Prompting and Fading

Prompting and fading are two important teaching techniques that can (and should) be used in everyday activities such as tidying up after play, learning self-help skills like brushing teeth, and appropriate social skills. These techniques can be used at home as well as in the classroom.

What do the terms mean?

A Prompt is a cue or hint meant to help a child to perform a desired behaviour, skill, or part of a skill. Prompts can be as permanent as stop signs that signal our need to decelerate our car, to gradually fading prompts such as reducing the amount of hand over hand assistance used to teach a child to cut with a pair of scissors. Hand over hand assistance is essentially your hand over your childs hand shadowing the desired behaviour that they are to complete. PROMPTING just means “using prompts”.

Like crutches for a person with a broken ankle, prompts serve only to support your child while developing the new skill. Weaning your child off prompts quickly will ensure that the skill will develop and that he will not become dependent on the “crutch”. This is FADING. It is a process of gradually reducing the need, strength or level of the prompt. Using the example “tying shoe laces”, you might gently touch your child’s wrist to encourage him to pull the lace loops apart to create the knot (rather than using a higher degree of assistance such as hand-over-hand assistance).
The prompts (cues and assistance) given to help a child do all, or part of, a new skill range from the strongest and hardest to fade (get rid of) to the weakest and easiest to get rid of.

The following is a guide to the different levels and types of support or prompts that can be used to teach new skills.

1 (most or strongest ) → 5 (least or weakest)

  1. Full Physical – hand over hand
  2. Partial Physical – touching your child’s elbow, wrist, shoulder etc. to prompt movement
  3. Modeling – demonstrating the action or skill desired and tapping into your child’s imitation skills
  4. Gestural – pointing, nodding, or gazing at an item to provide a cue as to the action wanted
  5. Positional – either placing your child where learned cues in the environment prompt the behaviour. (e.g., placing him in front of the washroom door to prompt using the toilet) OR – positioning an item related to the skill in view of your child to prompt action (e.g., bringing shoes over to him may prompt him to go to his cubby to begin dressing to go home.)

When teaching a new skill you will use the MOST AMOUNT OF PROMPTING NEEDED to ensure learning the steps of the skill. If the skill is new to your child, you may need to provide full physical assistance initially to get the job done. If your child can do part of the task already or uses a similar skill, you may find a visual prompt, such as the picture of the next step, is enough to teach the step. Helping too much can sometimes be a problem. It is important to find the right balance.

How do you get started using prompting and fading?

There are five simple steps to remember:

  1. Define target behaviour (action, skill, or partial steps). Through TASK ANALYSIS, the steps to performing a skill to be taught are determined.
  2. Identify suitable prompts. Go through the steps of the task analysis with the child and determine the most amount of prompting (cues, assistance) needed to get through each step. It may be that different steps of the skill need different levels of prompting. Prompts will change as your child begins to learn the steps.
  3. Prompt, reinforce, and fade. The reason for prompting behaviour is so that you can reinforce it using praise or any other reward that will motivate learning. Give your child time to respond. Unless you are using direct hand-over-hand assistance, after presenting a lesser prompt (e.g., Modeling), it is best to wait a few seconds before prompting again. The reason for waiting is to see whether he will attempt a correct response. That will let you know what prompt level to use. As your child begins to demonstrate the action you want, begin to fade the prompt by being less “hands on” with your assistance and provide more subtle cues such as gestures etc.
  4. Monitor results. This is essential to know if you are progressing satisfactorily. Keep a log of which prompts are being used at each step of the task analysis so that you don’t accidentally provide too little or too much prompting the next time you instruct your child on that skill.
  5. Return to a stronger prompt when necessary. Sometimes you might think that a step has been learned and then discover the next day that your child is struggling. At these times, it is OK to give a previous, stronger level of prompting until your child is showing that he can do that step proficiently again. Remember to quickly move to a lesser prompt as soon as possible.

It sometimes takes a little practice to feel comfortable using these techniques, but making prompting and fading part of your daily teaching toolkit is a useful way to help all children learn new skills.

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