Discrete Trial Training for Students with Autism

Instructor: Jennifer Moon
This article defines discrete trial training, including the six steps in the process. Then, take a look at examples of how to use discrete trial training when working with students on the autism spectrum.

Discrete Trial Training & Autism

One of the most common challenges when teaching students on the autism spectrum is their inability to learn through the same methods and at the same rate as that of their peers without Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Students with ASD may not learn through natural social and environmental interactions, therefore some skills that others acquire naturally may need to be directly taught to students with ASD. The use of discrete trial training (DTT) when teaching students with ASD is a straightforward, systematic way for teachers to ensure all of their students are learning.

So, what is discrete trial training? Simply put, DTT is a teaching method that breaks large skills down into small, individually taught steps, while using a great deal of responding, prompting and praise by the instructor. The steps are taught and practiced in a series of 'trials' until mastery of each small step is achieved.

Steps in the Discrete Trial Training Process

Once a teacher understands when to use DTT as a teaching method, he or she must put much thought into the details within the teaching of the skills prior to implementation. Below are the six steps in the DTT teaching method. Following each description of the step is an example of how a teacher would use DTT to teach sight word discrimination to a student. It is important to keep in mind that all steps may not be necessary in teaching a new skill via DTT. The teacher will observe the need to go from one step to the next based on the student's mastery of the skill at each level.

Step 1: Antecedents

The antecedent to the response is perhaps the most important part of the DTT method. Basically, it is what the instructor does in order to encourage the student to complete the desired target skill.

For example, when teaching a student to discriminate a sight word, the teacher might lay down three word cards: BALL, CAT, CAR. The antecedent the teacher would give would be to say, 'point to the word CAT.'

Step 2: Prompting

Prompts must be given to a student when he or she is unable to begin or to complete the desired skill once the antecedent has been given. Prompts are basically a way to give help or assistance to progress in completion of the target skill. Prompts can be verbal or physical.

For example, if the student could not discriminate (determine) which card said 'CAT,' then the teacher might gently take the student's hand and lead them toward the cards, repeating the exact same directions, 'point to the word CAT.'

Step 3: Student Response

When teaching skills using DTT teachers must always monitor the student response to decide the next course of action in the DTT progression of teaching steps. Simply put, the student's response is either correct or incorrect. This determines if the instructor follows into step 4 or step 5.

For example, if the student pointed to the word CAT after the prompt, proceed to step 4. If the student did not point to the word CAT after the prompt, proceed to step 5.

Step 4: Reinforcement

If the student provides a correct answer or response following the antecedent and/or prompt, then he or she will be reinforced with some type of highly desirable activity, food, token, etc.

For example, if our student trying to discriminate the word CAT did so correctly (either with or without a prompt) then I might give him a red skittle for reinforcement, because I know that is his favorite!

Step 5: Correction

If a student does not provide a correct answer or response following the antecedent and/or prompt, then he or she will take part in a scripted teacher-led correction process.

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