Prompting: What, Why, and How (with a Freebie!)

Many of us know what a prompt is, or at least what it means to prompt. If not, here's the quick dictionary definition:

prompt (verb): (of an event or fact) cause or bring about (an action or feeling)

So now that we're up to speed, did you know that there are all different kinds of prompts we can use? We often think of prompts as reminders. We prompt our children to grab their backpacks before they run for the bus. We prompt ourselves to empty the dishwasher with the use of a visual magnet that reads clean. We use prompting every day of our lives, so it would serve us well to learn more about what it means, why we should care, and how to use them!


What are Prompts?

Prompts are cues to evoke a specific, desired behavior. Prompting is used in ABA as a method or teaching tool to help a learner increase their rate of correct responding. Prompts should be providing just as much support as needed; not too much, not too little.

Prompting (and the subsequent prompt fading) are used to build or strengthen new skills. This strategy is used with everyday skills.

Why Should We Use Prompts?

Prompts are an efficient and effective tool to help learns evoke new or strengthen adaptive behaviors. Additionally,  you do not need to implement a huge treatment plan for a skill that can be taught using prompting strategies. If used appropriately, you will see quick and meaningful changes in your learners' skills.

Prompts are a necessary component of ABA, and help a child move from being completely unable to do a skill, to doing that same skill independently. Independence is the goal of our programming and prompts are how we get there.

How Should We Use Prompts?

Prompts are often categorized into a prompt hierarchy from most intrusive (more help) to least intrusive (less help). The goal of teaching using prompts would be to fade prompts towards independence, so that no prompts are needed for the individual to perform the desired behavior

When a new skill is being introduced, I tend to use a most to least intrusive prompting hierarchy so the child has no opportunity to get the answer wrong (this is called errorless teaching). However, if the skill is mastered or has already been introduced I use a least to most prompting hierarchy to avoid prompt dependency.  The less we help our kids, the more they are doing on their own.

Different practitioners and teachers have slight variations of prompting hierarchy, but they all serve the same purpose with the same outcome. My typical hierarchy (from least to most intrusive), I use with my learners is as follows:

  • Independent - student completes behavior without prompting (the goal of your programming)
  • Visual- a visual cue or picture, also include proximal or positional prompts (moving item closer to learner)
  • Indirect Vocal - ask a question that requires the learner to determine the behavior and demonstrate it ("what's next?" "now what?")
  • Gestural- gesturing to the item or next step in the behavior chain (a point, tap, touch)
  • Partial Vocal- saying the beginning sound of the target response (“Ba”)
  • Full Vocal: saying the entire target response (“Ball”)
  • Partial Physical- Using small or abbreviated physical movements (i.e. touching elbow for learner to reach for item)
  • Hand Over Hand/Full Physical: Hand over hand, or HOH prompt is a full physical prompt. This is considered the most intrusive prompt level
This is not an exhaustive list (many practitioners also have a modeling prompt in there), but this is one way to understand types of prompting and the prompt types commonly used in the classroom and home setting.

Depending on the learner, I may use an abbreviated prompt hierarchy, such as:
  • Independent - student completes behavior without prompting (the goal of your programming)
  • Gestural- gesturing to the item or next step in the behavior chain (a point, tap, touch)
  • Vocal- saying the word or next step in the chain to cue the response
  • Hand Over Hand/Full Physical: Hand over hand, or HOH prompt is a full physical prompt. This is considered the most intrusive prompt level
This hierarchy is generally used for learners who are higher functioning, or do not tend to need prompts such as partial physical or verbal much of the time. Even if a learner only needs a partial vocal, with these kiddos I tend to just mark it as the prompt V, as there is little need to differentiate for their programming.

I always have a key on all my data sheets on programming books, as it can get confusing for staff, especially in the beginning. Keys are always helpful! 

I also post a visual prompt for staff (and myself) with the hierarchy (colored-coded!) for easy reference. Want this visual for yourself? Click here to get the freebie!


ABA at Play: antecedent management, prompting, prompt fading, visuals, Positive Behavior Supports, evidence-based practices, generalization, reinforcement procedures, individualized supports

What opportunities in your life do you use prompting? Leave a comment below!

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