Avoiding Prompt Dependence

Planning Instruction for Students with Profound Disabilities

A Happy Special Education Student
A Happy Special Education Student. Jerry Webster

A serious problem for special educators can be to create prompt dependence. In the effort to teach new skills we can create new barriers to success and independence by creating prompt dependence, where a student is unable to work without the application of prompting.

The Continuum of Prompting

Prompting lies on a continuum from "Most to Least," or "Least to Most." "Most" prompts are those which are the most invasive, the full physical prompt. From a full physical prompt, prompting progresses to partial physical prompts (tapping an elbow) and then through verbal prompting and gestural prompting. Professionals make decisions about how best to employ prompting, usually judging the ability of the student. Some students, who are able to imitate, should probably be taught a new activity by modeling with a minimum of prompting.

Prompts are intended to be "faded," or removed, so that the child can perform the new skill independently. That's why "verbal" is in the middle of the continuum, since they can often be harder to fade than gestural prompts. In fact, all too often "prompt dependence" begins with constant verbal directions teachers give children. The opposite problem can happen as well, as children get tired of constant verbal "nagging" from significant adults.

Plan Your Prompting

If students have receptive language and have a history of responding to verbal directions, you will want to plan a "least to most" prompting protocol. You want to teach or model the activity, give the spoken directive, and then attempt a gestural prompt, such as pointing. If that does not elicit the response/behavior that you wanted, you would progress to the next level, which would be gestural and verbal, "Pick up the ball (while pointing to the ball.)"

At the same time, your teaching may be part of a forward or backward chain, depending on the skill and the skill level of your student. Whether you forward chain ​or backward chain will depend as well on whether you anticipate that your student will succeed best at the first or last step. If you are teaching a child to make pancakes in an electric skillet, you may want to backward chain, and make removing the pancake from the pan the first step you teach, since the reinforcement (eating the pancake) is close at hand. In the same way, planning your task analysis and chaining strategy to guarantee success is a great way to avoid prompt dependency.

Children with poor or not receptive language, who don't respond, will need to be prompted "most to least" starting with full physical prompting, such as hand over hand prompting. There is greater danger of creating prompt dependency when you start at this level. It would probably be good to vary activities, so the student does tasks he or she has mastered interspersed with activities that they are learning. In this way, they are completing unprompted activities while at the same time working on new skills.


Fading is planned withdrawal of prompting in order to avoid prompt dependency. Once you have seen the child provide a decent approximation of the behavior or activity you want, you should start withdrawing the prompt . . . perhaps moving to a partial physical prompt (touching the child's hand, rather than a full physical, hand over hand prompt) or to a verbal prompt, paired with re-modeling the activity.

Quickly pulling back from the most invasive prompting as quickly as possible is probably one of the most important strategies in avoiding prompt dependency. It means accepting an approximation and moving on, rather than spending too much tie on a single repeated activity.

The key, then, is to:

  • Plan your prompting.
  • Mix mastered skills with new skills,
  • Accept approximations of the behavior and start withdrawing prompting and
  • Fade as soon as you can.
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Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "Avoiding Prompt Dependence." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/avoiding-prompt-dependence-3110356. Webster, Jerry. (2020, August 26). Avoiding Prompt Dependence. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/avoiding-prompt-dependence-3110356 Webster, Jerry. "Avoiding Prompt Dependence." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/avoiding-prompt-dependence-3110356 (accessed January 23, 2021).