• Colin Maynard

Things you could see in a session of ABA Therapy: Part 2

The next installment in the series goes over one of our most effective teaching tools, Discrete Trial Training. Discrete Trial Training, or DTT, is a frequently used tool in Applied Behavior Analysis. It is used by taking a skill and breaking it down into it’s simplest components and building it up from there. It might not be realistic for us to expect a child to learn to react accordingly to an emotional response in a conversation. However, if we break that skill down and teach how to recognize emotions on a variety of faces from flash cards, we can build it up to the point it could become more natural.

When we break down these skills we teach them over a series of teaching attempts, or trials. Each trial will consist of an SD (our statement), a prompt (if needed), their response, and followed by the consequence either reinforcement or trying again for a correct response.

The first part of the trial, the SD or Discriminative Stimulus, is typically a short statement or request. Staying with the example of emotions from above, we might say “Give me happy” requesting the child to identify the photo of the person that is happy. A SD also serves as instructions for the Therapist to guarantee consistency regardless of which therapist a child might be working with.

After an SD is presented, we often prompt our children, which looks a lot like just giving them the answer. The reason behind the prompt is to avoid wrong answers so we can decrease frustration. In the example of emotions, we might point to the correct card or even move their hand towards it. Following the prompt is the student’s response. The response is also written out to guarantee we are all reinforcing the same thing. Many programs are rather simple, and the correct response is obvious. Other times the true goal of the program might be less obvious. To avoid any confusion the correct response is always defined. Following our current example, the correct response would be the child gives us the picture of the smiling person. Once there has been a response, we provide either a positive or negative consequence, depending on the response. Our positive consequence, or reinforcement, is always sincere congratulations and often-times comes with a ‘reinforcer’. After our student gives us the picture of the happy person, a good therapist might jubilantly say “Great work! That is ‘happy’! You earned a token!” Tokens are a frequently used visual for earning a larger reinforcer, like a break outside.

Discrete Trial Training can take some getting used to and it is a different way of teaching to be sure, but it is also very effective and can give us frequent opportunities to praise the students we work with. Additionally, DTT provides a structure for teaching new skills that is invaluable when working with a population that learns a little differently.


Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Smith, T. (2001). Discrete Trial Training in the Treatment of Autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 16, 86-92. DOI: 10.1177/108835760101600204

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