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How To Use Prompt Hierarchy ABA To Teach a Child With Autism

A prompt hierarchy is a structured approach used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy to teach new skills. The goal is to eventually have the skill be performed independently. Picture those proud moments – your child zipping up a jacket without help, reading a new word all by themselves, or cleaning up toys without constant reminders. A prompt hierarchy in ABA is like a set of training wheels that helps kids get there. In this post, we’ll unpack what a prompt hierarchy is, the different types of prompts, and how to use them to help your child gain new skills with confidence.

Understanding Prompt Hierarchies

Think of a prompt hierarchy like a stepladder, where each step offers varying levels of support. With each step upward, the prompt fades a little more, allowing your child to gain independence.   Ultimately, the goal is to remove all prompts so they can complete the skill on their own.

Here’s a quick analogy:  Think about learning to ride a bike.  At first, you might use training wheels (that’s like maximum support).  Then, an adult may hold your seat for stability, offering less support.  Finally, you’re ready to peddle away all by yourself!  That’s kind of what happens when using a prompt hierarchy in ABA.

prompt hierarchy ABA this image shows a young girl brushing her teeth
Read more: Do Visual Schedules Help ADHD Students?

What Are the Seven Types of Prompts in Prompt Hierarchy?

Let’s look at what the prompt hierarchy looks like and the different types of prompts. We will use the example of “picking up toys” as the task the child needs to complete.

Prompt TypeDescription
NaturalThis is when the child responds or completes a task independently or in a natural way.
GestureA gesture or gestural prompt is when a finger point or other gesture is given to the child to indicate the correct answer or response.
VerbalA verbal prompt is anything that is said out loud to tell the child what needs to be done.
Visual/PictureA visual or picture prompt is when a picture or other type of visual is used to show the child what needs to be done.
ModelModeling or a model prompt is a demonstration of the desired behavior.
Partial PhysicalA partial physical prompt means you can use a light touch to help the child complete the task.
Full PhysicalThe most intrusive type of prompt that requires “hand-over-hand” assistance to ensure the child reacts correctly.
The autism helper prompt hierarchy
prompt hierarchy ABA this image shows a father and daughter cleaning the house
Read More: What is ABA therapy?

How To Begin Using Prompts

  • Practice makes perfect: When you first begin using prompts with your child, you may find yourself using several types of prompts simultaneously. That is okay when you are first starting out using them with your child but as you begin to feel comfortable with how each prompt differs, try to focus on using one at a time and slowly moving up the ABA Prompt Hierarchy to get closer to independence. Keep practicing and don’t give up! There are a lot of terms to learn and it can be challenging to analyze your own behavior by identifying which prompt you used!
  • New skills require most to least prompting: When helping your child learn a new skill, start at the bottom of the Prompt Hierarchy. For example, if you’re teaching them to learn to tie their shoes, you should start with a hand-over-hand prompt or a full physical prompt. This will ensure that they learn this new skill with the least amount of error.

Continue to use prompts:

  • Mastered skills require least to most prompting: For a skill or behavior that your child has mastered or typically does independently, you should steer clear of using prompts as much as possible. However, if you’re noticing they’re not completing the skill correctly, start at the top of the Prompt Hierarchy with the least intrusive prompt. If your child has correctly been making their bed but suddenly forgets to place their pillows at the top, you may try just pointing to the top of the bed to remind them what to do next. You can try this with simple things like chores, and then move on to bigger concepts.
  • Allow time to respond: It is important to allow your child to respond to a natural cue or instruction before giving a prompt. Some children, especially those with autism, need a few extra seconds to process the cue or instruction before they respond. If you give a prompt too soon, you’ve just taken away an opportunity for them to complete the task independently!
  • Fade prompts as soon as possible: Once your child begins consistently responding to a single type of prompt, it is important to begin moving up the prompt hierarchy to a less intrusive type of prompt! This is prompt fading and is one of the most critical steps in ensuring your child responds more independently. If your child has cleared their dinner plate when you’ve ask them to do so for three days in a row, try pointing or gesturing towards their plate on the fourth day. This will ensure they don’t become prompt dependent on any single prompt for too long.

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An assortment of interactive video class thumbnails, including dental care and cooking, on the best tablet for kids by Goally.

HERE’s a video explaining how to works.

Prompt hierarchies are a powerful tool in ABA therapy, helping kids develop new skills step-by-step. Remember, patience is just as important as the prompts themselves. Celebrate every victory, adjust when needed, and enjoy the journey as your child builds independence and confidence!

FAQs About Prompt Hierarchy ABA

What is prompt hierarchy ABA?
Prompt hierarchy ABA refers to a structured system that uses different levels of prompts to help individuals with special needs learn new skills and behaviors.

What are the different types of prompts in ABA?
There are several types of prompts in ABA, including verbal prompts, gestural prompts, modeling prompts, physical prompts, and positional prompts.

How do you determine which prompt to use?
The type of prompt you use depends on the individual's skill level and how close they are to achieving independence. It's important to start with the least intrusive prompt and gradually work up the hierarchy.

What is the purpose of using a prompt hierarchy in ABA therapy?
The purpose of using a prompt hierarchy is to help individuals with special needs learn new skills and behaviors in a structured and systematic way, while gradually reducing the level of prompts until they can perform the task independently.

How can parents or caregivers incorporate prompt hierarchy ABA into their daily routines?
Parents or caregivers can incorporate prompt hierarchy ABA by identifying the specific skills or behaviors they want to teach, selecting the appropriate prompt level, and gradually fading the prompts as the child becomes more independent. It's important to be consistent and practice regularly to help the child master the skill or behavior.

This post was originally published on 12/28/2020. It was updated on 02/26/2024.

Article by

Emily is a seasoned blog writer for Goally, leveraging her extensive background in child psychology and special education to provide valuable insights and resources for parents. Her commitment to understanding and addressing the unique needs of these children, combined with her expertise in educational strategies, makes her a credible and empathetic voice for families.

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Sponsored by - Goally