Teaching the Skill of Imitation

Some say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well I say imitation is the building block to all learning. It’s not as catchy but it’s important. Imitation is so important it earned its right to have its own blog post amongst such uber important topics as IEP goals and prompt fading. It’s that important and that critical. Because if you can’t imitate, it is going to be a lot harder to learn any new skills. 

The Key to Imitation

The key to imitation is the ability to imitate novel movements and behaviors. The concept of imitation is “doing the same.” The goal is teaching a student this concept is not teaching to clap when I clap, to stand when I stand, and to sit when I sit. If those are the only 3 imitative movements a child has, he still has mastered imitation. Imitation is mastered when you say “do this” with a brand new behavior and your child does it. 

Many kids learn how to imitate without being specifically taught to. Infants, toddlers and young children often imitate what their parents or siblings do without being specifically taught. However for some children with developmental disabilities, the skill of imitation may not come natural and may require direct instruction. Imitation has been successfully taught (Baer, Peterson, & Sherman, 1967) and if your students can’t imitate – that is where you need to start! 

Before You Teach Imitation:

Sometimes you will hear teachers or clinicians talk about attending skills. Attending skills are the group of skills that your child needs before you can work on imitation. You won’t be able to teach imitation if your child doesn’t look at you. Here are the prerequisites: 

  • stay seated

  • look at the teacher

  • keep hands in lap

  • look at objects

How to Teach Imitation:


Select 20-30 easy movements. Things such touching nose, clapping hands, picking up a ball, thumbs up etc. Start with 3 of the easiest movements. Sit facing the student. Say the student’s name and then say “do this.” If the student does anything close to the movement you did provide reinforcement immediately and record on data sheet. During preassessment, select 3 movements. Preset each movement 3 times randomly. If the learner responds correctly to any of the 3 movements each time (i.e. claps hands every time you clap hands) remove that behavior and choose a new one. 


During training work on the 3 movements. Start with the easiest one – the one that the learner tried on during pre-assessment or was closest to during pre-assessment. Continue providing the cue “do this” before the movement and provide reinforcement for any attempts that are similar. Provide physical guidance for the movements and slowly fade those prompts. Refer to our prompt fading posts. The goal is to get these 3 movements independent with no physical guidance before moving these actions to post assessment. 

Post assessment  

Intermix previously mastered movements with movements that are currently in training. If last week your child mastered clapping hands, standing up, and touching nose and this week is still working on picking up ball, touching shoulders, and shaking head – work on all these intermixed. 

Probes for Imitative Behaviors

This is the important part! After each training session or intermixed throughout training, try a novel (never seen before) movement without the “do this” prompt to see if your student will imitate. Do everything else the same. Do the movement and see if your child responds accordingly. The goal is to do what the model does and if he can imitate novel actions – you got it! 

Some tips: 

  • keep sessions active and short
  • provide reinforcement for all responses (prompted or not!)
  • pair verbal praise with additional reinforcers (gummy candy plus good job)
  • take data (consider using a click counter)

Once we have imitation, let's practice it!

Time for generalization! Apply this skill to all parts of your classroom. Work on imitation in academic work, group activities, and every day tasks. You’ll probably find that this is something you naturally do. Imitation is so embedded into all of our teaching and prompting. Sometimes being aware of it helps us use build this skill even more. Provide immediate praise when correct imitation occurs throughout your day! 

Get those imitation skills moving quickly! Use fluency instruction to build speed: 

Gross Motor Fluency:

Fine Motor Fluency:



Build more complex imitative skills through activities such as matching block towers, simon says, and hokey pokey!


Submit a Comment

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