How to Use Prompts Effectively and Efficiently

Categories: Interventions | Visuals
Let’s talk prompting. This is a word that gets thrown around so often that we end up forgetting what it means and what the purpose is. Prompts are a teaching tool. Prompts are something we add to a situation to increase the likelihood of our student responding correctly. After you help a student go to the bathroom, you point to the flush button to have him flush. You hand out pencils to a group and say, “what do you say” to get your students to say thank you. You raise your hand in their and say, “if you have a question raise your hand” and show your class what to do. These prompts that we give cue our students in on how to respond.

Prompting isn’t bad. It’s necessary. I use prompts all the time. When I am in a new city, I use the visual and verbal prompts of my google map to get me to starbucks. When I take a work out class, I watch the instructor model a new work out I haven’t done before. When I’m helping my husband put together some ridiculous Ikea cabinet with 4800 pieces and he says hand me a Phillips screwdriver and I embarrassingly don’t which one that is, he gives a gestural prompt and points to the right screwdriver. These prompts helps me find starbucks, accomplish the new work out, and give the correct screwdriver. They help me give the right answer. Here’s the catch. For me and for all of our students, our goal is independence. We don’t want them to need these prompts forever. When I am at home, I don’t need google maps to find my starbucks. I have faded those prompts and can find it on my own. After taking the same work out class for several weeks, I know how to do biceps curls without watching the trainer. If I bought a ton more Ikea furniture, I would (hopefully) learn the types of screwdrivers. Fading prompts is as important as using the prompts. We want our learners to be functional and functional is independent. 

So today let’s review the types of prompts and how to use them. It’s helpful to think of prompts in this hierarchy or order. This helps for when we talk about prompt fading later this week as well for knowing which types of prompt to use. At the bottom are the most intrusive prompts where students have the least amount of independence. As you move up the list, prompts become less invasive and students independence increases. 

Often, we hear people talking about least to most or most to least prompting. Least to most prompting means you are starting with the least invasive prompts and moving down the list once you find a prompt that the student can accomplish the task. Most to least prompting means you are starting with more invasive prompts so that the student accomplishes the task correctly and fading towards less restrictive prompts.


Full Physical Prompt

Full physical prompts mean you are physically moving your students hand or body to complete the response. This is sometimes referred to as hand over hand prompting. If you want your student to pick up a toothbrush, you move their hand to the toothbrush and guide through process of moving toothbrush off the table.  


Modeling involves showing the student the correct response. If you tell your student to clap his hands, you clap your hands. 

Verbal Prompts

Verbal prompting can take many forms and even within this type of prompt there are ways to increase independence. Verbal prompting involves provide some types of verbal language to cause the correct response. A direct verbal prompt gives the exact answer. For example, if you hold out a flashcard of the letter F and say, “say F” that is a direct verbal prompt. An indirect verbal prompt gives a hint without giving the full response. For example, when teaching how to water plants, after your student fills up the watering can, you say, “where should we go next?”

Partial Physical Prompt

Partial physical prompts mean you are still touching the student but instead of your are providing minimal physical guidance. You may touch the student’s elbow to begin the movement but more of the movement is lead by the student. For example, if you want a student to touch red, you move their elbow in the direction of the red card. 

Gestural Prompts

Gestural prompting means giving some type of gesture or movement that shows the student what to do. This could be pointing, nodding, making eye contact, or looking at a specific area or item. For example, if it is your student’s turn to participate in the conversation or answer a question from a peer you might make eye contact with them and nod. 

Visual Prompt

A visual prompt includes some type of cue to the student how to respond (in addition to natural cues) such as pictures, text, photos, or videos. Visual schedules show students where to do. A written list of what to do when you are done with your activity is a visual prompt. Visual prompts can also be positional such as putting the correct item or required items to complete a task closer to the student. For example, if mom says go to the bathroom and brush your teeth, she may put the tooth brush and toothpaste out on the sink. 

DOWNLOAD the prompt hierarchy here: Prompt Hierarchy – The Autism Helper.

What does independent mean?

It’s important to note that there are always naturally occurring cues that occur before a behavior. It’s important not to confuse those with prompts. We want our students to greet someone when a new person enters the room. A new person entering the room is the natural cue to say hello. A teacher saying, “say hi” is a prompt. The goal is for our students to respond to the naturally occurring cues to engage in the behaviors we are teaching them. That is independence. 

Errorless Learning

You can utilize prompting in an errorless learning procedure. Errorless learning can be extremely effective if done correctly. Errorless learning ensures that skills or concepts are performed correctly by providing a prompt immediately. This approach uses most to least prompting so you start with the most invasive prompts and move to less invasive prompts. The idea behind errorless learning is that students never have a chance to get stuck in a chain of incorrect responses. In traditional trial and error teaching, children learn from their mistakes. However error correction can be done incorrectly and students may not have a enough chances to engage in the appropriate response and receive reinforcement.

When using errorless learning, provide the prompt directly after the natural or teaching cue. So if you are working on identifying blue, you would say, “touch blue” and then immediately move the students hand to the blue card. Then you provide praise and a reinforcer. Continue with this method for several trials/days. Then fade the prompts. Move to partial physical prompts and move the student’s elbow towards the blue card. Then model pointing to the blue card. Then point to the blue card. The prompt fading is essential in using errorless learning correctly. If you do no fade prompts quickly and appropriately students may become prompt dependent. 

Least to Most Prompting

You can also utilize prompting through least to most on the hierarchy list. In this procedure, you start with the least invasive prompts and move down the list until the student can accomplish the task. For example, if you are teaching to put blocks in a bin. You would start with natural cue of the blocks next to the bin. Then you would add a visual cue and show a visual of a hand putting blocks in the bin. If the student still didn’t put the blocks in, you would say, “put the blocks in.” If the student still didn’t put the blocks in you would point to the blocks and the bin. You would keep moving down the list until the student did accomplish the task. Then you would provide praise and keep working with that prompt. If the student put the blocks in the bin when you provided the gestural prompt, you would keep using the gestural prompt and then begin fading the prompts from there. 

This procedure allows the learner to emit their highest level of independence and gives you a baseline for where his skill level is. Again, the prompt fading is key here as staying with one type of prompt will cause prompt dependence. 


  1. I love your blog. Thank you for all the great info!

  2. Thank you so much for explaining errorless learning! I attempted to use this strategy with my students and was told what I was doing was an assessment not a teaching strategy. It seems from your post that it is not an assessment. I am a 1st year teacher (still in school) and I am looking for strategies and activities to do with my students. I find that I am having to research and grab ideas from the internet. I tried to explain the idea of errorless learning to this person, I guess my explanation was as thorough as yours. I can now lead them to this post so they can gain a better understanding for what it is! I was going to scrap the activity in all my future lessons, but after seeing this I think I will continue to use it. Thank you so much!

  3. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  4. Yes! Errorless learning is a teaching strategy. Assessment is an evaluation of a student’s ability to accomplish something. During errorless learning you are still providing prompts so you wouldn’t be able to determine their level of mastery (ie. assess their skills) while using this procedure. Happy this was helpful!

  5. Is there anyway I can get a PDF of this entire article so I can share it with the aides in my class? I am always trying to give them as much information as possible. This is the best explanation of prompts I have seen.

  6. I HIGHLY recommend the Paraprofessional Training Manual! Just search paraprofessional at the top!

  7. Hi Mindy! Glad you found this helpful! Just emailed you! The hierarchy got split onto two pages in the PDF but you can download that from the post if you want to give that to your paras too! 🙂

  8. Aww thanks Keisha! So glad it is helpful for you!

  9. Is the terms prompting and cueing belong to same concept or a part of prompting strategy?

  10. Cue and prompt are often used interchangeablely. There will be the inital prompt or cue that a behavior should begin (ie “wash your hands”) and then the additional prompts to complete the task are what you should work on fading!

  11. I love your post. how can get the paraprofessional manual???

  12. Hi Sasha,
    I am a BCBA. In my new clinic, I am seeing “Model Prompt” used in programming to denote giving the client what I would describe as a a Verbal Prompt. Here is an actual Example: Tact “Under”. The SD is written as, “Where is the car? Under (Model Prompt)”. The expectation is to have the client repeat the word. I have never seen a Model Prompt used like this before.
    Maybe it’s a verbal model? Can you explain this a bit further?

  13. My guess is this is modeling the correct answer. So yes the same as a verbal prompt in that example.

  14. Good bless you. In the name of many families with children with special needs I want to thank you so very much for your resources.

  15. Aw thank you! You’re too sweet. Thanks for reading 🙂

  16. Thank you for you resources.

  17. Hope they are helpful! Thanks for reading 🙂

  18. I have a question – I LOVE the prompt hierarchy – we use it in my classroom and this visual is posted EVERYWHERE we go. My question is – when tracking data…if you are interested in the type of prompt that is needed, what shorthand do you use to represent each prompting level? I am trying to develop a universal symbol for each prompt and keep wavering for some. What do you use???

    • Hey! I keep it simple and use the first letter(s) of each prompt type. Ve=verbal, G=gestural, PP=partial physical. You could put a tiny key somewhere on your data sheets to help!

  19. I plan on printing out the prompt hierarchy for my sub folder so I can indicate where each student is at on it.

  20. Hi! Thanks so much for the prompting hierarchy! Is there any source/research paper which I can cite for that? Thank you!

  21. really like the errorless teaching. Helps nurture reinforcement as well as self esteem.

    • So true! Thanks for reading!


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