April 2, 2024

ABA Prompts: Types, Examples and Data Templates

Erica Nolan
ABA Prompts

Learn how ABA prompts help learners gradually master new skills. Explore the types of prompts and get tips from BCBAs on making data-driven decisions and creating individualized prompting programs.

Inside this article:

What are ABA Prompts?

ABA prompts are cues or hints that help learners respond correctly to a question or instruction. They can include gestures, verbal cues, physical hints, and more. These prompts help ABA professionals gradually teach patients to engage in the target behavior independently.

For example, ABA prompts can involve modeling the behavior, physically guiding the learner's movements, or providing verbal instructions.

Here's a quick overview of how prompting works: A clinician asks the child a specific question or gives them an instruction. ABA professionals call this statement or question the “discriminative stimulus" or “SD” for short. In ABA, the discriminative stimulus is a signal that tells the learner a specific behavior will lead to a consequence or reward. For example, in a classroom setting, the discriminative stimulus, “Raise your hand if you know the answer,” prompts the child to raise their hand for the opportunity to answer the question.

In this situation, an ABA “prompt” is a cue that the teacher or clinician adds after the SD but before the learner responds. The goal is to guide the learner to the correct response and reduce the likelihood of an error. For example, in the example of raising a hand, the teacher might state, “Raise your hand if you know the answer,” and then model the behavior by raising their own hand.

Ally Dube, M.S., LABA, BCBA, says prompting is a scientifically backed process to teach new skills and replacement behaviors. Dube has more than 20 years of experience in ABA as a practitioner, business owner, parent, and advocate.

“You can think of a prompt like a hint,” she says. “We are using some type of subtle or obvious prompt to help the learner respond correctly.”

Prompting supports some of the fundamental principles in ABA.

Ally Dube, M.S., LABA, BCBA.
"Most prompting programs support ‘errorless learning’ strategies that we use in ABA,” Dube says. “Errorless learning means that we use procedures to reduce the chance that the learner will make an error or fall into a patter of making errors over time. Then, we gradually reduce the level of support that we provide to help them grow independent."

Common types of ABA prompts include physical prompts, where the therapist physically assists the learner, and verbal prompts, where the educator provides verbal cues or instructions. The goal is to gradually “fade out” the prompts until the learner independently engages in the behavior.

Ultimately, the objective of many prompting programs is for learners to become self-sufficient in various key skills. As Dube emphasizes, the goal is for therapists to "work themselves out of a job."

That highlights one of ABA’s core goals: Helping learners become independent and self-sufficient across various skills and contexts.

Key Takeaways:

  • ABA professionals use a prompt immediately after they present a stimulus to help the learner respond correctly.
  • The two main groups of prompts are stimulus prompts and response prompts. They offer different degrees and types of support.
  • Prompting supports error-free learning, which helps a learner gradually learn a skill while reducing frustrating errors.
  • Customize the prompt type, prompting schedule, and any reinforcement to align with the learner’s skill set and preferences.
  • Collecting data on the prompt type and learner’s response is critical to making data-informed treatment changes.
  • Electronic data collection and practice management software automates tedious data collection tasks, allowing ABA professionals to focus on delivering high-quality care.

How are ABA Prompts Used?

ABA professionals use a prompt immediately after asking the learner to perform a behavior. The prompts increase the likelihood that the learner will respond correctly. Over time, the therapist will phase out prompting as the learner improves and eventually masters the skill.

Here are specific practices that BCBAs and RBTs use for ABA prompts:

  • Introduce the prompt after the question or direction but before the learner responds
    To prompt a learner, the BCBA or RBT will ask a question and then include some type of prompt to give the learner a “hint” as to the right answer.

    “Prompts always occur in the antecedent condition, meaning that we always deliver a prompt before the behavior occurs to encourage the learner to respond,” Dube says. “Usually, we will add a prompt around three to five seconds after we provide the instructional cue, but the timing depends on the learner, their skillset, and the type of prompt.”

  • Collect data on the prompting responses
    “Collecting data is fundamental to ABA,” Dube says. “During the ABA session, the RBT or BCBA will collect data on whether the learner responds independently and correctly or not. Then, we look at that data to guide our programming decisions, like whether we need to switch prompts, change our reinforcement schedule, or add more DTT teaching trials

  • Move up or down an ABA prompt hierarchy
    In prompting, the learner should receive the lowest degree of prompting necessary for them to respond correctly. Then, as the learner improves, ABA professionals change the prompt type by moving through a prompt hierarchy, which arranges prompts based on the degree of assistance they provide.

    The two main ways to move through an ABA prompt hierarchy are most-to-least and least-to-most.

    “Most-to-least prompting starts with a prompt that offers the most intrusive level of support, like a physical prompt,” Dube says. “For example, If we are trying to teach a learner to brush their teeth, we might guide their arm to pick up the toothbrush, help them put toothpaste on the brush, and help guide their arm to brush their teeth. Then, we gradually decrease the level of support by changing the prompt type. Eventually, the goal is for the learner to be able to brush their teeth without any prompting.”

    Dube adds that the most-to-least hierarchy is great for new learners and for introducing new skills.

    “Starting with strong support and working our way down to the least level of support reduces the chance that the learner will make an error,” she says. “Many ABA learners will perceive even a few errors as extremely frustrating. This frustration leads to increases in maladaptive behaviors that may impede their progress.”

    Sometimes, an ABA therapist will use a “least-to-most” hierarchy to determine which level of prompting a student might need.

    "Least-to-most starts with minimal help and increases until the learner responds correctly,” Dube says. “This type of hierarchy is useful when the learner already has some knowledge but needs some additional support. For example, we might start with gestural prompts and move to physical prompts if needed. Once we identify the most effective prompt, we transition back to a most-to-least hierarchy, starting at the prompt level that elicits a correct response.”

    The prompt types that make up the prompt hierarchy will change based on the specific behavior and the student. For example, some learners might benefit from modeling stimuli, and others may find physical prompts more helpful.

When are ABA Prompts Used?

ABA therapists use prompts to teach a child a specific behavior or skill. Generally, therapists teach replacement behaviors for maladaptive ones or help a learner master a life skill.

Dube gives this example for replacement behaviors:  “Let’s say you have a child who throws themselves down on the floor and kicks and screams whenever they want an iPad. Maybe in the past, this behavior has helped them access the iPad under those conditions. In ABA, we would identify a replacement behavior and use prompting techniques to teach the replacement behavior to them. For example, we might point at the iPad and provide the instructional cue of ‘say iPad’ to teach them to request it verbally.”

Dube says prompting also helps teach basic life skills. “Many of our learners have significant communication deficits,” she says. “Part of our job is making sure that we teach the fundamental skills that they’re missing. Prompting is one of the most effective strategies we have when it comes to this type of basic skill acquisition.”

Types of ABA Prompts

The two main categories of ABA prompts are response and stimulus prompts. In the response category, prompt types include physical, verbal, and modeling. Stimulus prompt types include positional, gestural, and redundancy. Each prompt type offers a different degree of support to the learner.

“Stimulus prompts help prompt the response by making the ‘stimulus’ stand out,” Dube explains. “In ABA, the stimulus usually refers to some sort of object in the environment that is related to the correct answer, like a card or the actual object itself.”

She gives this example:  

“If we have three cards and we ask the learner to point to the card with a ball, that card is the stimulus, and the correct response is the act of pointing to the ball. So, if we had a stimulus prompt, we might make the correct card stand out in some way. We could make it a different color, make it bigger than the other cards, or make it a different shape."

Response prompts, on the other hand, show the learner what the correct response should look like.

“These prompts operate directly on the response and don’t require the ABA practitioner to manipulate a physical object,” Dube says. “These prompts don’t require the ABA practitioner to manipulate a physical object. For example, a response prompt might involve using a physical prompt to put the learner’s body in the correct position or using a verbal prompt to elicit the correct response.”

Each specific prompt type offers a different degree of support to the learner. For example, physical prompts, where a clinician physically moves the learner’s body to begin the task, are very intrusive and offer high levels of support. On the other hand, gestural prompts, where someone may point or gesture to a stimulus that relates to the correct response, may offer less support. However, it’s important to note that which prompt offers the “most” support and the “least” can depend on the specific combination of the learner and the skill they’re trying to learn.

Types of ABA Prompts

Here's a deep dive into each prompt type within the stimulus and response categories

  • Stimulus Prompts
    Stimulus prompts provide additional cues or prompts to direct the learner to the correct stimulus or response. BCBAs and RBTs usually use stimulus prompts when the correct response involves selecting a specific object.

    • Movement (Gestural) Prompts
      Description: The therapist uses non-verbal cues or movements that direct the learner's attention to a specific stimulus and teach a particular response. For example, the therapist may point, nod, or otherwise gesture to hint at the correct response.

      When to use: Gestural prompts are effective when the correct response involves an item that the therapist can gesture toward, tap, or move. They're also effective for learners who respond well to visual cues or when verbal prompts don't yield the correct response.

      Examples: A teacher asks the learner to pick the red card and then points to the card. A teacher asks a learner to get a soccer ball and then gestures toward the ball.

    • Positional Prompts
      Description: The therapist moves objects so that the correct item is closer to the student.

      When to use: Positional prompts are most effective when learners need help selecting or interacting with objects. They are especially useful when learners have progressed beyond gestural prompts but still require moderate support to complete the task correctly.

      Examples: A teacher asks the learner to pick the red card among a group of cards. The red card is closer to the learner than the other cards. Or, an RBT asks the learner to begin reading time and places a book closer to the child than other items in the environment, like toys.

    • Redundancy Prompts
      Description: The therapist makes the correct object visually distinct from the others, signaling the learner that it is the proper response. For example, you can make the object bigger, a different color, or a different shape.

      When to use: Among stimulus prompts (Positional, Movement, Redundancy), redundancy prompts provide the least support to learners. They are suitable when learners have already mastered the response with more intrusive prompts, such as positional and movement prompts.

      Example: An RBT instructs a learner to select the card with a ball. The card featuring the ball has a red background, while others have white backgrounds

  • Response Prompts
    Response prompts directly demonstrate the correct response to the learner. BCBAs and RBTs use response prompts when the target behavior is a specific action, like washing hands or tying shoes.

    • Full and Partial Physical Prompts
      • Full physical:
        The therapist provides complete physical assistance to the learner. They guide the learner's movements entirely, effectively completing the task for them.
      • Partial physical:
        The therapist provides partial physical assistance to the learner. Instead of fully guiding the learner’s movements, the therapist offers partial support, like guiding a hand without completing the entire movement.
      When to use:
      • Full physical prompts:
        These are most suitable when the learner is new to the task or lacks the motor skills to perform it independently.
      • Partial physical:
        Partial physical prompts are best for when the learner needs significant support but not as much support as a full physical prompt.
      An RBT asks the learner to wash their hands.
      • Full physical:
        The RBT guides the child's hands, leading them through the entire washing process.
      • Partial physical prompt:
        The RBT assists the child in placing their hands under the faucet and allows them to complete the rest of the task independently
    • Modeling Prompts

      • Description:
        In modeling prompts, the clinician models the target behavior for the student by acting it out.

        When to use:
        Modeling is suitable for learners learning a specific action but does not require any physical support to perform it correctly.

        After asking a student to wash their hands, the ABA therapist models the action themselves
        After asking a student to raise their hand, the ABA therapist raises their own hand.

    • Verbal Prompts
      The two types of verbal prompts are vocal and non-vocal.

      • Vocal prompts: The therapist gives the learner verbal instructions that usually describe the correct response.
      • Non-vocal prompts: The therapist offers hints, such as signs, pictures, or written words, that describe some aspect of the correct response.

      When to use:
      Verbal prompts suit learners who require substantial support but have already mastered the skill with physical or modeling prompts. When deciding between vocal or non-vocal prompts, consider the learner's preference. Depending on the prompt type, a vocal prompt may offer more or less support than a non-vocal prompt.

      • Non-vocal: The RBT asks the learner to get a basketball, then shows them a card with an image of an orange circle.
      • Vocal: The RBT asks the learner to get a basketball, then says, “It's orange and round.”

Why Use ABA Prompts?

Clinicians use ABA prompts to teach skills gradually. This approach has several advantages. It’s straightforward to implement and gather data on the results. It supports error-free learning, which lessens the learner’s frustration. It’s useful in Discrete Trial Training (DTT). Ultimately, it supports the learner’s independence.  

Here’s a more detailed look at the advantages of ABA prompting:

  • Straightforward to perform
    One key advantage of ABA prompts is that once a BCBA writes a program, the prompting is relatively straightforward to implement within a therapy session.

  • Data-driven
    ABA data collection is a key part of the prompting approach, providing valuable data for informed decision-making. By analyzing the trends in the data, the BCBA can tailor the prompting program to the learner’s progression and needs, optimizing the program's effectiveness for each learner.

  • Supports errorless skill acquisition
    Prompting is an important tool in errorless skill acquisition. It gradually teaches learners while minimizing their errors and frustration. For many learners, errorless learning is the best way to build their confidence in eventually performing the task independently.

  • Important in Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
    DTT supports learners by breaking down complex tasks into manageable skills. Many BCBAs and RBTs use prompting in DTT trials and sessions. DTT and prompting are also important in behavior intervention plans that outline a long-term program to help a learner adopt a specific behavior or replace a maladaptive behavior.

  • Promotes independence
    Prompting helps learners become self-sufficient, a cornerstone goal of ABA therapy.

    “Ultimately, the aim of prompting is to foster independence in learners,” Dube says. “By offering structured support and guidance, prompts support learners in acquiring essential skills autonomously. This self-directed development undoubtedly helps prepare our learners to lead fulfilling and self-sufficient lives.”

Strategies for Troubleshooting when an ABA Prompt is Ineffective

When an ABA prompt isn’t working, experts recommend trying three strategies. First, assess whether the prompt type is the best option. Then, try increasing the number of trials. Finally, try changing or adding positive reinforcement to give the learner a clear reward.

When faced with ineffective prompting, Dube says she reviews the prompting data and asks herself these questions:

  • Is my prompt type (response or stimulus) correct? Should I move to a more helpful prompt?

  • If my prompt type is correct, should I increase the number of trials so they have more opportunities to learn?

  • Is my reinforcement correct? Is this a “can’t do” skill or a “won’t do” skill? If it’s a skill the child can do but refuses to do, try changing your reinforcement procedures.

    “To decide what to change,” Dube says, “I always look at the prompting data to try to clue me into which intervention, or interventions, might work best.”

The Importance of Individualizing ABA Prompts

Individualizing ABA prompts improves their effectiveness by fitting each learner’s needs and abilities. The ABA professional customizes the prompt type, schedule, and more based on the learner. This strategy ensures that each learner receives targeted support.

Prompting programs should start with an individualized assessment of each learner’s current skill level and learning needs.

Before starting any program, a BCBA collects baseline data to identify the learner’s skill level and preferences. This assessment enables data-driven decisions about the type of prompt, the frequency of prompting (how many times the learner is prompted per session), and the gradual reduction of prompts ("fading").

Here's a summary of how BCBAs use data-driven programming to individualize prompts:

  • Take baseline data to determine the type of prompt, the prompt hierarchy, and the prompting schedule

    “We rely on fundamental ABA principles to tailor prompting programs,” says Dube. “We start by collecting baseline data to gauge the learner's current skill. Such data inform data-driven programming decisions regarding prompt selection, reinforcement procedures and schedules, and determining whether to use a 'most to least' or 'least to most' prompting strategy.”

    Dube provides an example. “Let's say I'm assessing if a learner can brush their teeth independently. Initially, I gather baseline data by observing the learner's behavior while they brush their teeth without any type of prompting. These data help answer the question, 'What can the learner do on their own?’”

  • Take data on the individual's specific needs and preferences

    “With baseline data in hand,” Dube says, “I prescribe a prompt and decide on its implementation. Additionally, I gather data on the learner’s individual needs and observed learning styles. For instance, some learners may become agitated with repeated prompting trials, while others require numerous trials to respond correctly. I also consider if the learner has any specific preferences. For example, some learners cannot handle physical contact. For those learners, I would exclude any type of physical prompts.”

  • Collect data throughout the process to make any necessary adjustments

    Collecting data throughout the process is critical to assess the learner's progress and make adjustments.

    “Throughout the prompting cycle, I'm always reviewing and analyzing the data to make sure that the program is effectively supporting the learner and helping them master the skill,” Dube says. “For example, I look at data like their percentage of correct responses or average response rate. If those numbers aren't improving at all, I explore alternative prompt types, schedules, or reinforcement strategies.”

  • Individualize a “fading” plan.

    Prompt fading involves reducing the support until the learner can perform the skill independently. It helps prevent the learner from becoming dependent on external help and encourages them to perform the skill independently.

    “We continuously collect and analyze data to craft a fading plan tailored to the learner's needs. This plan is crucial for ensuring they don't become reliant on prompts, which could hinder their ability to act independently. Our aim is to empower learners to master skills on their own instead of relying on a prompt. For example, we don’t want a learner to always have to rely on someone to show them how to brush their teeth. The goal is for them to brush their teeth without any external help.”

Planning for Tracking ABA Prompting

Establish a data collection program before you start a prompting program. Record how the learner responded in each trial. This data helps gauge the learner’s mastery of specific prompts and determines if you need to adjust a prompt type.

Download our free ABA data sheet to record prompts used and learner responses. This free resource will help you track your learner's progress along your prompt hierarchy.

Prompting is an important part of many discrete trial training (DTT) sessions.

Download our free prompting DTT datasheet to monitor specific prompts and responses in your DTT program.

Electronic ABA Data Collection for Prompt Tracking

Digital tools streamline data collection and tracking for prompting programs. They automate tasks, minimize errors, and free up clinicians’ time so they can focus on quality care. These software solutions also support data analysis and data-driven decision-making.

Over the last few decades, ABA has experienced a trend toward digitizing every aspect of the practice – from filing insurance claims to electronic data collection. The technology automates tedious tasks that clinicians and other ABA professionals once performed manually. This gives BCBAs and RBTs far more time and energy to focus on using their skills to offer quality, targeted support to each client.

Dube says that the technical advances have greatly benefited data collection.

“Data collection has become so much easier,” she says. “We used to collect data manually and then import that handwritten data into an Excel spreadsheet. That process is frustrating for clinicians. We didn’t go to school to spend hours importing data. It’s also frustrating for clinic owners, who want to pay these clinicians to use their skillset, not to perform tedious tasks. Electronic data collection removes many of these burdens and frees up the BCBA’s energy to deliver quality care.”

This technology can automatically take the data you gather and generate important statistics, like the percentage of correct responses over time. Top software tools can accommodate discontinuous data along with common continuous measurements. These graphs can help you identify patterns and lead you to adjust the prompting programming, like the prompt type or schedule.

Dube stresses that the data analysis features can help but that BCBAs and RBTs should always rely on clinical experience. “Of course, electronic data collection and analysis is a helpful tool, but it’s critical that BCBAs and RBTs don’t allow software to trump clinical experience when it comes to making programming decisions.”

Dube adds: “Make sure your software allows you to customize specific prompts and have the opportunity to schedule and plan prompt fading. These features are a sign that the company understands the role of clinical experience and integrates this knowledge into customizable features, like custom prompts, that the BCBA can control.”

Experts stress that the best software offers a comprehensive practice management solution that integrates data collection and a suite of other ABA-focused features in a single end-to-end platform.

Comprehensive ABA Prompt Tracking with Artemis ABA

Artemis ABA's comprehensive practice management software supports ABA professionals in delivering high-quality care. Leverage your expertise confidently with our advanced tools for customized prompts, precise prompt tracking, data collection, and informed decision-making.

Artemis ABA understands the importance of data in programs like prompting. That’s why Artemis ABA’s data collection tools empower clinicians to make high-quality, data-driven programming decisions. This is key to ensuring each learner receives the right prompts and eventually masters the skill. BCBAs and RBTs can customize prompt types, plan prompt fading, collect data directly within the software, and instantly graph data over any time frame to inform programming decisions.

Also, Artemis handles the heavy lifting of tedious tasks like storing data, making data entry faster and simpler. With Artemis, you can securely store all your data in one place, ensuring easy access and organization. This efficiency translates into significant time and energy savings for you and your team, allowing you to focus on tailoring programs and delivering high-quality care.

Plus, Artemis offers end-to-end solutions, not just for data collection but for all aspects of ABA practice, ensuring comprehensive support from start to finish.

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Erica Nolan

BCBA consultant

Erica Nolan received her undergraduate degree and certificate in Performance Management at Florida State University followed by her master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from the Florida Institute of Technology. She has 20 years’ experience within the field of ABA working in a multitude of roles and clinical environments. She has extensive knowledge within the areas of serving clients in a clinical capacity, supervision of technicians, clinical operations, process improvements, training, recruitment, on boarding, and ABA expansion. In 2008, Erica worked alongside developers to assist in the creation of ABA software to expand access to ABA services to families in rural areas.  Most recently Erica taught ABA graduate school students enrolled within an online program.  

Erica is excited to serve as a BCBA consultant for the Artemis team.  She thoroughly enjoys interfacing with current and future Artemis customers on the value features Artemis brings into the ABA industry both on a clinical and operational level. “They have created a solution that serves all employees within an organization to make their day-to-day responsibilities more efficient and most importantly, beneficial to client outcomes.”

She is married with two children and has a rescue dog named Leo. Her hobbies/interests include but are not limited to running, cooking, listening to new music, finding perfect GIFs to attach within emails, and memorizing episodes of the Golden Girls.