Inside: If parents understand the fundamentals of prompt hierarchy and its many flaws, you can better advocate for your child.

One of the most controversial topics right now in special education is ABA. Arguments against ABA are plentiful on most social media sites. Some will even say things like “All ABA is child abuse.”

That’s an extreme position to take and not one that I necessarily agree with. However, I fully believe that ABA is misunderstood and overused. It often forces a child through their interoception because it is so often used improperly.

I have a whole separate article about the many flaws of FBAs and behavior plans if you choose to read that. I go into much more detail there.

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child not responding to verbal prompts in prompt hierarchy
One of the flaws of Prompt Hierarchy is: Not every child responds to all the prompts progressively, or in the same way.

But, as parents dig deeper into this, and want to find other, better options for their kids, you must fully understand exactly what prompt hierarchy is, and why it is so often inappropriate to apply it to our kids.

One big piece of this is understanding prompt hierarchy.

Prompt Hierarchy

Prompt hierarchy is a concept commonly used in behavior analysis, a branch of psychology that focuses on understanding human behavior and the environmental factors that influence it.

Specifically, prompt hierarchy refers to the system of prompts that are used to guide or shape behavior, with each prompt being progressively more intrusive or intensive than the previous one.

The goal of prompt hierarchy is to help individuals learn new behaviors or skills by providing them with guidance or assistance as needed. The prompts used in a prompt hierarchy can take many different forms, such as verbal cues, physical gestures, or visual aids.

The prompts are typically arranged in a hierarchy, with the least intrusive prompts being used first and more intrusive prompts being added as needed.

Hierarchy of Prompts

This is known as the least to most prompt hierarchy. What that means is–a verbal prompt is the “least invasive” prompt for a child, and a physical prompt, maybe even hand-over-hand, is the most invasive.

The different levels of prompts used in a prompt hierarchy can be divided into four main categories:

  1. Verbal prompts: These are the least intrusive type of prompt, and involve using words or language to guide behavior. For example, a teacher might say “Can you try again?” to prompt a student who is struggling with a math problem.
  2. Gestural prompts: These prompts involve using physical gestures or movements to guide behavior. For example, a therapist might point to a specific item to prompt a child to name it.
  3. Modeling prompts: Modeling prompts involve demonstrating the desired behavior or skill. For example, a therapist might show a child how to tie their shoes, and then prompt them to do it themselves.
  4. Physical prompts: These are the most intrusive type of prompts, and involve physically guiding or manipulating the individual to perform the desired behavior. For example, a therapist might physically guide a child’s hand to help them write a letter.

The order in which these prompts are used is typically thought to determine an individual’s level of skill or ability, with less intrusive prompts being used for individuals who are just learning a new skill or behavior, and more intrusive prompts being added as needed if the individual is having difficulty.

Flaws of Prompt Hierarchy

The main flaw with the least-to-most prompt hierarchy is that it assumes everyone perceives and processes information the same way. IE–that every child will find a verbal prompt less invasive or intrusive than a physical prompt.

This is extremely flawed thinking. Many kids, particularly those who are most often likely to be subjected to prompt hierarchy, find noise and voices and talking more difficult to process than a hand squeeze.

Some kids may prefer physical contact. Some students may find a particular voice very grating on their auditory processing. And everything in between!

child at school
Prompt hierarchy is often used to keep students on task.

Some common flaws of prompt hierarchy include over-reliance on prompts, limited generalization of skills, and failure to fade prompts over time leading to learned helplessness.

Additionally, prompts may not always be effective for every student and can sometimes cause frustration or confusion.

Another flaw is this: It doesn’t get to the root cause of the negative behavior.

Yesterday in my online training, we were discussing autism elopement. Many kids who are prone to elope get a 1:1 aide to stop this behavior. Typically, if the aide thinks the child is considering an elopement, they begin going through the least to most prompting hierarchy.

And, it may work. The child may resist eloping. However, if the aide had to put her hand on the student’s arm to prevent him from leaving the classroom, what does that mean?

It did not stop the desire for the child to elope. The paraprofessional merely physically prevented the child from leaving the area. And, the next chance that child gets, when there is no aide or para, the child will elope. Happens all the time.

It’s also flawed to think that every child learns the same way, and will learn to fade the prompts. I have to prompt my own child all the time. Many kids will only tie the desired behavior with the prompt, and not ever without the prompt.

Heck, I verbally prompt my husband at least 100 times a day! He still does not unload the dishwasher unless he is verbally prompted to do so.

Misuses of prompt hierarchy like this happen all day, every day.

Benefits of Prompt Hierarchy

There are several benefits to using prompt hierarchy to guide behavior. For one, it allows individuals to learn new skills or behaviors in a systematic and structured way.

The first step is to make sure that the traditional prompting hierarchy is actually appropriate for this child and this situation.

By starting with less intrusive prompts and gradually increasing the level of prompts used, individuals can build their confidence and competence in performing the desired behavior. Additionally, prompt hierarchy can be tailored to the individual’s specific needs and abilities, making it a highly personalized approach to behavior change.

Another benefit of using prompt hierarchy is that it can help reduce frustration and anxiety for individuals who may struggle with learning new skills or behaviors. By providing guidance and assistance as needed, individuals can feel supported and encouraged to continue working towards their goals.

Despite these benefits, prompt hierarchy is not without its limitations. For one, it can be time-consuming to develop and implement a prompt hierarchy, particularly if the behavior or skill being targeted is complex or multifaceted.

Additionally, some individuals may find certain types of prompts to be aversive or uncomfortable, which can hinder their progress in learning the desired behavior.

In conclusion, if parents want to resist adding ABA, prompt hierarchy or traditional behavior modification measures to their child’s IEP, you have to understand the fundamentals.

If you understand the fundamentals and potential flaws that may negatively affect your child, you can better advocate for what they need and will benefit from.

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