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This article is part of our ABA therapy techniques series where we explore the different techniques used by ABA therapists.
Discrete trial training (DTT) is an evidence-based intervention that helps children with autism improve their social communication and other skills. This article provides an overview of the discrete trial training technique and explains how it’s being implemented in ABA therapy.
What is DTT?
Discrete trial training or discrete trial teaching (DTT) is a highly structured ABA training where skills are broken into smaller, easily taught components. For example, the therapist may work with a child on pronouncing a specific sound or learning the name of one color at a time. Children are rewarded for every achievement, which encourages them to continue learning.
DTT can help build confidence in children who struggle with developmental skills and in particular those who are on the low end of the autism spectrum. This technique is also beneficial in situations where other methods of ABA therapy are not able to help a child adopt a new behavior. DTT typically targets children on the autism spectrum aged 2-6 years, although it can be used with children of any age.
Discrete trial training is characterized by:
- Clear structure and a highly predictable learning framework
- Short and focused sessions that require increased attention
- The flexibility of use in different settings(home, school, outdoors)
- Interactive learning that keeps the child motivated and engaged
- A natural progression from simple to complex tasks.
DTT is an intensive therapy that can be extremely demanding and time consuming. Sessions are usually scheduled for 5-7 days a week and may take up to 40 hours per week.
How does it work
Discrete trial training consists of one-on-one sessions with a therapist. It is typically done in a controlled environment that encourages focused work, such as sitting at a table. Each session is composed of several trials with short breaks in between.
The key technique used to motivate the child to learn during a DTT session is positive reinforcement. Whenever the child gives the correct response, he or she is offered a reward to positively reinforce that behavior, for example, praise, a treat, or getting the opportunity to play with a favorite toy. When the child offers an inappropriate response, the therapist responds with a gentle correction and repeats the trial.
Much of DTT training involves basic repetitions until the child starts using the desired skill and learns how to engage in appropriate behavior without being prompted. The ultimate goal is to have learning generalized to all settings and environments.
Areas Where DTT Helps Children with Autism
Discrete trial training can help children with autism learn and maintain a variety of basic and advanced skills that will lead to improved quality of life. These include:
- Cognitive skills
- Speech and language skills
- Social communication skills
- Skills needed for using sign language or communication devices
- Play skills
- Daily living skills
- Following instructions
- Learning new behaviors
- Self help.
The 5 Principles of Discrete Trial Teaching
Discrete trial training is based on five main principles:
- Skills are broken down into smaller “discrete” tasks. This process is referred to as chaining.
- The therapist teaches each task until the child masters it before they move on to another skill.
- Discrete trial training sessions are intensive.
- The therapist begins by using prompts whenever needed to then gradually decrease their use.
- Learning is reinforced by incentives. A reward is offered as soon as the child successfully accomplishes the task.
Steps of DTT
Discrete trial training is done in several steps:
- Discriminative stimulus
- The prompt
- Child response and consequence
- Inter-trial interval
A discriminative stimulus is a signal indicating that a positive response will be reinforced. It can be an object, a verbal instruction or a picture, an action, or a cue from the natural environment.
For example, placing hands under water is a discriminative stimulus to wash hands, and rain is a discriminative stimulus to take an umbrella before leaving the house.
Once the child has established a basic understanding of discriminative stimulus, the therapist can start applying this concept in a more advanced way.
The therapist may need to use prompts to help the child find the correct response to a discriminative stimulus. In other words, the therapist has to show the child the correct response in order to guide their behavior, for example, tap the object the child should point to.
Prompts can have two different forms: full gestural and partial gestural.
When using a full gestural prompt, the therapist offers a verbal cue and at the same time models the behavior that leads to the reinforcement. For example, the therapist instructs “point to blue” and then immediately points to the blue item.
When using a partial gestural prompt, the therapist only partially indicates the item. Because the therapist has modeled the desired skill and there is the expectation of reinforcement, the child understands that pointing at the blue item will lead to receiving a reward.
The goal of DTT training is to reach the point where prompts are no longer necessary. The child will know how to select the correct items based exclusively on the verbal cue offered by the therapist.
Child response and consequence
The child’s response to a discriminative stimulus during DTT trials can be correct or incorrect. If the response is correct, the therapist will immediately reinforce it with a reward, such as verbal praise, a treat, or a token. After a while, the child will learn that engaging in a positive behavior or giving the correct response to the stimulus will be followed by reinforcement.
On the other hand, when the child provides an incorrect response, the therapist remains neutral and gives no reinforcement or punishment. The child is gently corrected or simply ignored.
The last step of the discrete trial training is inter-trial interval. It refers to the short period of time after the consequence that indicates the end of one trial and the start of another. This interval must be very short (typically only a few seconds) to ensure the continuity of the learning process.
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