5 Tips to Prevent Prompt Dependency

5 Tips to Prevent Prompt Dependency

Picture this: It’s time to wash your child’s hands. You bring him into the bathroom and direct him through each step of the hand-washing process until his hands are nice and clean. Later that day, your child is visiting Grandma's house, and she asks him to wash his hands. He walks into the bathroom and then just stands in front of the sink. After a minute of silence, Grandma notices that he has not begun washing his hands. Grandma then does hand-over-hand prompting—performing all of the steps for your child by holding onto his hands while washing.

Situations like this can occur when a child is prompt dependent. 


What is Prompt Dependency?

Prompt dependency occurs when children rely on instructions or wait for a task to be done for them. Lack of independence and reduced skill acquisition are both common results of prompt dependency.


What Causes Prompt Dependency?

Issues with prompt dependency occur when instructional guidance through tasks haven’t been gradually reduced or faded; the child doesn’t know that he or she can complete tasks without direction.


What is a Prompt?

A prompt is a cue which elicits a response. Prompts can be physical, verbal, or gestural.


Prompt Fading 

Prompt fading is the process of gradually reducing frequency and timing of instructions when teaching children how to perform daily tasks. It is an essential part of building a child’s independence.


5 Tips to Help Reduce Prompt Dependency:

  1. Recognize your prompting behavior

Prompt dependency is usually unintentional, so the first step in reducing dependence is to recognize that you have given your child directions to aid in completing a task.

  1. Fade prompts as quickly as possible.

Once you realize that you are directing your child, work on fading the prompt as quickly as possible. If you are using a physical prompt, start guiding your child's forearms, elbows, or shoulders instead of their hands. If you are instructing your child verbally, provide the first part of the prompt instead of a complete verbal instruction. 

  1. Use a less intrusive prompt whenever possible.

Let’s go back to the hand washing example at the beginning of this post. 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. Your child can follow along with each step, which will allow decreased reliance on directions and increase independence. 

  1. Only give verbal prompts when you are looking for a verbal response.

Over instructing often leads to prompt dependency. If you are not expecting the child to say anything, then do not give verbal instructions. For instance, when washing hands, we are not looking for the child to say, “turn on the water.” Instead, we want the child to turn on the water. Giving the verbal prompt, “turn on the water” can lead to prompt dependency. Use visuals and gestures instead.

  1. Provide opportunities for practice.

As parents, we are able to read our children and are quick to do things for them. Take a step back before prompting. Offer some directions along the way, but give your child an opportunity to perform a task 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 because it saves time or possibly a big mess to clean up. However, recognizing that we are prompting and then making an effort to fade instructions 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.


Photo by CDC on Unsplash


Allie Edwab, NJ Autism Program Supervisor

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.

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