Picture this: It’s time to wash your child’s hands. You bring them into the bathroom and you tell them to turn on the water, pump the soap, rub their hands together, etc. and your child follows all of the steps until their hands are nice and clean. Later that day, when with their Grandma, Grandma says, “Go wash your hands.” Your child walks into the bathroom and then just stands in front of the sink. After a minute of silence, Grandma notices that your child has not begun to wash their hands and instead, is just standing in front of the sink. Grandma then does hand-over-hand prompting, by doing all of the steps for your child by holding onto their hands while washing.
This example could be occurring due to the child becoming prompt dependent. Prompt dependency is where the child relies on being told what to do or for the task to be done for them. It is when the child knows what to do, but depends on the prompt to be given to them. Essentially, the child is dependent on being told or shown what to do in order for them to respond. Our goal for every child is for them to become independent with every skill that has been taught. A child who becomes prompt dependent has less opportunities to become independent.
Here are 5 tips to follow in order to avoid prompt dependency:
1. Be mindful of when prompts have been given.
A prompt is a cue which elicits a response. A prompt can be a physical prompt, verbal prompt, or gestural prompt, to name a few. Typically when prompt dependence occurs, it is done unintentionally. So the first step is to recognize that a prompt has been given.
2. Fade prompts as quickly as possible.
Once it has been established that a prompt has been used, work on fading the prompt as quickly as possible. If using a physical prompt, start using a faded physical prompt. This will look like holding the child by their forearms, elbows or shoulders. If using a verbal prompt start to use a faded verbal prompt. This will look like telling the child part of what they need to say instead of giving them the full sentence to repeat, such as expecting the child to say “I want ___,” you might just say “I” for the child to then say the full sentence.
3. Use a less intrusive prompt whenever possible.
Let’s go back to that hand washing example, instead of using a verbal prompt (telling the child what to do) or a physical prompt (hand-over-hand prompting), try using a visual schedule instead. This visual schedule will show the steps of what is needed to be done for the child to follow. This will allow the child to become less dependent on needing directions from the parent and will increase their independence.
4. Only give verbal prompts when you are looking for a verbal response.
Over prompting often leads to prompt dependency. If you are not looking for the child to say anything, then a verbal prompt should not be given. For instance, when washing hands, we are not looking for the child to say “turn on the water.” Instead, we are looking for the child to turn on the water. Giving the verbal prompt “turn on the water” can lead to prompt dependency. Use visuals, gestures, and faded physical prompts instead.
5. Contrive the environment as much as possible to give as many opportunities for practice.
As parents, we tend to be able to read our children and are quick to do things for them. Take a step back before prompting. Offer some prompts along the way, but give your child an opportunity before jumping in and doing it for them. Sometimes as parents, we feel like it’s easier for us to complete a task for our children and to just do it for them because it saves time or possibly a big mess to clean up. We are all guilty of this! However, recognizing that those prompts are given and then fading them will create more opportunities for independence.
Remember, independence is our end goal for every child and for every skill! Be mindful of over prompting so that your child has more opportunities to reach independence!
Allie Edwab is Sunny Days Sunshine Center’s NJ Autism Program Supervisor. Allie is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who has been working with children with autism and developmental delays since 2007. She has an undergraduate degree in Special Education and a graduate degree in Special Education with a focus on Applied Behavior Analysis-both degrees from Penn State. Allie has had a passion for working with children and individuals with special needs ever since she was a little girl.