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Discrete Trial Instruction | ABA | Dr. Vincent Carbone


Discrete trial instruction is an important method for
teaching children with autism. There are many studies documenting the benefits
of this method. This method generally includes a teacher sitting with a student, with a learner – a child
with autism. The teacher has materials and information they will like to provide to the student. The student
usually sits across the table. The teachers presents the instructional material, and when children are not able
to or have not yet learned to respond to the material, the teacher will prompt the response and help the child
to learn the skill. It has been found to be a very important method for teaching children with autism and
overcoming some of the symptoms and learning difficulties of children with autism. There have been a number of ways
of conducting discrete trial instruction sessions. What I would like to now is show you a video and talk to you
about a method of discrete trial instruction that we have found to be the most effective, and embedded in this
video as well as the methodology, I will discuss with you why we are teaching in the manner in which we are teaching
this individual child. So let us now take a look at this video. Let us now take a look at a video of discrete trial
instruction were the methodology includes a number of strategies that have been demonstrated to be effective
with children with autism, to reduce problem behavior during high demand situations. This is a video of a
learner with autism, a six-year old girl by the name of Sylvia, and her teacher Leanne. This was video taped in the
Carbone Clinic in New York. Sylvia is a learner with autism who will not benefit from everyday life experiences
as it relates to acquiring language and other cognitive skills. So discrete trial instruction is a method that is
used to directly teach the type of skills that typical children might learn. As you can see, Leanne has a set of
materials in front of her and she is systematically presenting these materials, and Sylvia is expected to respond. She
is also using a token board as you can see and she is ticking off the tokens that act as rewards for Sylvia which
can then be exchanged for an activity after she has completed all of her work and has achieved and attained
about 40 or so tokens. Leanne has some materials in front of her, some of those are new targets, skills she
is working on, and a lot of it is in fact mastered skills. So lets now describe what it is Leanne is doing. The
purpose of Leanne’s procedures is to reduce problem behavior, which is a big problem during discrete trial
instruction. When you ask children with autism to sit and attend to tasks they frequently engage in disruptive,
escape and avoidance behavior. As a result of that Leanne is teaching in a very specific sort of way based
upon a set of methods that have been shown to be effective to reduce problem behavior. One of the first
things you probably notice is the pace of instruction. You notice how quickly Leanne is presenting
instructional demands to Sylvia. But notice, Sylvia is not frustrated in any way, not bothered by it, not
distressed by it, but just continues to respond. We have found that children actually prefer to be
presented materials in a fast pace sort of way. In fact, Carole A. Roxburgh and I published a paper
a couple of years ago, actually in 2012, in the Journal of Behavior Modification, a psychological
journal, a peer reviewed scientific journal, in the United States, that basically showed that you
actually achieve less problem behavior the faster you presented the demands. So presenting demands
at about one second, with a one-second interval or what is called an “intertrial interval” seems to be most
effective for many children. Of course, the pace should be adjusted to the individual child. In addition, Leanne is only presenting a few target
skills to many mastered skills. And the reason for that is that the interspersal of
easy demands along with only a few difficult demands seems to reduce problem behavior
pretty effectively. It is called “interspersal training”. In addition she is mixing all the skills together. One
time she teaches a label, then she will teach motor imitation, then she will teach a listener response – this
is referred to as “mixing and varying” – it has also been shown to reduce problem behavior. In addition,
whenever she presents a target, an unknown skill, she will immediately prompt a response. That is
called “errorless teaching”, making it impossible for Sylvia to be incorrect or greatly reducing the
probability that she would be incorrect. In fact, reducing learner errors also reduces problem
behavior. So these are some of the methods being presented here during discrete trial instruction. It might
not look exactly like what you might see other people presenting in a very slow and deliberate way, but the
methods here are specifically designed to reduce problem behavior, and make it less likely that we have problem
behavior and more cooperation. And here at the end is Sylvia receiving her back-up reinforcer and now she
will enjoy that for a few minutes and then go right back to teaching.

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