How to Reduce Prompt Dependence

This is a big topic. So big of a topic that I just had to refill my coffee to the tip tip top and spilled a little on the way back to my computer. The phrase prompt dependence gets thrown around classrooms and IEP meetings like it’s going out of style. But let’s scale back and get real basic about this before we jump into the big stuff.

What is prompt dependence?

Prompt dependence is when a student needs a prompt in order to initiate a skill or activity that they have already mastered.

So let’s clarify – not all prompts are bad. We need prompting. Everyone needs prompting to learn new skills – even us! You should have seen the amount of prompting I needed last week at a new workout class involving huge elastic bands hanging form the ceiling (it wasn’t pretty…). Prompting helps us teach our students new skills. However the problem becomes that our students have mastered the skill but are still needing that prompt from us. That is what we call prompt dependency.

Why is being prompt dependent bad? It’s bad because we aren’t going to be with our students forever. And as a parent you aren’t going to be with your child forever. We want them to be successful alone. We want them to not need us. I tell teachers and paraprofessionals all the time – It’s your job to lose your job. This completely freaks people out half the time but it’s true. We want our kids to be so dang independent that they don’t need us!

How can we prevent and reduce prompt dependency?

Check out my tips, tricks, and mishaps:

Always Make a Plan for Fading

From square one, you need to make a plan for fading your prompts. Yes we are always so focused on skill acquisition and getting our students successful that we sometimes forget to think about what to do when they get there. Your job isn’t over once the skill has been mastered. Sometimes the battle hasn’t even begun. Now it’s all about getting rid of those prompts and getting them independent. If you plan the fading process while before you have even begun teaching the new skill – you (1) won’t forget about it and (2) won’t feel like your job is done once the skill is mastered. That’s totally awesome that you have taught your student to wave and say hi when a new person enters the room but if he can only do that when you pick his hand up and say “say hi Johnnie”  we aren’t quite there yet.

Use Least to Most Prompts When Needed

When you are going to use prompts as part of your instruction, start with the least intrusive prompts. These will be the easiest to fade!

Least to most prompts will go in this order:

  • Natural Cue/Independence {there is always something that will show your student it is time to engage in his new skill; if you student does the skill to the natural cue in the environment without any help from you he is now independent; so for our kid that we taught to say hi when new people walk in the room; the natural cue is the person walking in the room}
  • Visual {this includes pictures and text prompts; these are great because the student doesn’t need us around for these to work}
  • Gestural {pointing, motioning, eye contact, etc.}
  • Indirect Verbal {hinting; saying something like, “What do you need next?”}
  • Direct Verbal {directly telling the student what to do; saying something like “Go check your schedule.”}
  • Model {showing the student exactly what to do by doing it yourself}
  • Partial Physical {touching the student or physically moving his body to engage in part of the response; for partial physical prompting you may just get the motion started like move the child’s hand to the door knob but let him twist it open}
  • Full Physical {touching the student or physically moving his body to engage in the complete response; you help him finish the entire task}

Start with the least restrictive type of prompts and see if your student will be successful. Move down the list until the student can engage in the activity. Sometimes our students surprise us and need way less prompting then we think. If we started with less intrusive prompts – we are already closer to not needing them!

It's All About That Time Delay

My one true love and go to method of reducing the need for prompting is a well placed several second pause. Those 3-4 seemingly insignificant seconds can be the different between prompt dependence and sweet independence. So after that natural cue for the behavior pops up – wait a second. I hate to tell you but this whole prompt dependence issue is really our fault. Our students don’t need us but we keep interrupting with our unnecessary help. Give your students a chance to respond on their own before jumping in. Chances are – they will surprise you! So when Principal Jenner walks into your room and greets your students, silently count to 4 in your head before verbal prompting your student to say hi. You may only get to two before your student shout hello all on their own!

You Think These Visuals are Here for Decor?

Yes visuals are adorable. Most of my classroom looks like boardmaker threw up on it and it’s not because I just love the look of that little cone head man. The visuals aren’t to make my class look pretty or keep admins happy when they come in to observe. I don’t spend endless dollars on laminating for no reason, people. These visuals are here for a reason! The visuals are a prompts but they are prompts that my student can use without me! These minimally intrusive prompts will help my students by successful throughout my room without my help. And that, my friends, is one step closer to prompt free paradise! So load up on your visuals and make sure your students are starting to use them without your help.

Reinforcement and Shaping!

I’m not trying to get all ABA on you know – but a real key to this whole mess is providing loads of reinforcement for any types of responses – even if they aren’t all the way correct. So if you are teaching a student to write his name and he only picks up the pencil – it’s okay! Provide reinforcement for him trying to do it! Then shape up those responses to get closer and closer towards the correct response. So maybe tomorrow you don’t picking up the pencils, you wait until he scribble that you provide praise. The next day you praise him writing the first letter in his name and so on. Slowly but surely you will get towards that end response!

So tomorrow mid-morning, when your classroom is really rolling – take a good hard look around your room. Identify some places that you and your staff are over prompting. Identify some students who had become prompt dependent in certain areas. It sneaks up on us. We have all been victims of unintentional over prompting! Don’t feel bad, just fix it!


  1. Thank you Shasha for bringing this up. 2/3 of the IEP’s I have attended this year have brought up and over dependence on prompting. My firstt question has been, “what proactive plan or strategy is have you come up with to diminish the need for prompting?” Answer, blank stare.

  2. […] Posted on March 17, 2016 by mhcbcba How to Reduce Prompt Dependence […]

  3. Ha don’t you love that. It’s the new buzz phrase but nobody knows what to do about it. Keep on asking that question!

  4. Great post – thanks!

  5. Thanks for reading 🙂

  6. Thanks for posting this. I have meeting with my classroom associates and this is a great topic:)

  7. I visit autism teachers all over the State of Texas. One true problem I see is this: “OH…they don’t need the visual schedule anymore. They have it DOWN!”. And yet, every other word out of the teacher’s mouth is a VERBAL prompt, which is the MOST intrusive of all prompts.

  8. Your site is phenomenal!
    Thank you!

  9. Love your site! What’s your advice/ thoughts on dependency with one on one therapists. What I mean is, in school or home setting, any worker that assists a child in educational or behavioral goals and in doing so over time finds that the child is now dependent on that specific worker? I am a one on one coach and have had this happen many times. Are there any markers to be aware of? How do you go backwards in a sense so that the child may continue learning but not be so dependent on you?
    Does there need to be a discontinuation of services ? Or other means to fix this problem? Any wisdom is greatly appreciated!

  10. Hi Kate! I’d recommend consistently switching between assistants or therapist, work on generalization amongst people (so with different adults, parents, etc.). Also – look at teaching independent activities (where you aren’t helping at all). Hope this helps!

  11. Any thoughts on a fifth grader with high intelligence and fluent language who is completely prompt dependent and literally doesn’t initiate any tasks? We’ve tried posting lists, tried both intermittent and consistent reinforcement, just about everything. Prompts are as faded as much as possible, but nothing happens without them. At home, the child doesn’t exit their room in the morning without a prompt. Even a text of “what should you do after you’ve turned your alarm off?” (or “hey it’s 11:00” on a weekend) will work, but without a text, the child will stay in their room all day staring at the ceiling. Same with every other task; you can set the child up with a mastered task, tell them to call to you or come get you when the task is done, and they won’t do it even with a timer that goes off. The child also doesn’t stop doing tasks that are done; the child once mopped the floor for three hours before an adult came to check in, but can accurately assess whether the floor seems clean enough. This child also doesn’t speak unless asked a question or asked specifically to speak on a topic, though has completely fluent language. They’ve had therapy since toddlerhood about how to add something on a topic, ask for clarification, etc. You can say something to them that they don’t understand, like where it’s obvious they need to ask a wh- question to figure out what’s being said, and they will just stare and nod unless you prompt them “did you understand what was being said?” and then they ask the correct wh- questions. The child also doesn’t ever pick up and start preferred activities or books, or things on a daily schedule to complete (chores, instrument practice, etc.) without a prompt. I’ve never met anyone this prompt dependent, none of the usual strategies work, and I’m completely baffled!

    • I am curious if this child ever made progress without prompts and if so, what worked? Their is a similar child at my clinic and I would love some tips since we have also tried everything you stated in your comment. Thanks in advance

      • I also work with a 17 year old very similar to the one described above. He is totally prompt dependent. He can speak, but will only do so when spoken to. He will stand facing the wall until directed away from facing the wall. Any response or action taken by him always have to be brought about by a prompt – subtle prompts are enough, but nothing will happen without that prompt. I’d be very interested to hear what Sasha has to say about these extreme cases.

        • Really work on reinforcement! This is hard but can be a game-changer!

          • Can you be more specific because my student doesn’t even start a prefered activity without a prompt?
            Sher will not open lunch box without a prompt. Yes, there is prefered food in the lunchbox. does not drink anything without a prompt. Doesn’t even start her reinforcer once earned without a prompt. Yes, it is a highly motivating reinforcer. She is just so conditioned to an adult telling her what to do that she just waits until that direction comes.

          • I would give the prompt to start and then try to fade prompts after that!

  12. Sasha, any suggestions when a student becomes prompt dependent on more than 15 skills they have mastered from one day to the next? Literally overnight.

    • Look at reinforcement!

  13. Thank you! I had not heard of prompt dependency before today, but now see why my autistic daughter never uses the mouthwash after brushing her teeth, even though she knows that is the next step – because she is waiting for me to tell her to, because that is what I have always done. She is so afraid to get things wrong.
    We have a note up in the bathroom that says mouthwash on it, so I guess I am moving in the right direction, but as with all life, understanding why, is everything!

    • I’m so glad that this post was helpful! Thank you for sharing!

  14. I’d never heard of Prompt dependent. I’m Prompt dependent and didn’t even know there was such a thing. How do you know this stuff? Amazing. Fascinating. Somehow I would have to fix myself first before being able to fix the student.

  15. Ok…so if teacher gives a parent an academic/ household chores schedule for their autictic 10 child to follow, does the parent tell the child whatt comes next OR does does the parent make the child read the schedule for themsleves to see what comes next?

    • The ultimate goal is independence so ideally, the child would consult the schedule independently; however, there are often a number of supported/scaffolded steps that have to be taught first. If the child is not ready for that level of independence yet, the adult should prompt the child to use the schedule. If they still need more support, the adult should model use of the schedule.


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