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The Art of Prompting: A Guide to the Prompt Hierarchy in ABA

Prompt hierarchy

Whether you’re a seasoned practitioner or a budding behavior analyst, understanding and mastering the prompt hierarchy is a crucial step in your ABA journey. When used effectively, this can significantly empower your practice and enhance the learning experience for the learners you work with.

So, get comfortable and join us as we unravel this impactful strategy, reaffirming our commitment to promoting positive behavioral change.

What are Prompts in ABA?

What is a “prompt,” and why is it essential to an ABA program? A “prompt” refers to a cue or assistance provided to guide a learner toward the correct response.

This vital strategy is errorless but also enhances the learning process. This strategy is typically applied after the instruction has been given but before the learner’s response.

Here’s a simplified sequence to illustrate the process:

Why Not Simply Correct Learners After a Mistake?

So, why do we use prompts instead of merely correcting the learners once they’ve made a mistake? Well, here’s the catch – constant correction can foster a dependence that we’d rather avoid in ABA. Instead, we champion a principle known as errorless learning.

For instance, if we ask a student to identify a picture of a table, we might subtly gesture toward the correct card before an incorrect choice is made. This method reduces the likelihood of errors and fosters a more positive learning experience, as it allows the learner to experience success and reinforcement, which encourages further learning.

What’s the Importance of Prompt Hierarchy in ABA Therapy?

The Prompt Hierarchy not only supports independence, but also helps generalize skills across different settings and people. Plus, it reduces prompt dependence, ensuring the learner doesn’t rely excessively on external help.

The decision to use prompts in a teaching trial ultimately lies in the hands of the BCBA.

How Much Should You Prompt?

Deciding “how much to prompt” can be a tricky area in ABA. The two primary strategies we employ are least-to-most and most-to-least prompting, each serving different purposes.


The least-to-most approach, often referred to as moving up the ladder, is designed to increase learning. We begin with minimal assistance, gradually increasing our level of prompting based on the individual’s needs.

This method encourages the learner to attempt the task independently before additional support is provided, fostering a sense of accomplishment and enhancing skill acquisition.

For example, when teaching a student to tie their shoe, the teacher may allow them to attempt this task first and then offer slight cues working their way up to the hand-over-hand method providing physical prompting.


On the other hand, the most-to-least strategy, or moving down the ladder, aims to increase independence. Here, we start with maximum support and systematically reduce the prompts as the learner becomes more proficient.

This strategy is particularly useful for new or complex tasks, allowing the individual to gain confidence and eventually perform the task independently.

An example would be learning how to brush your teeth. The teacher would provide hand-over-hand physical guidance and then gradually fade to wrist, then elbow, until the student was able to brush their teeth without prompting.

Both approaches play a vital role in ABA, and understanding when to use each can significantly impact the effectiveness of the intervention. It’s all about striking the right balance between guidance and autonomy to facilitate optimal learning outcomes.

The Prompt Hierarchy

Prompt hierarchy

A Prompt Hierarchy framework offers various ways to guide learners effectively through tasks, enhancing their learning experience. From physical prompts to visual cues, let’s explore these distinct methods that can pave the way for more effective teaching and learning.

  • Physical Prompts: This involves physically guiding the learner to complete a task. For instance, in teaching a child how to tie their shoelaces, a therapist might use hand-over-hand guidance to help the child through the process.
  • Model Prompt: In this method, the instructor performs the task while the learner observes, with the expectation that the learner will imitate the behavior. For example, a teacher demonstrating how to solve a math problem on the board is providing a model prompt.

  • Gesture Prompt: A gesture prompt involves using non-verbal cues to guide the learner towards the correct response. An example would be a teacher asking the student to find the correct picture card and then pointing to the correct card before the student.

  • Verbal Prompt: This type of prompt involves using spoken language to guide the learner. For example, a coach might verbally remind a basketball player to keep their elbows in while shooting a free throw.

  • Visual (text/picture) Prompt: Visual prompts use images, symbols, or written words to provide guidance. For instance, a step-by-step picture guide on how to assemble a piece of furniture, or a written checklist for a morning routine are examples of visual prompts.

Prompt Scripting & Fading

Fading prompts appropriately is crucial because our ultimate goal is to foster independence. Striking the right balance between prompting and independence can be challenging. However, unless a most-to-least prompting style is being used, it’s advisable to fade the prompt within the session to promote independence swiftly.

It’s important to note that unless a prompt is part of the teaching procedure, we should avoid reinforcing responses that needed prompting. Even subtle prompts, such as facial expressions, can be picked up by the learner. You can use prompts to guide the learner towards the correct response and then revisit it later without the prompt.

Challenges in Implementing Prompt Hierarchy

Despite its advantages, implementing a prompt hierarchy isn’t without challenges. ABA professionals may face difficulties in determining the right type of prompt or the appropriate level of prompting needed for the learner in that skill. However, with careful observation and data-driven decisions, these challenges can be overcome.

Mastering the art of the prompt hierarchy can significantly enhance your ABA practice. It’s a powerful tool that can guide learners toward success while fostering their independence. Remember, the goal is to use prompts effectively and fade them promptly to ensure learners’ progress toward independent task completion.


3 thoughts on “The Art of Prompting: A Guide to the Prompt Hierarchy in ABA”

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