Perhaps you recently got an autism diagnosis and are seeking funding for services. Alternatively, you may have just started services and are learning more about how Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) works. Either way, one of the most basic, evidence-based teaching practices that ABA leverages is Discrete Trial Training (DTT). You may see your ABA therapist using DTT with your child.
Often, when people think about ABA, they envision DTT. It is important to keep in mind that services are delivered in a variety of ways including DTT, Natural Environment Teaching and Verbal Behavior. Your team of clinical professionals will likely use several of these methods, in conjunction, to create a unique learning plan for your child and family.
Now to the basics! DTT is a carefully planned, one-on-one teaching methodology that is used to promote the development of specific skills, such as communication and language, social and play skills, attending, imitation, and cognitive, and academic skills. This is done while reducing unwanted behavior.
Each skill is broken down into teachable steps and each step is taught one by one. A BCBA will work with you and your family to determine what breakdown of skills makes the most sense for you and your family. When ready to be implemented, DTT is typically done in quiet settings in the home, school or community.
Here is an example of what DTT looks like in action:
1. The therapist places a picture of a cat in front of the child
2. The therapist says in a clear tone of voice, “What’s this?”
3. The child responds and says, “cat!”
4. The therapist delivers praise such as, “That’s right! That’s a cat! Good job!”
Often, you may find the therapist prompting your child. For example, after asking the question, “What’s this?” the therapist may partially say the word which would sound like, “ca.” This is done when introducing a new skill, when a child regresses on a skill, or when the therapist senses that your child may get the answer wrong. Prompting helps your clinical team create and maintain a positive teaching environment.
A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) will run a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) to assess your child’s strengths and deficits. This, along with caregiver interviews will set the direction for DTT. Once the stage is set, you may observe your therapist taking the following steps in implementing DTT with your child:
1. Your therapist will give your child a heads up. A few minutes before it’s time to get started, your therapist will provide a warning. This helps to make transitions smooth and reduces the likelihood of challenging behavior.
2. Your therapist will provide your child with a choice for her or his reward (also referred to as a reinforcer.) The reinforcer is a crucial part of DTT. This is the reward that your child is working for. It is what helps motivate your child to do the work. Your therapist may present a series of items in front of your child and say, “pick one.” A reinforcer can be an activity like outdoor play or screen time. Alternatively, a reinforcer could be break time, food, preferred item or toy. If your therapist and child have a strong relationship (we call this pairing) then your clinician may already have an idea of what is especially reinforcing to your child.
3. Your therapist will give the instruction. These instructions are called the Discriminative Stimulus (or SD.) Sticking with the previous example, the therapist would present a picture of a cat to your child and say, “What’s this?”
4. The therapist may prompt your child. If this is a new skill, or if the therapist feels that your child may respond incorrectly, he or she may prompt your child for the correct answer. In this case, it would be a vocal or partial vocal prompt. In other words, the therapist would say “cat” or “ca.” The therapist will reduce the prompts as your child learns the skill.
5. The therapist will reinforce your child for the correct answer. There are a number of ways that your therapist will reinforce your child for the right answer. The quality of the reinforcer should match if the response was independent or if it was a novel target. If your child has been working very hard on a specific skill and finally provided the correct answer, back up because it’s going to be a party!
6. Your therapist will correct the wrong answer. Maintaining a positive teaching environment, that is encouraging and motivating for your child, is important. So, if your child gets an incorrect answer, your therapist will steer them towards the correct answer. For example, once your kiddo provides an incorrect answer, your therapist repeat the question or demand and immediately follow it with a prompt (we call this a “0-second time delay prompt.)
Discrete Trial Training is an important aspect of ABA teaching methodology. However, it is not the only strategy. As your clinical team becomes familiar with your child’s strengths and deficits, they will work with you to determine the best strategies for teaching behaviors that will improve the lives of you and your family and help your child live up to her or his fullest potential.