Within the wonderful world of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) there are many types of teaching strategies. One strategy that is commonly used in early intervention programs is Discrete Trial Training (DTT). Many parents that are enrolling their child in an Applied Behavior Analysis program have probably never heard of DTT and may be confused when seeing it for the first time. So, let’s dive in and break down the ABC’s of DTT, shall we?!


What is Discrete Trial Training (DTT)?


Let’s first dissect each component of the phrase Discrete Trial Training using the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis.


Discrete: In ABA, discrete means there is a very clear beginning and end.

Trial: A single learning opportunity where a skill is being presented.

Training: Providing reinforcement to ensure the skill is learned over time.


When we put all of this together, DTT is a teaching strategy that has a very clear instruction at the beginning of the learning opportunity with reinforcement at the end of the desired response. DTT also is great for breaking down larger skills into smaller, easier to learn steps. By breaking a skill down into a simpler concept, we are able to provide many opportunities for a student to practice the skill and receive reinforcement.


Discrete Trial Training is a wonderful way to teach children with Autism a wide variety of skills such as receptive and expressive language, imitation, and even academic skills. With this being said, DTT is an art and takes practice on the instructors end as well. Let’s take a look at the key components of DTT.


1. Behavioral Momentum: Behavioral momentum is when previously mastered tasks are presented to a child before the skill that they are currently learning. This strategy is used in a DTT session to increase a child’s engagement and build their confidence when they are working on a skill that might be new or difficult. Say you have a learner that is great at


naming their colors and loves to count but is learning to label their letters.


Behavioral momentum may look like the example below:

Teacher: “What color is this?”

Student: “Blue!”

Teacher: “You got it! Count to five!”

Student: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5”

Teacher: “You’re a Rockstar! What letter is this?!”


The teacher gave some easy tasks like colors and counting before the harder task which is labeling a letter. This is behavioral momentum!


2. Prompting: Prompting is when we provide a learner some type of assistance to help them display a skill. There are all different types of prompts including physical, verbal, and gestural to name a few. We will discuss prompting further in the errorless learning and error correction sections.


3. Errorless Learning: Errorless learning is when you provide a prompt either simultaneously with an instruction or immediately before or after to ensure that the learner will provide the correct response without making an error or mistake. Have you ever heard a song on the radio, learned all the words, and then found out one day that Taylor Swift wasn’t actually saying “All the lonely Starbucks lovers”? Now you just can’t seem to sing the right words even though you know your lyrics are wrong! If only you had known the lyrics before hearing the song, you probably never would have made the mistake. That is the concept of errorless learning. Have your student practice the right answer so that they are less likely to give you the wrong answer. So, let’s revisit our example from behavioral momentum and then add in an errorless prompt.


Teacher: “What color is this?”

Student: “Blue!”

Teacher: “You got it! Count to five!”

Student: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5”

Teacher: “You’re a Rockstar! Look at the letter G! What letter is this?!”

Student: “G!”

Teacher: “You are so smart!”



The teacher made sure the student wasn’t going to make a mistake so that should could provide reinforcement for the students correct answer. This helps the student learn the skill faster while also reducing frustration.


4. Error Correction: While we try to prevent as many errors or mistakes as possible, at some point we have to remove our prompts to allow the student to respond independently. When removing our prompts, there is no guarantee the student will get it right and sometimes mistakes that will need to be corrected. We do this very systematically in Discrete Trial Training to help our students learn skills while still having fun!


Here is an example of error correction:

Teacher: “You’re a Rockstar! What letter is this?!”

Student: “P”

Teacher: “Not quite, the letter is G. What letter is this?”

Student: “G”

Teacher: “You’re right! Count to three”

Student: “1, 2, 3”

Teacher: “What letter is this?”

Student: “G”



Teacher: “That’s absolutely correct! Give me a high five!”


After a student makes a mistake, we restate the instruction with a prompt, allow them to respond correctly after the prompt, rebuild behavioral momentum with what is called a distractor trial, then come back to the original task. When we come back, because we corrected the error, the student should be able to respond independently!


5. Differential Reinforcement: Differential reinforcement in DTT sessions allows the learner to contact different levels of reinforcement depending on their independence when responding. Why should a student try harder when they are going to receive the same feedback for an incorrect and correct response? With differential reinforcement we want to give more for independent responses and less for prompted responses. This means that if a student loves bubbles but sort of likes high fives, we may use high fives after a prompt and play with bubbles when they respond independently.


Now that we’ve discussed what DTT is and what it looks like, it’s important to understand its advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages:

o DTT provides learners a large number of opportunities to practice and learn a skill.

o DTT typically occurs with minimal distractions to help students learn skills faster.

o DTT reduces frustration for learners by using methods such as errorless learning.

o Each trial in DTT is short and includes differential reinforcement meaning learning is paired with a child’s favorite things. Learning is so fun!



Disadvantages:

o Not every skill should be taught in a DTT format. Skills like social skills, play skills, and daily living skills are best taught with other methods such as Natural Environment Teaching (NET), Incidental Teaching, or Pivotal Response Training (PRT).

o Skills that are taught using DTT should include some sort of generalization program to help learners use the skills their taught in the DTT format in a variety of settings and with a variety of people or materials.


In summary, Discrete Trial Training is an amazing tool when teaching children with Autism but it should be understood before being implemented. Ignacio Estrada once said, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn”.




Jaelyn Burns MA, BCBA

Appleseeds Behavioral Center


A common belief is that individuals with Autism and other special needs are portrayed to be unable to understand the things that people say, this common thought process occurs due to the limited verbal speech of many of the individuals. The truth is so many of them understand everything that is said around them, this is why so many of our client’s learning language whether it be verbal or nonverbal our ABA therapists are encouraged to model language while playing because they are able to learn so much through pairing the language with the action.

“Our clients learn through a variety of ways”.

So today we are talking about different ways language can be used to provide opportunities for individuals with special needs to pick up new skills.

Narration

You are probably thinking of someone reading a story out loud, which would not be far from what occurs. Only in the case of teaching language this would be saying what actions the individual is doing as they play, draw, and move about throughout the day.

For example, if an individual was drawing an animal and the therapist says “Oh look you drew a spider! Wow that’s amazing spiders have eight legs, let’s count them!”.

When this happens the common phrases, names of items, and actions are paired with things that are naturally going on in their environment which assists in teaching them a variety of skills.

Modeling

Another way that individuals learn and understand language is through people saying the word associated specifically with the action being taught. This is similar to narration with the exception that you are the one performing the action being explained.

For example, the therapist starts clapping and then says “I’m clapping “outside of a target. Then the therapist when teaching an individual to identify actions sees a picture of the word clapping or of people clapping is then asked to identify the action or to show which one is clapping? The individual then selects the correct choice. This method focuses on how to teach a specific skill when it is used but is equally effective.



Katherine Rose is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at Appleseeds Behavioral Center in Kennesaw, Georgia.

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