How To Know What Prompt Levels a Learner Benefits From

The use of prompts is necessary when teaching new skills to learners, especially when using errorless learning. There is a fine line between over prompting and under prompting. My team and I have worked hard to distinguish the difference of both and what that might look like per learner. Humans can become prompt dependent and sometimes we might not know how much we are prompting. A caretaker might say “well I didn’t tell him where to go” when they are pointing to an area after asking a spatial question. A teacher might think that his learners are independent in receptive identifying pictures even when he touches the targeted picture and looks at it after giving an SD. Understanding all of the different prompt levels and modalities is equally as important as being mindful of our actions and those of our teams so we can increase the independence of our students and clients. This post will review the prompt hierarchy as well as how to match prompts per skill that we are teaching.
One thing I learned during BCBA supervision is how to structure up prompting when teaching a new skill. Whether you are a parent working with your child, a school professional working with a learner, or a clinician working in a clinic or in-home session, this rule applies. When my team and I are reviewing new programs or goals for our learners, we review what types of prompts a learner will need to be successful. The tip that I learned from my BCBA is that the prompt should match the response that we want from our learner. If we want a learner to imitate motor imitations, we will implement physical prompting. If we want a learner to verbally answer a question, we will use verbal prompting. Then, based on the prompt we are using, we will review and list out partial or full and whether we want to use within teaching prompting or systematic prompt fading. A few examples of goals and prompts are below:


  • A learner will answer “wh” questions while looking at a picture book. Prompt: verbal
  • A learner will independently wash hands. Prompt: physical
  • A learner will match non-identical pictures. Prompt: physical
  • A learner will answer intraverbal phrases. Prompt: verbal

What we hear and discuss most is least to most prompting and most to least (errorless) prompting. Prompts can be used in so many ways and so many environments. The above visual prompts for playing games were found from How To Aba; here.

  • Least to most: when teaching a skill starts with the least invasive prompts and then moving down to a more intrusive prompt to find one that the learner can accomplish the task.
  • Most to least: when teaching a skill starts with the most invasive prompt so that the learner does not error and the prompts start to fade and move towards less restrictive prompts.

Systematic prompt fading is when there is a set criterion for changing prompts. This is when the entire team uses an immediate prompt (based on the criteria). Once the learner reaches those criteria (typically a percentage of independence for an amount of time), the prompt level is faded back and data continues with the set criteria.

  • An example of this might be when we’re teaching a learner to imitate motor actions with an object. We might use systematic prompt fading (errorless learning) starting with a full physical prompt. We may set out 5 objects, and the targeted object being a ball, say “do this” while bouncing and catching the ball. We would immediately use full physical prompting after telling the learner to “do this”. After they reach a set number of days at full physical, the prompt would then fade to partial physical, then gestural, and then independence.

Prompt Fading

Prompt dependency can look like a learner who is wait or requesting for the prompt. I have seen this look like a learner reaching both of their hands out towards me when I clap while saying “do this”‘. I have also seen it when a learner puts my hand on top of theirs before making a sentence with their PECS icons. Looking at the data and the behavior of the learner may show that the prompt may have been more reinforcing than an independent response. The learner may have never responded correctly with a less intrusive type of prompt and have never contacted reinforcement. If this occurs you can try most-to-least prompt, a time delay, or re-evaluate if we are using this strategy correctly.


No matter what criteria or type of prompt you are using in the classroom or a clinician, data is critically important for avoiding prompt dependence. We want to be sure that we’re using the right prompts and hierarchy appropriate for each learner. Reviewing the data might show us that systematic (errorless learning) is increasing prompt dependency and instead we may teach a skill looking for independence and then running error correction. The data guides our implementation of our teaching procedures!

Check out some prompting information from The Autism Helper here!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *