Discrete Trial Training – Frequently Asked Questions

On this website, there is a detailed guide on Discrete Trial Training for children with Autism. Based on that post, we have received many follow-up questions from parents. In this thread, we are capturing the most commonly asked questions on this subject. If you have more questions, add them to this thread.

Q. What types of skills should be taught with discrete trial training?

A. Discrete trial training can be utilized with a range of skills, including basic communication (e.g., language production), functional tasks (e.g., sharpening a pencil) and behaviors (e.g., entering the classroom appropriately). Discrete trial training is not appropriate for complicated skills that cannot be broken down into small discrete steps.

Q. What is the best way to determine appropriate reinforcers to be used in discrete trial training?

A. The reinforcers used in discrete trial training should be motivating for the individual learner. Parents and teachers can complete a preference assessment based on their observations of the student to identify motivating reinforcers. Reinforcers can include:

  • A desired toy or object
  • An action or movement that the student enjoys
  • A picture or icon of a pleasurable activity that can take place after the trial is completed (i.e., shooting hoops)
  • Food or drink (this should be used cautiously)
  • A few seconds of video or music
  • A token that can be exchanged for a tangible reinforcer

Q. How frequently should discrete trial training take place?A. Depending on the length of the trial and the complexity of the skill, discrete trial training can be conducted on a daily basis. However, the way the trials are structured is dependent on the feasibility of conducting the training. Practitioners should arrange to conduct discrete trial training sessions when it is most practical for them. For example, there may be a 30-minute daily independent work time that allows the educator or practitioner to work one-on-one with the learner at least once a week.

Q. What strategies can be used to increase the likelihood that generalization and maintenance of the target skills will occur?

A. Practitioners can increase the likelihood that skills will be generalized by continuing to reinforce the target skills across all settings. For example, if the target skill is entering the classroom and putting personal items away in a cubby, practitioners should provide a positive verbal response to each instance of this behavior, even after the completion of formal discrete training trials.

Communication between practitioners is vital to promote generalization of skills. It is also important to work closely with families to ensure that target skills are generalized and maintained in the home environment, and to include peers as conversational or social partners to ensure reinforcement of skills and to promote normalcy. If skills are not being generalized, it is important to conduct additional discrete training trials in a setting that most closely resembles the target environment.

Q. What is the best way to complete a task analysis

A. A task analysis can be completed by the members of the learner’s educational team. Once the target skill is identified, it may be important to gain consensus on the key steps necessary to complete the skill, particularly by the expert in that domain (e.g., consulting a speech language pathologist regarding an expressive language objective, or an occupational therapist for a fine motor objective, etc.).

One approach to completing a task analysis is to actually complete the skill, stopping at each distinct point to note the discrete steps. For example, if the target skill is sharpening a pencil, the team would walk through the steps of sharpening a pencil and write down each step. For example:

  1. Place the pencil in your hand.
  2. Get up from your desk and walk to the sharpener.
  3. Place the pencil in the sharpener.
  4. Continue holding the pencil in the sharpener while turning the handle to sharpen the pencil.
  5. Remove the pencil from the sharpener.
  6. Check to make certain the pencil is sharp.
  7. Return to your desk with the sharpened pencil.
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