Distinguishing Cues from Prompts in Education and ABA

Dr. Patrick McGrevvy, BCBA-D teaching a group about Essential For Living.

Wes Becker helped clarify cues and prompts for me decades ago, and I wish more people were clear in the difference and how it impacts our learners, including those with moderate-to-severe disabilities. Wes Becker, one of the pioneers in Applied Behavior Analysis, was a professor, author, and applied practitioner of special education. His book, Parents are Teachers, is legendary and remains a desk book in my library to this day. He worked with Siegfried Engelmann in Direct Instruction [DI], which revolutionized the teaching of reading and mathematics to children who had difficulty with academic skills.

The Most Important Skill For Teachers of People with Disabilities

Shortly after I first met Wes Becker in 1972, I asked him this question: “What skill should every teacher have, especially those working with children with limited skill repertoires?” I expected him to say something related to the delivery of consequent events and those events functioning as reinforcers, but he did not. He said, “Every teacher, especially those working with children with limited skill repertoires, should learn to distinguish the presentation of a cue from the provision of one or more prompts.”

Wes Becker, Photograph courtesy of James Becker

Photograph courtesy of James Becker

At first, his answer surprised me, but as time went along, the wisdom of what he said became apparent. A cue is a stimulus condition presented by a teacher that, by itself, is designed to evoke the targeted skill. When this happens, this phenomenon is described as achieving stimulus control and the cue functions as a discriminative stimulus [SD]. If the cue occurs, however, and the learner does not exhibit this skill, a teacher often adds prompts, that is, additional stimuli, in the form of spoken words, written words, demonstration, or physical guidance, that again are designed to evoke the targeted skill. Then, if the skill occurs, in other words, is evoked by the cue and the prompt, temporary stimulus control is achieved and these stimuli together function, at least temporarily, as a discriminative stimulus [SD].

In order for the teacher to achieve the original stimulus control that was targeted, in other words, the targeted skill occurs in the presence of only the cue, the prompts, on subsequent teaching opportunities, will need to be faded until they are no longer occurring.

If the teacher does not distinguish one or more of those additional stimuli as prompts, those stimuli are less likely to be faded. And, in order for the targeted skill to occur, the additional stimuli may also need to occur. In other words, the original targeted stimulus control will not have been achieved and the cue and the prompts together will continue to function as a discriminative stimulus [SD] with respect to the targeted skill. And, that skill will more likely occur only if both the cue and one or more prompts also occur and less likely occur if only the cue occurs.

An Example of Cues vs Prompts

You are teaching a young girl named Janet to ‘come and stand next to you’ when her name is called, so that she is safe in large groups of people. Currently, when you say, “Janet, come here” [a cue], she does not respond at all. As you begin teaching her, you add a gesture in the form of a hand wave [which you recognize as a prompt] after the cue. Now she ‘comes and stands next to  you’ when the verbal direction [the cue] is presented and the gesture [the prompt] is provided. On subsequent teaching opportunities, you fade the gesture [the prompt] until it is no longer occurring. Now, she ‘comes and stands next to you’ when only the verbal direction [the cue] is presented.

A concluding thought…

Prompts and prompt-fading become even more complex, when prompts occur in the form of spoken words… I’ll write about that soon. If you’re interested in learning more about Essential For Living and implementing the curriculum, please reach out to contact@essentialforliving.com or consider our course below.

The Essential for Living Curriculum and Teaching Procedures: An Introductory Course

This online course travels on-site with Dr. McGreevy and Troy Fry, BCBA as they deliver an 8.5 hour overview of how to utilize the EFL and it’s conception. Venture along with them as they visit Upstate Caring Partners (UCP), located in Utica, NY, USA. They observe the unique implementations of the tool occurring at UCP, talk to parents of children with moderate-to-severe disabilities, and tour the facility to help consult on unique cases utilizing the EFL.

A total of eight (8) BACB® Learning CEUs Available

Ready to start? It’s online, self-paced, and you can even watch on your phone (if you’re into that)! Learn more about the course and see samples below.

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What People Are Saying

We asked parents what was making a difference…

“He wants to be able to be part of society, part of community… and it’s just incredible because it makes his father and I feel confident that he is going to be able to have a productive life beyond us. I’m encouraged… and thank you, without this program we don’t know where we would be.” – Susan Callaghan, Parent

“And then all of a sudden, he started being able to wait, and he started being able to going to the doctor’s office…that’s whey they started talking about Essential For Living.”- Bobbi Rodgers, Parent

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About Dr. Patrick McGreevy, BCBA-D

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