The Pros and Cons of Using Prompts to Teach Students with Special Needs

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., BCBA, LABA

Prompting is a commonly used teaching strategy. In its simplest terms, it can be defined as assistance given to a student to help him or her respond appropriately in a learning situation.

Those of us who use applied behavior analysis (ABA) to teach students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities give a lot of thought to prompts because, while they can be quite helpful, they can also be very detrimental. A student who can do a skill with a prompt cannot, in fact, do the skill independently. This is a concern because helping our students gain independence is always a primary goal. We think very carefully about the kinds of prompts we use, how to “fade” (reduce or eliminate) them, and what to look out for to ensure a student is truly acquiring a skill.

Below is a brief summary of some commonly used “extra-stimulus” prompts we use in teaching trials: physical, gestural, and verbal.

Physical Prompts
Let’s say we are teaching a young person to wash dishes. A physical prompt might be used to guide his hand to the faucet, turn it on, squeeze just the right amount of soap onto the sponge, etc. By providing physical prompts, we can minimize the language necessary to teach the task (this is especially helpful for people who have limited verbal capabilities) while guiding the body to successfully implement the task. We may start out by providing lots of physical assistance, in essence doing much of the work (this is called a full prompt). Over time, this assistance is lessened to a partial physical prompt, and the learner does most of the work. Finally, the prompt is faded to a light touch, which is the gentlest of nudges in the right direction.

Physical prompting is a great strategy to use, especially for people with ASD, because it is generally regarded as the easiest to effectively fade. However, it does have its limitations, as it is not appropriate for all learners and all situations. Some people don’t like to be touched and, in some cases, a physical prompt can be “overkill” depending upon the task.

Gestural Prompts
Another commonly used form of an extra-stimulus prompt is the gesture. Let’s say we’re teaching a child new words, and we’re working on “car.” We may present her with several photos of objects and say, “Touch the car.” We then might use a gesture by pointing to the correct photo so she knows which one to touch. Then, we mix up the photos and give the direction again to see if she can identify the car independently this time. If she starts reaching for the wrong card and the teacher flinches ever so slightly, this is still considered a prompt because the child can learn to read the teacher for cues. This should be recorded as a gesture, as there was some non-verbal, non-touching communication that helped the child respond.

Verbal Prompts
Verbal prompting can vary in intrusiveness. For example, when teaching a child a new vocabulary word such as “ambulance,” we might start off saying the entire word. Then, as the child gains independence, we might only need to prompt the initial sound “am…” Reminders to begin an assigned task also fall under the umbrella of verbal prompting and should be used with caution, as they can be difficult to fade.

Observe how you are teaching others. It can be very helpful to provide prompts initially, but you will eventually want to fade them so the learner will be able to perform independently. Pay close attention to inadvertent prompts you may be giving. Some students, especially those with ASD or those working in close physical proximity, may learn to attend to your gaze, and may learn to respond correctly by watching your face closely for clues to see if they are “doing it right.” While this is a clever trick, it will not help the learner acquire the necessary skill, and may actually interfere with learning if he or she sufficiently “fools” you into thinking material is being learned.

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., BCBA, LABA, is the Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield. She can be contacted at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 60 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates four schools for children with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit