Discrete Trial Training (DTT) Best Resources


Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Teaching

When it comes to Applied Behavior Analysis, many professionals/students instantly think of DTT- Discrete Trial Teaching. This is often a huge misconception. While Discrete Trial Teaching serves as an integral component of ABA, it is definitely not ABA itself. It rather is a teaching technique used by professionals who are practicing behavior therapy, alongside many other strategies such as Incidental or Naturalistic Teaching.


What DTT Really is About?

The term Discrete Trial Teaching becomes pretty much self-explanatory once you dig into its literal meaning. It involves breaking down larger skills into smaller, more ‘discrete’ components which aim to simplify the tasks, allowing the child to get reinforcement for every correct attempt made, in order to facilitate the learning process. Each attempt made is known as a ‘trial’.

Take for instance a child, Ali, whose receptive language skills are being worked on. The therapist places two separate flashcards in front of him on the table-top, one showing an apple and the other showing a ball. The therapist then asks him ‘Give me the ball’.

The child scans the flashcards and picks the one showing the ball, giving it to the therapist. She verbally praises him by saying ‘Great job, Ali!’ followed by a hi-five. This is one ‘discrete trial’ involved when working on a goal in the Receptive Language domain.


Learning the A-B-Cs of Behavior

Before getting into the depth of DTT, it is important to know the Three-Term Contingency- The A-B-Cs of behavior. With ‘A’ standing for Antecedent, ‘B’ meaning the Behavior and ‘C’ standing for the Consequence. The antecedent is what comes before the behavior occurs, it could be an instruction or an occurring event. While on the other hand, the consequence is what follows the behavior.


Identifying the ABCs in Different Settings

In a DTT session, with the example mentioned above, the instruction given to Ali by the therapist is the antecedent, him reaching out to give the flashcard is the behavior and the consequence is the verbal praise and the hi-five that follows.

When it comes to problem Behaviors and identifying the function of a behavior (something that can cover an entirely separate article), let us take for instance Ali’s hitting behavior. After an in-depth functional behavioral assessment, the therapist finds out that Ali usually hits his peers during circle time because another therapist yells at him to ‘Stop’ when he hits.

It was identified as attention-seeking behavior with Ali being bought in a group setting for circle time being the antecedent, the behavior being his hitting and the consequence being another therapist telling him to ‘Stop’.


Differentiating Consequences

While understanding consequences, as stated in the examples above, it can be comprehended that during a Discrete Trial session the consequence can either be in the form of reinforcement or error correction.

This means that during skill teaching, each time that a child gives a correct response it should be positively reinforced by the therapist in order to keep the child motivated and improve the entire learning procedure. An example of reinforcement can be hi-five, phrases of verbal praise or tangible items such as certain toys or edibles that the child loves.

This concept has its roots in the early teachings of behaviorism surrounding operant conditioning, a concept introduced by B.F Skinner which devises that the occurrence of a certain behavior tends to increase if that behavior receives reinforcement of any kind.

A simple example of this can be a child screaming to get candy because his needs have been met in the past whenever he screamed. Hence, the screaming became a learned behavior as well as a tool for him to get what he wants.

When we talk about error correction, this occurs each time the child gives an incorrect response in a Discrete Trial session, followed by the therapist prompting him/her to produce the correct response.


Learning the Hierarchy of Prompts

As the term suggests, a prompt is a clue or an aid given to a child in order for him to perform the desired behavior or learn the skill being taught. In simple words, prompting a child means helping them. Most of the times, whenever a completely new concept is taught to a child, the Therapist starts off by using a full physical prompt (also known as ‘Hand Over Hand’ prompting).

As the child begins to grasp the concept, this is slowly faded to a partial physical prompt, moving down to a gestural prompt and then a verbal prompt. This can be better understood by the following example:

[su_note note_color=”#4fd593″ radius=”2″][su_quote]Rayan is a 4-year-old boy with Mild Autism who is being taught how to imitate motor actions using objects. The therapist starts off with a simple act of ‘putting a ball inside a cup’. In the very first trials, she gives him an SD ‘Do this’ followed by herself putting a ball inside a cup and then putting both objects in front of the child to allow him to imitate.

Since the child is new to the concept, she holds his hand and directs it towards grabbing the ball and then putting it inside the cup (full physical prompt). This is followed by verbal praise and bubbles, one of his strongest reinforcers. After a couple of trials, the therapist sees that the child is getting the concept and as soon as the SD ends, he reaches out for the ball, grabs it but becomes clueless afterward.

The therapist then intervenes and guides his hand towards the cup, then lets go of it, allowing him to complete the action himself (partial physical prompt). This is again followed by reinforcement. After a few trials, the child quickly is able to respond by picking up the ball after the SD, knowing that it has to be put somewhere, but is unsure about his move so he stops midway.

The therapist intervenes by pointing towards the cup or tapping on it (gestural prompt), and he gets the cue instantly, dropping the ball in the cup. Gradually, this too is faded and the child is given the SD, and then prompted by saying ‘in the cup’ (verbal prompt).

The goal is to fade all kinds of prompt, allowing the child to learn to independently perform the task. [/su_quote][/su_note]


Why choose DTT for children with Autism?

As Smith (2001) puts it, the goal of Discrete Trial Teaching is to simplify tasks into manageable trials, in order to increase the number of successes and reduce failures at most. For children with Autism, it is highly preferable that clear and precise instructions are given to them, for teaching new skills as well as offering guidance with daily living. Hence, DTT becomes a very ideal tool for such children, with its compact trial-based approach that maximizes the chances for positive learning.

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This Article is Written By Anum Farooq

  • Co-Founder & Organizer: PsychologyClinix.com
  • Clinical Psychologist
  • ABA therapist 
  • Researcher

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