Prompts that Support Instruction and Independence

Moving from Full Support to Independence with Prompting

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Independence, completing a task or exhibiting a behavior without prompts or cues, is the gold standard of special education. The kind of support we give students to help them succeed in special education is called prompting. The level of support falls on a continuum, with the most invasive and furthest from independence, to the least invasive, or the closest to independence. The prompts at the least invasive end is also the easiest to fade, or slowly withdraw, until the child is accomplishing the task independently.

The most severely cognitively, multiply or developmentally disabled students may need very high levels of what is called “hand over hand” support. Still, kids with specific learning disabilities who may have attention deficit disorder with some reading and math difficulties may need prompting to stay on task and complete tasks. They are just as prone to become “prompt dependent,” which may leave them incapable of achieving the gold standard: independence.

Because of “prompt dependence” it’s important that a special educator understands how to work across the continuum, from hand over hand, the most invasive, to gestural prompts, the least invasive. As the teacher moves across the continuum, the teacher is “fading” prompts toward independence. We review the continuum here:

Hand over Hand

This is the most invasive of the prompts, and is often only required for the most physically disabled students.

The teacher or coach may actually place his or her hand over the student's hand. It isn’t necessarily just for the most physically disabled student: it works well with young students on the autism spectrum, older autistic students with unfamiliar tasks like sweeping, and even younger students with immature and undeveloped fine motor skills.

Hand over hand can be faded by lightening your touch to a simple touch on the back of a hand or arm to guide the student though the task.

Physical Prompts

Hand over hand is a physical prompt, but physical prompts can include tapping the back of a hand, holding an elbow, or even pointing. Physical prompts may be accompanied by verbal prompts. As the verbal prompts stay in place, the teacher fades the physical prompt.

Verbal Prompts

These are most familiar. We tell the student what to do: sometimes step by step, sometimes with more detail. Of course, if we talk all the time, our prompts get ignored. You can also design verbal prompts to fade from most complete to least complete. Example: “Bradley, pick up the pencil. Bradley, put the point on the paper. Circle the correct answer. Good job, Bradley: Now, let’s do number 2. Find the correct answer, etc. . . .” Faded to: “Bradley, you have your pencil, your paper and we have done these before. Please circle each answer and put your pencil down when you are done.”


These prompts should begin with a verbal prompt: they are easy to fade and are the least invasive. Be sure you don’t become so used to your verbal prompts that all you’re doing is running your mouth.

Shorten those prompts and trust the gesture, whether it’s pointing, tapping or even winking. Be sure the student knows what you are requesting with the prompt.

Gestural prompts are especially successful with kids with developmental or behavioral problems. Alex, who is featured in the article on making your own social narrative, sometimes forgot and would drool. I taught my wife, his teacher, to touch her chin with her forefinger to remind him: Soon all she had to do was move her hand a certain way, and he remembered.

Visual Prompts

These prompts can be paired with other prompts initially, and as they are faded, the simple visual prompt can remain.  Typical (children without disabilities in general education programs) also benefit from visual prompts.  Teachers have noted that children will reference the place on the wall where a graphic organizer for a specific skill used to be, noting that the mere act of remembering where the visual prompt was on the wall helps them remember the CONTENT of the prompt!

Independence: The goal.

The continuum: Hand over Hand -- Physical—Verbal—Gestural—Independence.