Prompt Procedures

There are two main ways of establishing a specific response as an independently emitted mand. One involves the use of a time delay procedure without prompts, the other involves a process of directly prompting the response and systematically fading prompts. Often in practice, these approaches are used simultaneously for different targets with individual students depending on their current skill level in relation to the various mands being taught. For instance, if the student can emit the target mand with only a short wait period following the presentation of an item then it will not be necessary to add any additional prompts. The student may readily imitate a signed response for a target mand such as “candy” and modeling the response and pausing will be all it takes to get the child to emit the “candy” sign on their own. For another mand such as “cookie”, the movements of the sign may need to be physically prompted in order for the child to make the sign. It is always important to continuously monitor the quality of responses made by the student. Teaching mands is necessarily a dynamic process. The selection of prompting and time delay strategies must be made based on student performance.

When we refer to time delay in regards to the initial process of getting the child to use a particular sign or say a particular word, we are suggesting a particular use of the timing of delivery of the reinforcer. As we discussed, at this point the teacher has already paired delivery of the reinforcer with a model of the response form. When the teacher shows the reinforcing item to the student, it serves as a discriminative stimulus suggesting its availability. On previous occasions, during the early pairing process, the student will not have been required to do anything to get the item other than demonstrate approach behaviors such as perhaps looking at or staying near the teacher. The student may also engage in behaviors such as reaching for the item, making indistinct vocalizations, or smiling and nodding. Because of this history when the teacher does not immediately deliver the reinforcer, the student may be prone to engaging in other behaviors than those described. The variation in behavior is likely to occur because of extinction effects. When previous behaviors are no longer reinforced, the student will likely engage in new behaviors or emit current behaviors in a stronger form. Extinction, as you may recall, results in changes in variation of behavior and magnitude of response. Because the mand form had been previously paired with delivery of the item, the sight or sound of the mand form may have taken on reinforcing properties. Therefore when the tendency to emit variation is in place, it will most likely evoke some behavior that is already reinforcing to the student. Hence the student may have some probability of emitting the formal shape of the response form. In other words they will say or sign what they want using those response forms that have been seen or heard when they were given what they enjoy.

If the student does not emit any response during the period in which delivery of the reinforcer is delayed, it is likely that the repeated pairing has not been in itself effective in helping the student to acquire the response form. Therefore it may become necessary for the instructor to deliberately prompt the response. Prompting strategies become critical at this point. Remember that prompts need to be selected based on the degree to which they reliably evoke the response and their level of intrusiveness.

Criteria for selecting Prompts

  • Select the prompt that is sure to evoke the desired response
  • Select the least intrusive prompt necessary to evoke the response

In other words, prompt in a way that will get the response you want, but do not use any prompt that is stronger than what you need. The reason for this is that if you prompt too much, you risk having the student become dependent on your prompts. If prompts are to be used to evoke mands, the prompt fading procedures will again involve time delay procedures. The specific time delay procedures for prompt fading are known as constant time delay and progressive time delay.

Before we go further we will need to discuss some guidelines for using effective prompt procedures. Remember that in relation to the mand, prompts are any event other than motivation that serves to evoke the response. Planning prompt procedures requires planning prompt fade procedures. Our goal in prompt fading is to get the student to a level of independence in which they can use the mand to ask for what they want in many or most naturally occurring situations. Although we aim to teach pure mands under the control of motivation only, we are aware that in the real world, most mands are multiply controlled. The mand is most likely to occur when some discriminative stimulus is present.

Guidelines for Using Prompts (Wolery, Bailey and Sugai, 1988)

  • Select the least intrusive but effective prompt
  • Combine prompts if necessary
  • Select natural prompts and those that are related to the behavior
  • Provide prompts only when the students are attending
  • Provide prompts in a supportive, instructive manner
  • Fade prompts as soon as possible

What follows are some expanded comments regarding the guidelines for effective prompting as they relate to the mand training process.

Select the least intrusive but effective prompt

What we mean by “least intrusive” is using prompts that involve the least amount of physical contact as is possible or the least magnitude of prompt. For example it is better to use a very quiet prompt rather than a louder prompt, it is better to use a light physical touch at the elbow rather than a full hand over hand prompt as long as they result in a correct response.

Combine prompts if necessary

It is acceptable and sometimes necessary to use two or more types of prompts at the same time. One can use a model prompt such as saying the mand response at the same time as using a gestural prompt for the student to emit a vocalization. Both prompts will have to be faded, of course.

Select natural prompts and those that are related to the behave

If a naturally occurring event signals the availability of a reinforcer, then use of some aspect of that event as a prompt may be appropriate. For example, if a using a particular brand logo as a prompt for “French fry” reliably leads to a student to saying the word “French fry” and if he is likely to need to ask for French fries in the restaurant where the brand logo occurs, there will be no need to fade the prompt until generalization is needed. Generalization would involve getting him to ask for French fries in other restaurants or at home without prompts.

Provide prompts only when the students are attending

In the mand frame this simply means wait until the child exhibits motivation as indicated by his looking at the item or at the instructor, reaching for or approaching the item. Avoid prompting before the child has observed the potential reinforcer and avoid prompting if the child turns away from the item.

Provide prompts in a supportive, instructive manner

This simply means to present prompts in ways that are supportive and that reduce the likelihood of the prompt itself becoming aversive.

Fade prompts as soon as possible

Whenever prompts are used they need to be faded. This is a central tenet of effective teaching. This issue will be discussed further as we present details on time delay procedures