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Errorless learning for children with autism

Errorless learning for children with autism

Picture this: You are in your home and the ABA therapists start teaching your child numerous new skills. This can range from copying sounds of letters (echoic skills) to teaching them how to tie shoes (self-help skills). Over the course of several weeks or months, you start to see your child learn how to do these in their unique way with the help of the therapists and their will. 

The question is… how did they start learning these skills in the first place?

The answer to that is simplified into two words: errorless learning. However, this small answer is jam-packed with a lot of information that we will unfold in this article together.

What is errorless learning?

Errorless learning is a teaching procedure in which we show individuals how to perform a skill and slowly fade out so that they can be independent in performing these skills themselves. When we use this procedure, we only use it when it is an absolutely new skill.

Take me for example - I have no idea how to pilot a plane. The instructor isn’t going to put me on a plane and say “Alright, you’re on your own. Good luck!” and then leave me by myself. Instead, they are going to hold my hand and teach me how to fly a plane. Over time, they will allow me to be independent and fly on my own.             

Types of errorless learning prompts and prompt hierarchy

Below is a list of the types of prompts from most to least intrusive:

  • Physical Prompt - Full Physical, Partial Physical
  • Model Prompt - Video, live modeling (ex. You showing your child how to put clothes away)
  • Visual Prompt - Pictures, social stories
  • Gestural Prompt- Pointing, Facial expressions
  • Time Delay - 0-second time delay, 3-second time delay, 5-second time delay
  • Verbal Prompt- Direct, Indirect

Although there are various prompts that can be utilized in errorless learning, not all of these would be included in each specific skill you are teaching. Take the skill of asking for items, for example. If you are trying to teach your child to say “ice cream”, you can’t use physical prompts for this skill. Instead, we could use visual prompts, gestural prompts, and verbal prompts. 

Below is a visual diagram to show which prompts you can use for each type of skill:

visual diagram for prompts & skills in errorless learning

Types of skills that are taught through errorless learning

Skill #1: Mand

Mand is a skill in which a person requests for an item/activity/person. These mands can be both direct and indirect requests.

Examples of mand skill:

  • Example A - If somebody says “Wow, it’s pretty cold in here!”, it could be a mand for somebody to turn off the AC or increase the temperature
  • Example B - When a child pokes at you and says “Mommy look at me!”, this is a mand for attention 
  • Example C - When you go up to the barista and ask for a venti cold brew, this is a mand for the venti cold brew

Types of prompts for mand:

  • Visual - You can hold up a picture or icon of the item/activity/person they would usually request as a reminder. Typically you would use this for those who are non-verbal and use picture exchange communication systems PECS or augmentative and alternative communication AAC devices. 
  • Gestural - When using gestural prompts, you can point towards the item/activity/person they would typically request in the situation they are in
  • Time Delay - Depending on the prompt level you are in, you would wait for 0, 3, or 5 seconds before telling them exactly what they are asking for. For example, if your child is asking for your attention when you are on the phone, you would wait 3 seconds, then prompt your child by saying “Mom” or “Dad”. 
  • Verbal - By giving verbal prompts, you either use direct verbal prompts or indirect verbal prompts. 

Skill #2: Tact

Tact is a skill in which your child learns to verbally identify stimuli. These include but are not limited to people, places, things, emotions, prepositions, actions, etc. 

Examples of tact skill:

  • Example A - When you look at the clouds, you tact by saying “Those are beautiful clouds”
  • Example B - When you point to a bird, your child sees it and says “There’s a big blue bird!”
  • Example C - When the therapist holds up a picture of a sad person, your child says “That’s a crying man”

Types of prompts for tact:

  • Visual - Just as the mand skill, you would use this for those who are non-verbal and use picture exchange communication systems PECS or augmentative and alternative communication AAC devices
  • Gestural - When using gestural prompts, you can use body language or point again to the stimulus. For example, if you hold up a picture of an angry face and your child, a gestural prompt would be for you to also make an angry face. Perhaps your child is more familiar with an angry face you would make than with a novel angry face on the picture
  • Time Delay - Time delay can also be used in tacts just how it is used for mands. For example, if you hold up a toy doll, you would wait for a certain amount of time before directly saying “doll”
  • Verbal - By giving verbal prompts, you either use direct verbal prompts or indirect verbal prompts. 

Skill #3: Listener-responding

Listener-responding involves the child responding to the communicative partner’s request by engaging in the specified request. 

Examples of listener responding skill:

  • Example #1 - When you tell your child “put the plastic spoon in the recycling”, and your child puts the plastic spoon in the recycling
  • Example #2 - When you tell your child “point to the red cup”, and your child points to the red cup 
  • Example #3 - When the therapist tells your child to jump up and down, and your child jumps up and down

Types of prompts for listener responding:

  • Physical - There are two types of physical prompts, full physical and partial physical. For full physical, you completely guide your child hand to hand into a desired correct response. For partial physical, you gently guide them to the desired correct response, and the guidance level is less involved than in full physical. How you guide them depends on the specific skill. For example, putting a plastic spoon in the recycling will look different than pointing to a red cup. 
  • Model - For model prompts, you are showing your child exactly how to do the skill. Let’s take the plastic spoon example. When you tell your child to put the plastic spoon in the recycling. You implement a model prompt by taking a plastic spoon and throwing it in the recycling. Then, give your child a plastic spoon and have them repeat the behavior you exhibited. You can also use videos as a prompt. 
  • Visual -  With visuals, you can use a social story or a picture that would guide your child to the correct response. Talk with your Behavior Analyst about creating a social story if you would like one for your child. 
  • Gestural - Taking the plastic spoon as an example, pointing to the recycling would be an example of using gestural prompts. You can also eyeball the recycling bin as a gestural prompt 
  • Verbal - You can use direct and indirect verbal prompts for listener-responding. You can either repeat your request or you can tell your child hints towards the correct response. 

Skill #4: Echoic

Echoic is a skill that involves your child vocally repeating exactly what you or the therapist says. Prompts can be fairly limited for echoic because they may not conclude in a correct response. It can take some time for children with autism to respond correctly to echoic skills if they are not as vocal. There may be times where you are engaging in errorless learning for weeks and your child may still not vocally respond. If this is the case, the behavior analyst would recommend using PECS or AAC for the time being.  

Examples of echoic skill:

  • Example #1 - When you tell your child “Yippe!” with a high pitched voice, your child would also say “Yippe!” with a high pitched voice
  • Example #2 - When you tell your child “Martha”, your child says “Martha”
  • Example #3 - If you whisper “I am in a library”, your child will also whisper “I am in a library”

Types of prompts for echoic skill:

  • Visual - Visual prompt involves you or the therapist to hold up a picture relating to the echoic skill. For example, some therapists use Kauffman cards as a way to assist children with autism or children with speech challenges
  • Gestural - Exaggerating the sound/word/sentence with your mouth can be used as a gestural prompt when teaching echoic skills

Skill #5: Intraverbal

Intraverbal skill is a more complex skill that involves conversations, finishing a sentence or answering a question. 

Examples of the intraverbal skill:

  • Example #1 - When you tell your child “How was school today?”, they would respond with “School was fun”
  • Example #2 - When the therapist sings “The wheels on the bus go…” and your child finishes the line by singing “round and round!” 
  • Example #3 - When you ask your child “What color is the sky?” and they respond with “blue”

Types of prompts for intraverbal skill:

  • Visual - Visual prompt can either involve pictures of words that would guide your child to engage in the correct response. For example, if your child is able to read, writing a word or sentence may help. 
  • Gestural - When using gestural prompts, you can use facial expressions to guide your child to the correct response
  • Time Delay - Time delay can work just as well as tacts and mands when utilizing this as a prompt. Again, the types of prompts include 0-second, 3-second and 5 second time delay
  • Verbal - You can use indirect verbal prompt and direct prompt. For example, let’s say you want your child to engage in the same topic about cats for about two minutes. If you want to prompt them using an indirect verbal, you would say “Oh, I just said that I love fluffy cats. What can you say after that?” If you want to prompt using a direct verbal, you would say “I also love fluffy cats” and your child should be repeating the same sentence you just said. 

Skill #6: Self-help

Self-help skills consist of skills that you do in your everyday life to assist yourself. Self-help skills are usually broken down into smaller steps as they can be complex. When skills are broken down into smaller steps for your child to follow, this is called a task analysis. 

Examples of self-help skill:

  • Example #1 - Teaching your child how to brush their teeth 
  • Example #2 - Teaching your child how to brush their hair
  • Example #3 - Teaching your child how to make a sandwich 

Types of prompts for self-help skill:

  • Physical - Let's take brushing your child’s hair for example. You would have your child hold the brush as you are also holding the brush. Then together, you brush your child's hair. 
  • Model - For model prompts, you are showing your child exactly how to do the skill. Let’s take making a sandwich for example. You would first show your child how to make a sandwich by making a sandwich yourself. Then, you would allow your child to make the sandwich. 
  • Visual -  Similar to listener responding, you can either use a social story or pictures to guide your child to engage in the correct response. 
  • Gestural - For gestural prompts, you would continue pointing or using facial expressions to assist your child. If we were to teach your child how to brush their teeth, we may point to the toothpaste as a way to inform them that picking up the toothpaste is the next step to brushing their teeth. 
  • Verbal - You can use direct and indirect verbal prompts for self-help skills. You can either literally state what their next step is or provide hints of what they should do next. If you were to teach your child how to wash their hair, you would say “take the bottle of shampoo and squeeze it in your hand” for a direct verbal prompt. For an indirect verbal prompt, you would say “do you remember what to do with the shampoo?”.  

Types of prompts used in errorless learning

Physical prompt

A physical prompt is when the instructor implements hand-to-hand contact to the learner to achieve the desired outcome. 

Examples include the following:

  • The instructor holding the learner’s hand to write the letter “A”
  • When asking the learner to point to the cake, the instructor will take their hand and use their hand to point to the cake
  • When first learning to ride a 4-wheeled bike, the instructor will take the learner’s legs and help them make a pedaling motion

Model Prompt

A model prompt can either be implemented by the instructor or a video to show the learner exactly how to do the skill. 

Examples can be the following:

  • Showing a video of a step-by-step guide on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • When teaching your child how to brush their hair, you show them how you brush your own hair
  • Writing the letter Z to show your child how to write the letter Z

Visual Prompt

A visual prompt is typically a picture that guides the child to the correct response. The difference between model and visual prompts is that visual prompts are vaguer. This is why model prompts are more intrusive.

 Examples can be the following:

  • When teaching your child how to write the letter “A”, presenting a picture of the letter “A” would be a visual prompt
  • When a child needs to focus on an assignment, present a “focus card” beside them and remove it when they do not need to focus
  • Reading a social story on taking deep breaths when they feel upset

Gestural Prompt

A gestural prompt is basically just pointing, engaging in facial expressions or any type of body language from the instructor that will hint the learner towards the correct response. 

Examples can be the following:

  • Nodding your head at them as they are about to point to the correct response
  • The instructor pointing to the angry face when showing 3 pictures of different expressions and asking the child which one is angry
  • When the learner is about to say an incorrect response and the instructor engages in a facial expression that shows it’s not the correct answer 

Time Delay Prompt 

As an individual in the ABA field for almost 10 years, I have to admit that time delays are the trickiest of all the prompts. However, with much practice, you will also have a grasp on how to implement this. The nice part about this type of prompt is that it’s not such a big deal if you don’t use this prompt. You can simply just use verbal prompts. What’s nice about this prompt though is that it gives the child some time to engage in a correct response.

Within this prompt, there are three levels that are listed from most to least intrusive:

  • 0-second time delay: You immediately provide a direct verbal (within 0 seconds)
  • 3-second time delay: You wait 3 seconds, then you give the direct verbal prompt
  • 5-second time delay: You wait 5 seconds, then you give the direct verbal prompt

The following are examples of using time delay prompts:

  • When first teaching the learner how to mand for a cookie, the teacher will show the cookie and immediately say “cookie” (0-second time delay)
  • When the instructor asks “What does the cow say”, then waits 3 seconds and says “moo” (3-second time delay)
  • The instructor holds up a picture of a cloud, waits 5 seconds, then says “cloud” to teach the learner how to identify a cloud (5-second time delay)

Verbal Prompts

Verbal prompts are when you vocally utter the correct response or hint for the learner. There are direct and indirect prompts. Direct prompts are more intrusive because you are telling them exactly what to say or do. Indirect prompts give them a little verbal hint of what to say or do.

The following are examples of direct and indirect verbal prompts:

Direct Verbal Prompts:

  • If teaching how to use an oven, stating “switch the knob to ‘bake’”
  • When teaching to ask for an item, the instructor would say “I want a cookie”
  • When showing a picture of a dog, the instructor would say “dog” if teaching the learner how to tact animals

Indirect Verbal Prompts:

  • When teaching how to use an oven, stating “what do we do with the knob?”
  • When teaching to ask for an item, the instructor would say “Is there something you need?” or they might say “coo-“ and wait for the learner to say “cookie”
  • When showing a picture of a dog, the instructor would say “d-” (for dog) if teaching the learner how to tact animals      

How do we fade our teaching procedure?

We start to fade our teaching procedure by using prompt fading. For errorless learning specifically, we use Most to Least intrusive prompting. Think of prompts as hints we are giving to the child to help them perform the skill correctly. In the beginning, we are going to give them the biggest hints possible and then provide smaller hints, and eventually, we will provide no hints at all.

Recommendations for when to begin prompt fading

It honestly depends on each unique child as they learn differently. However, you typically want to fade out as soon as possible. In my experience, there are some instances where I start fading out after the child gets a correct response after 3 times of using a prompt. In other instances, we may start to prompt fade after a couple of days to two weeks after getting correct responses from using prompts.

The reason why we do prompt fading is so that our kids don’t get too comfortable getting this help all the time. This is called prompt dependency. If a child becomes prompt dependent, it would be challenging to have them perform skills independently.

When do we let our kids perform this skill on their own?

When we allow our kids to engage in the skill on their own and then correct it if they make a mistake, it is called error correction. Typically we start implementing error correction when they engage in 3 responses correctly and completely on their own! However, it may still depend on your child and what works best for them.

Here is an example of when we would start implementing error correction. In this example, Tommy is learning how to identify the color red. Our prompt hierarchy will be the following (0-second time delay, 3-second time delay, 5-second time delay):

Opportunity 1-3:

  • Teacher: *holds up red lego* Immediately states: “Red”
  • Tommy: “Red”
  • Teacher: *provides reinforcement immediately*

Opportunity 4-6:

  •  Teacher: *holds up red lego* Waits 3 seconds, then says: “Red”
  • Tommy: “Red”
  • Teacher: *provides reinforcement immediately*

Opportunity 7-9:

  • Teacher: *holds up red lego* Waits 5 seconds, then says: “Red”
  • Tommy: “Red”
  • Teacher: *provides reinforcement immediately*

Opportunity 10-13:

  • Teacher: *holds up red lego* Waits for Tommy to say something
  • Tommy: “Red”
  • Teacher: *provides most effective reinforcement*

Note that opportunity 10-13 allows Tommy to independently tact the color red. Since he successfully tacted the color red 3 times completely on his own, he is now ready to transition to error correction. 

3 key tips for errorless learning

Choosing the right reinforcer

For errorless learning to be effective, we must be able to identify which reinforcer is the most effective. A reinforcer is something that is preferred for the individual that will increase the possibility of them engaging in a correct response in the future. This could be verbal praise, their favorite piece of food, or a token. It definitely depends on their preference! If you choose verbal praise, make sure that the words are meaningful and genuine to them. 

For example, if Tommy can identify what a cow is independently, instead of saying “good job” you can say the following:

  • “YES! That is a cow!”
  • Fantastic job!
  • Pretend the cow is speaking and say “Yes, that is right Tommy, I am a cow…’Moooo’”

Basically make it fun for your child. If your child loves to laugh, have the reinforcer be something funny that relates to what they did. I had one client that absolutely loved all my jokes. Pretty much all my reinforcers were jokes that we shared together. The best part about this was that I had fun with this too!

Another thing to keep in mind is that reinforcers are always changing. One day Tommy loves playing with cars. Then suddenly the next day, he loves playing with figurines. It is super-duper important to make sure that the reinforcer you choose is something they actually love for that time you are teaching them.

Independent responses during errorless learning

There may actually be a situation in which your child may engage in a correct response during errorless learning without any prompts. For example, let’s say you’re teaching your child how to identify a book. When you are about to prompt, your child independently says “book!”.

If this ever happens, give your child the best reinforcement possible. Doing so will help your child understand that if they do this skill independently, it is more rewarding than being prompted. After this happens, let your child engage in an independent response in the next two opportunities. If they actually engage in the correct response, you can absolutely transition to error correction!

Sensory challenges

When choosing the prompts we want to use for errorless learning, we have to think about the best way to implement this for our kids to enjoy. Although we can use physical prompts for skills like self-help or listener responding, some of our kids have sensory challenges. Due to these sensory challenges, you can definitely replace using physical prompts with something else.

For example, let’s say you are teaching your child how to copy the letter A. Typically, you would want to first use a full physical prompt during errorless learning (hand over hand). However, if they find touching the worst thing ever, perhaps they can learn with model prompts. Take a piece of paper for yourself and show them how to draw the letter A step-by-step. Then, they can use their own piece of paper to write the letter A. Creativity is key when determining the best prompts to use for your child!   

Again, each child is different and it is super important to tailor to your child’s needs. Here at Forta, we want this to be an engaging and fun learning experience for you and your child!

The ultimate takeaway about errorless learning

We’ve covered quite a bit about errorless learning and how to implement it. It can be a little tricky at first but with practice, it will definitely improve! One thing that board certified behavior analysts and registered behavior technicians love is your involvement in the sessions. In fact, it’s necessary for parents to be involved during the sessions so that they can better understand how to implement what they teach at home when they are not around.

With that in mind, please don’t be shy to reach out to your BCBA if you have any further questions about errorless learning. You can even ask them to show you how they implement it so that you know exactly how to do it yourself when you are with your child. Remember, therapists are not only there to create programs to help your child succeed and become independent but to also help you as well!

 

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