or challenges:

1. Gestural prompt

A Gestural Prompt  can include pointing, nodding or any other type of action the learner can watch his teacher do.
Example: Teacher asks learner, “What is something you drink from?”
Teacher prompts learner by pointing to a cup.

2. Full physical prompt

A physical prompt is where the teacher provides physical contact to guide the learner through the entire requested activity.
Example: Teacher asks learner, “Clap your hands.”
Teacher prompts learner by holding each of the learner’s hands in his and then moving the learners hands through the entire action of hand-clapping.

3. Partial physical prompt

The teacher provides some assistance to guide the learner through part of the requested activity.
Example: Teacher asks learner, “Clap your hands.”
Teacher prompts learner by gently touching each of the learner’s two hands and gently nudging the learner’s hands toward each other.

4. Full verbal prompt

The teacher provides the learner with a spoken, complete response to the question just asked.
Example: Teacher asks learner, “What comes after Thursday?”
Teacher prompts learner by stating “Friday.”

5. Partial verbal prompt or phonemic prompt

The teacher provides the learner with part of the response to the question asked or just says the first ‘phoneme’ or sound.
Example: Teacher asks learner, “What comes after Thursday?”
Teacher prompts learner by stating “Fr”

6. Textual or written prompt

This can be in the way of a list or some other type of written instruction.
Example: Teacher asks learner, “Do your chores.”
Teacher prompts learner by presenting him with a written checklist of his chores.

7. Visual prompt

A visual prompt can include a video, photograph or drawing on a medium like paper, a whiteboard, or  an electronic device.
Example: Teacher asks learner, “Clap your hands.”
Teacher prompts learner by playing a video of a person clapping his hands.

8. Auditory prompt

This can include any type of sound the learner can hear like an alarm or timer.
Example: Teacher asks learner, “Clean up your toys in 5 minutes.”
Teacher prompts learner by setting a timer to go off in 5 minutes.

9. Positional prompt

This type or prompt involves the teacher putting the correct response closest to the learner.
Example: Teacher shows the learner three objects… a ball, a shoe and an apple and asks learner, “Point to the one that you eat.”
Teacher places the apple closest to the learner.

Important Prompting Tips

Always use the least amount of prompting necessary to get the job done. This is important in order to avoid having your learner become  “prompt-dependent,” meaning that he relies on prompts too much. When this happens, prompting becomes counterproductive as it diminishes a learner’s independence by making him only respond with the assistance of a prompt. For example, If you feel that he knows a word but just needs a bit of help, use a phonemic prompt instead of a full verbal prompt.

For this same reason of avoiding prompt dependency use prompts that are the least intrusive whenever possible. A gestural prompt, for example, is much less intrusive than a physical prompt so if you feel that a gestural prompt will do the trick, use it. Resort to the more instrusive prompts only when absolutely necessary.

Be sure to fade prompts as quickly as possible to try to reduce prompt-dependency. For example, if you make a request for your learner to clap his hands and need to follow it up with a full physical prompt, the next time you ask him to clap his hands, go with a partial physical prompt. Hopefully the time after, you’ll need no prompt at all. The situation will vary from learner to learner in terms of just how quickly you can fade your prompts but just keep in mind the basic rule that your goal should always to be reduce and ultimately eliminate the need for prompts.

Use prompts when your learner:

  • is about to respond with an incorrect response (e.g. you see him reaching for the wrong object, start uttering the incorrect answer, etc.)
  • responds with an incorrect response
  • doesn’t respond at all (we usually give my son about 3 seconds to respond before intervening with a prompt)

Vary your praise and rewards:

  • Give some praise and a smaller reward for a correct response that is achieved with a prompt
  • Give a huge amount of praise and a much greater reward for a correct response that is achieved without a prompt

Avoid saying “no.”

  • If your learner errs or makes a mistake, get in there with a prompt and assist him, and then repeat the request while fading your prompts as much as possible until they become unnecessary.
  • Whenever possible, try using mechanical prompts instead of human prompts. Research has demonstrated that for individuals with Autism, mechanical prompts are easier to fade and are less likely to create prompt dependency than those that are delivered by a person. An example would be to choose an alarm instead of your own voice as a reminder to clean up.
Brenda Kosky Deskin

Written on 2013/04/22 by:

Brenda Kosky Deskin

Brenda Kosky Deskin is the parent of a child with Autism and Founder and Editor of AutismBeacon.com, a one-of-a-kind website and online directory dedicated to providing vital resources and information to the international Autism community.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/shannonstilwell Shannon Smith Stilwell

    This is a great article. I am sending it around to friends. Both of my boys are in intensive ABA therapy as well.

  • Elizabeth Stokes

    This is something I always include in the individualised software which I develop
    Please email me estokes12000@yahoo.co.uk if you would like more details

  • Jai’s Mom

    My 32 year old son, who has DS, lives alone in his own apartment. He has only 20 hours a week of support. Left to his own devices he wouldn’t do much besides watch movies and DVDs. He has just started working a few hours a week at a neighbourhood grocery store so hopefully gradually more of his time will be filled. But when he is prompted to do his daily jobs before staff, sister or I leave, especially if, “Surprise me for when I come back and see it done!” the jobs are done with relish. He may not ever work on cars or computers but he can do dishes, clean his toilet, dust, do his laundry – start to finish, dust and vacuum and does it with pride… as long as the prompt and praise afterword occurs. It makes all the difference. Along with that, providing images of the tasks on a schedule and photos of the steps for doing dishes really help. He thrives on structure, the simpler and clearer the better

  • Linda

    My 16 yr old son is extremely prompt dependent at home particularly at meal time. However at school he is not. I have stopped using verbal prompts to get him to eat, but now he will just stare at me until I some kind of gesture to get him to take a bite. How do I set rid of this behavior? About to lose my mind.