Prompting Behavior Change: A Guest Post by Steve Levinson, PhD, Inventor of the MotivAider

We’re thrilled to bring you this exclusive article written by Steve Levinson, PhD, Inventor of the incredible MotivAider. We’re all familiar with the incredible versatility of the MotivAider in facilitating behavior changes and here, Dr. Levinson explains how behavior modification works. We’re so grateful to Dr. Levinson for this fantastic article. You can find more exclusive articles from leading experts in the field in our new catalog.

Prompting Behavior Change by Steve Levinson, PhD

If you’re a parent or a teacher who’s trying to change a child’s behavior, you’re probably frustrated. It’s not easy to change a child’s behavior. But before you blame the child, consider this: It’s not all that easy to change your own behavior either! Even when you have a good reason to make a particular change, and you’re really serious about doing it, changing your own behavior is rarely a snap.

Why it’s so hard to change behavior  So, what makes it so hard to change behavior? If you think it’s simply a matter of motivation, think again. Motivation is certainly important, but many behavior change attempts fail not because of insufficient motivation. They fail because of insufficient focus.

You can’t change your own behavior unless you can keep your attention focused on making the desired change. While it’s easy to do things the old way because the old way is automatic, doing things the new way requires focus.

Unfortunately, whether you’re a parent, a teacher or a child, it’s not easy to stay focused. That’s because, amazingly, the human mind has no built-in mechanism to keep our attention focused on making the changes we want to make. So it’s really no wonder that our good intentions keep getting lost in the shuffle.

If you’re not convinced that (1) focus is an essential ingredient in the recipe for behavior change and (2) we’re not well-equipped to stay focused on the changes we want to make, here’s an example that should help. Suppose you have a bad habit of slouching. You realize that slouching is not only bad for your back, it’s bad for your image. So you promise yourself that from now on that you’ll sit up straight and stand up tall. How hard could that be? Yet soon—very soon—after setting out to improve your posture, you’re right back to slouching.

So, what happened? Did you lose your motivation? No. You lost your focus! You failed to make a change you genuinely wanted to make because you simply couldn’t keep your attention focused on making it.Yes, it’s hard to change behavior because changing behavior requires focus, and none of us—not parents, not teachers and especially not children—are particularly well-equipped to stay focused.

So what can we do to stay more focused on the positive changes we want to make? And what can we do to help our children or our students stay focused on the positive changes they want to make?

Prompting: A simple way to facilitate behavior change  One solution is to use “prompting.” Prompting is a simple behavior change method that uses frequently repeated signals to keep your attention focused on making a desired change.

To illustrate how and why prompting works, let’s return to the posture example we used earlier. Only this time, after you promise yourself that you’ll sit up straight and stand up tall from now on, I’m going to follow you around and every few minutes—whether you’re slouching or not—tap you on the shoulder and whisper in your ear, “You’re no slouch.”

With me reminding you frequently, I guarantee that you’ll stay focused on improving your posture. What’s more, soon I’ll be able to stop whispering because just feeling the tap on your shoulder will be all it takes to send you the associated message, “Yes, I’m no slouch.” Sometimes when you feel the tap, you’ll find yourself slouching, and you’ll straighten up right away. Other times when you feel the tap, you’ll notice that your posture is already fine. It doesn’t matter whether you catch yourself slouching or you catch yourself with perfect posture. Either way, you’ll be making progress in replacing your bad posture habit with a good posture habit. Before long, you’ll automatically be sitting up straight and standing up tall.

Fortunately, there’s a more practical and even more effective way to use prompting. Instead of relying on a dedicated person to follow you around and keep tapping you on the shoulder, all you really need to implement basic prompting is a timer or other mechanical or electronic means that’s capable of sending you frequent private signals automatically. The process is simple. First, you devise a brief personal message that urges you to make the change you want to make. Then, you associate the personal message with the signal—the same way we associated “You’re no slouch” with a tap on the shoulder in the example above. The result is that whenever you receive the signal, you’ll focus your attention on making the change you want to make. And by making certain that you receive signals often enough, you’ll stay focused.

Prompting isn’t magic, but it can do amazing things. What’s more, because it allows us to overcome an obstacle that all of us—parents, teachers and children—share, it’s remarkably versatile. The same simple method that can be used to help a young child do a better job of staying on task can also be used to help parents and teachers consistently stick to an effective technique they forget to use when they’re busy or frustrated. The same simple method that can be used to help a child make a constructive keystone change in her social behavior can also be used to help parents and teachers stay cool, calm, collected, and constructive when interacting with a defiant child.

Hints for the Holidays: 6 Tips for Success on Thanksgiving

Holidays can be challenging for everyone in the family. Your to-do lists get longer, your routines are switched around, and all the little stresses can be especially difficult for your child with autism. Here are a few tips to ease the difficulties related to Thanksgiving.


Finally, remind your child why you are thankful for them and enjoy your holiday!


Tip of the Week: Avoid Prompt Dependence When Teaching New Skills

“She won’t say hi unless I say ‘Say Hello.’” “He will only wash his hands if I put his hand on the knob to turn on the water.” “He won’t use his fork until I put it in his hand.”

I hear statements like this all the time from both parents and providers working with learners what autism. What they are describing is “prompt dependence,” which is when a learner requires a prompt from a teacher or parent in order to complete a task. So how do you avoid prompt dependence with your own learners?

Let’s start with the prompt itself. There are many different ways to prompt which can be divided into levels by how intrusive the prompt is. Below is a sample of a prompt hierarchy, with the least intrusive prompt at the top and the most intrusive prompt at the bottom. Your goal is to quickly move through the prompt levels to move your learner to independence.

Prompting Hierarchy

Now let’s look at two different examples to show these prompt levels. In the first example, the goal is for the learner to greet a person who walks into the room. In the second example, the goal is for the learner to pull up his/her pants after using the bathroom as a part of a toileting routine.

Prompt Chart

Research shows that least-to-most prompting increases potential for errors and slows down rate of acquisition for new skills. Therefore, most-to-least prompting is preferred for teaching new skills. This means that you would start at a full physical prompt, then move your way up the prompt heirarchy until your learner achieves independence with the task.

In the past, when working with discrete trials, it has been common practice to have a learner master a skill at a certain prompt level, then move to a less intrusive prompt and have the learner master the skill at that prompt level, steadily moving towards independence. This can actually encourage prompt dependence because the learner remains on the same prompt level for too long.

Instead, you should try to quickly move up the prompt hierarchy in a way that makes sense for the skill you are trying to teach. Below are some tips to help you help your learners achieve independence.

  • Follow the rule of three: Whether you are teaching with discrete trials or in the natural environment, once your learner has successfully responded to a demand three times consecutively, move to a less intrusive prompt.
  • If you are taking data, make a notation of what prompt level you are using at each step. (And remember, that only independent responses should be counted towards the learner’s percentage of correct responses.)
  • At the end of a session or group of trials, note what prompt level you were at by the end of the session. Then start at that level during the next session.
  • If your learner does not respond correctly when you move to a less intrusive prompt, then move back to the most recent prompt level. Once they respond again correctly at that prompt level three times consecutively, move again to a less restrictive prompt.
  • Remember that verbal prompts are very difficult to fade. Though they are less instrusive, you should avoid using them when possible.
  • You can pair prompts and then fade out the more intrusive prompts. For example, with the sample of pulling up pants described above, you can pair a visual prompt with a gestural prompt by showing the symbol for pulling up pants while pointing at the pants. Over time, you stop using the symbol and just use the gestural prompt. The gestural prompt can be faded by moving your point further and further away from the pants.
  • Write down what the prompt levels will look like for the specific task you are teaching. This way you will be fully prepared to quickly move your learner towards independence.
  • Differentiate your reinforcement! If you move to a less intrusive prompt and the learner responds correctly, then you should immediately provide a stronger reinforcer than you did for previous responses. If a learner spontaneously responds without a prompt, you should do what I call “throwing them a party” by combining reinforcers (such as tickles and high fives) or providing a highly desirable reinforcer.

Prompting can be very difficult to do well, but following these tips should help set your learner on the path to independence.

Tip of the Week: Do It Again

Teacher and Student In A Classroom At SchoolTeaching learners with autism or other developmental delays can frequently be a complicated, stress-inducing labor of love. This is why I especially appreciate that one of the most useful strategies in working with learners of all ages is just three simple words: “Do it again.”

The basic idea behind “Do it again,” (Or “Try it again,” or “Do it better”) is that you are calmly stating that the learner must try an action again and do it better than previously done. You are not yelling, you’re voice isn’t even raised. And you are communicating to the learner that you know he/she is capable of doing more.

In some cases, working with learners who may require more invasive prompts such as physical prompts, it may be necessary to have two adults for this to work best. Below are a few example scenarios of how this might work.

Scenario One

  • Teacher asks student to hand a paper to her.
  • Learner drops paper on desk next to her hand.
  • Teacher: (Hands paper back to student.) Try it again. (Holds hand out for paper.)
  • Learner places paper in hand.
  • Teacher: Thank you.

Scenario Two

  • Non-verbal learner wants to get attention from teacher. Grabs teacher’s shirt and pulls.
  • Second adult (possibly another teacher or paraprofessional): Try it again. (Provides hand-over-hand assistance for giving a light tap to get teacher attention.)
  • Teacher: What do you need, _____?

Scenario Three

  • Learner: S@*!
  • Teacher: Try again.
  • Learner: S@*!
  • Teacher: Try it again. (calm, even tone)
  • Learner: I’m mad.

Scenario Four

  • Learner is running across the room to get a toy.
  • Teacher: Go back. Try again. (The learner must return to the point in which he/she began to run.)
  • Learner walks across the room.

Behaviors to use this with:

  • recurring behaviors in which you know the student knows the rule, or you have repeated the rule many times
  • behaviors that are maintained by attention or desiring “shock value” such as cursing, insulting, or using rude language
  • increasing behaviors related to polite speech
  • decreasing behaviors that could cause injury (such as running in the classroom or being rough with peers or adults)

Why it works:

  • you are demonstrating a calm sense of control
  • you are demonstrating that you have and enforce high expectations
  • you are willing to spend the time to have your learner complete requests correctly
  • the learner is still receiving attention, but it is low-quality attention. You should differentiate the quality of the attention you provide based on the quality of the learner’s behavior.
  • the learner still gets what he/she desires, but only after behaving in the desired manner. It is important that the learner still receives the tangible, attention, or escape instead of being punished for finally engaging in the desired behavior, EVEN IF the learner has to “do it again” multiple times. Over time, the learner will engage in the appropriate behavior more quickly because it increases the speed with which they receive the desired item or activity.


Sam’s Hints for the Holidays: 6 Tips for Success on Halloween

TrickorTreatHolidays can be challenging for everyone in the family. Your to-do lists get longer, your routines are switched around, and all the little stresses can be especially difficult for your child with autism. Here are a few tips to ease the difficulties related to Halloween.

For Preschool & Elementary Children

  • Practice – Invite your neighbors to have a “rehearsal” for Halloween so your learner can practice the steps. If this isn’t a possibility for you, it may be helpful to watch youtube videos of trick-or-treating.
  • Prepare – Let your child know the trick-or-treating route in advance. In the days leading up to Halloween, make yourself aware of houses to avoid based on decorations that are gory, include excessive lighting, have strobes, or any other aspects that you know will make your learner uncomfortable.

For Teenagers

  • Consider alternatives – You may want to join with other parents to throw a Halloween party that is autism-friendly based on the needs of your learner and the needs of other party guests. Another suggestion would be to celebrate with a themed activity, such as Halloween activities at local museums or art institutions.
  • Give a task – Let your child have a job such as giving out the treats at the door, managing an activity for younger children, or helping with decorating your home.

For All Children

  • Be flexible – Think about what is necessary for your learner, what your learner is interested in, and what success looks like in terms of Halloween. Maybe success means you visit three houses, or maybe success means your learner chose a costume. The idea is to keep it fun.
  • Remember it’s okay to stay at home! - You can create your own Halloween tradition that fits your family’s needs. This could include a special movie night, creating Halloween-inspired foods together, or anything that is fun for the whole family.

Tip of the Week: Always Be Pairing

Yesterday, we introduced you to Sam Blanco, BCBA-extraordinaire and Different Roads’ wonderful new consultant. Today, we’re thrilled to commence her new weekly segment, the “Tip of the Week.” We’re sure you’ll find them to be as interesting and insightful as we do.

TeacherStudentHighFiveAlways Be Pairing

If you are familiar with ABA, you have probably heard of the term pairing. The idea behind pairing is that you will establish and maintain a positive relationship with the child by pairing yourself with preferred items or activities. Pairing is important not only in establishing a relationship with a learner; but also in maintaining the relationship, preventing boredom, and increasing motivation throughout your relationship with the child.

Below we address four common misconceptions with pairing.

Common misconception #1: Pairing only takes place when you are building a relationship with the child.

Many therapists I’ve supervised tell me that they pair for the first 1-4 weeks, then start teaching. But pairing shouldn’t end there (nor should it necessarily take so long as we’ll see with common misconception 2.)

Before each session, you should engage in “pre-session” pairing. This means that you are providing free reinforcers without placing demands. For early learners you might start off a session with blowing bubbles or playing with a parachute. For older learners you might start off a session with a game or sharing a book the child enjoys. Usually, it’s a good idea to present the learner with options during pre-session pairing. Involving choice frequently increases motivation, and it also increases the likelihood of delivering a more highly reinforcing item.

Some people feel that pairing every session eats up valuable instructional time. However, pre-session pairing increases motivation and cuts down on maladaptive behavior, which actually increases the amount and the quality of your instructional time for a given session.

Common misconception #2: Pairing takes a long time, and a provider or teacher should not start placing demands until the pairing process is complete.

In some cases, pairing may take a long time. However, in many cases, you are able to start placing demands during the first session. This does not mean that you’ll necessarily start doing discrete trials on the first day, but you can begin placing simple demands to build instructional control while you are pairing. It’s helpful for gaining instructional control to incrementally increase the number of demands placed across sessions, while always starting with a pre-session pairing session.

Unfortunately, pairing is not an activity that can be measured, and it’s important to recognize that the pairing process is never complete.

Common misconception #3: Pairing should involve sensory toys because all children with autism are highly motivated by such toys.

For some learners, sensory toys are highly motivating. However, a common error is using the same pre-session pairing with every learner. What you believe is reinforcing in general may not be reinforcing for your learner in particular. If the learner is not engaging with the item, ignoring it, putting it down, or displaying maladaptive behaviors when the item is presented; then the item is not reinforcing.

Another consideration is that big aspect of pairing is that the learner associates these motivating items and activities with you. While it is beneficial to be the purveyor of fun sensory items; it may be even more beneficial to engage in activities with the learner, such as cause and effect toys or games or physical activity that requires your involvement.

Common misconception #4: A learner will always be motivated by the same items.

Several times when a provider calls me to come in and assist with behavior problems, I discover that there is not enough novelty within their pairing sessions. A learner may love a marble run one session (which happens to be one of my all-time favorite toys) then have no interest the next session. Or, what I see much more often, is that the learner loves the marble run for two months, then suddenly has no interest in it. The provider or teacher is uncertain about what happened and depended too heavily on that reinforcer. Then, without a powerful reinforcer to use throughout the session, the learner displays a drop in motivation and sometimes an increase in maladaptive behaviors.

There’s a word for this: satiation. Learners display a wide range of satiation levels. Some learners you work with may satiate on reinforcers within minutes, while other may prefer to see the same items over and over from session to session. A learner’s satiation can vary based on many different variables, so you should be prepared to address it.

One way to address this is to choose not to bring the same reinforcers to each session. This way, if a battery dies, you forget to bring a favorite toy, or something breaks you have not set yourself and your learner up for failure. A second way to address satiation is to remove the item while the child is still motivated to engage with it, instead of waiting until he/she has lost interest before introducing other choices.           

When pairing is consistent, specific to the child’s interests, and involves a variety of items and activities learners will maintain motivation and you will be more easily able to maintain instructional control.

Pick of the Week: Visual Schedules

schoolSummer is winding down and for most it’s time to get back to a routine. For many of our students and children that means getting a handle on a busy new schedule of self-care, school, therapy sessions, extra-curricular activities, play dates and special occasions. A visual schedule or an activity schedule can help pull all of the parts of a hectic day together for a child and increase independence, build organizational skills as well as improve comprehension skills. A visual schedule provides clear expectations, utilizes a child’s visual learning strengths, can reduce anxiety or difficulty with transitions, and can increase flexibility.

This week, we’re offering a 15% discount on some of our favorite products to help you get a visual schedule up and running. Just enter the Promo Code BLOGVS13 to redeem your savings and get organized.

DRP_928_Clear_Schedule_Token_StripClear Schedule with Token Strip: This is an option that is easy and portable for those who want to customize and create their own schedule pictures. There is a token economy that runs alongside which is great for learners who require a thick schedule of reinforcement and need to earn a token for each step of the schedule and can be used for any age.



On Track! Responsibility & Behavior System: This product is a great tool for children 8 and up. It is a wonderful resource for keeping the whole family on track across multiple daily routines and behavioral objectives. The detailed instructional guide walks you through the implementation and execution of the system is an added bonus.



EasyDaysies Magnetic Schedule for Kids: The simplicity of this is fantastic. The Magnetic Fold & Go schedule board travels with you easily and can adhere directly to any metal surface. The imagery is very clear and easy to understand and the To Do and Done Columns are intuitive and easy for even the youngest child to use. The starter kit includes 18 magnets that cover all the basics in your learner’s daily routine but as proficiency increases there are supplemental packs are available to include more specific magnets covering Chores & Special Times, Family & Extracurricular Activities, and Get Dressed & Bathroom routines.

*This offer expires on September 24, 2013 at 11:59 pm EST. Not compatible with any other offer. Be sure there are no spaces in the promo code at check out!

Introducing The NEW ABA Program Companion: What’s Next for YOUR ABA Program?

New ABA Program Companion Cover.inddWe’re thrilled to introduce The NEW ABA Program Companion: What’s Next for YOUR ABA Program? by J. Tyler Fovel, M.A., BCBA. This is an expansive brand new edition of the bestselling ABA Program Companion, completely updated with a new online software package, the ABA-PC3. Designed for practitioners who need to solve educational problems through analysis and creation of technically powerful solutions, this brand new book is sure to be at the top of your go-to references. The New ABA Program Companion offers important information and ideas on how to design, document, implement, evaluate and offer the best skill acquisition programs you can create for your students.

Managing a complex, multidimensional ABA Program involves vision, teamwork and infinite coordination. This book will help you choose and attain your next steps, wherever you may be in the process.

With school back in full swing and new cases starting up, now is the perfect time to utilize this powerful resource to create and organize your ABA programs. For a limited time, we’re offering The NEW ABA Program Companion at the introductory low price of $35. This offer will only be valid until September 17, 2013 so be sure to order your copy today!

CHAPTERS (for full chapter listings, click here)

Chapter 1: Attributes of an Effective ABA Program
Chapter 2: Introduction to Instructional Program Writing
Chapter 3: Managing the Setting and Materials
Chapter 4: Attention and Engagement
Chapter 5: Prompts and Prompt Hierarchies
Chapter 6: Developing a Solid Reinforcement Strategy
Chapter 7: Errors and Error Correction
Chapter 8: Generalization and Incorporation
Chapter 9: Data-Based Decision Making
Chapter 10: The Big Picture: ABA Project Management

About the ABA Program Companion 3.0 (ABA-PC3) Online Software

The ABA-PC3 software offers an online curriculum development environment for ABA teams. This is the newest version of a curriculum development tool specifically designed for ABA programs that helps with nearly every phase of the program creation process from selecting individual target performances to writing detailed step-by-step procedures to generating data sheets, entering data, and producing graphs. There’s also a program review module that structures the process of revising procedures based on observation and student performance measures.

ABA software

The unique software has a built-in library of 650 programs and over 4000 individual learning targets, all fully customizable by the user for their particular circumstances. Users can quickly search the library using keywords and select appropriate programs or write their own, rapidly building a comprehensive set of student programs. The set can be implemented or used to quickly create multistep sequences of programs for a variety of settings and instructional purposes.

The software helps focus and streamline the process of building an individualized comprehensive curriculum for students in an ABA program and provides a common workspace to enhance collaboration among different service providers on the special education team. In addition to the program library and learning targets, a variety of easy to use tools are included that help accomplish essential ABA implementation tasks including:

•      Automatically-generated data sheets customized for each student
•      Simple data entry screens for skill acquisition and behavior reduction programs
•      2-click graphing that automatically labels changing conditions
•      Reports of active and mastered programs
•      A structured workspace to assemble clear and well-defined prompt hierarchies and error correction strategies
•      A centralized area to organize the goal performance specifications and individual targets, record mastery dates, flag targets for implementers, and construct subsets of the comprehensive target list (condition sets) for presentation to the student
•      Clinical review and progress determination area that allows a user to enter information from observations and provides summary statistics on the progress of individuals or groups of students

**NOTE: Limited introductory price of $35.00 valid through 9/17/13 at 11:59 pm EST. All purchases made after that date will be at the regular retail price of $42.95.

Pick of the Week: “I See I Learn” Books

Early childhood is a period of vital learning through sensory experiences. Visual learning and comprehension are expressed long before children learn to read and utter a wide range of vocabulary. The I See I Learn series by visual learning specialist Stuart J. Murphy applies this natural capacity of young children with engaging and stimulating stories that are reinforced with visual strategies that help young learners prepare for school and other situations.

I See I Learn BooksThe I See I Learn series introduces a neighborhood of gentle, caring individuals, who respect and nurture each other. The stories are infused with experiences in which our fictional friends Freda, Percy, Emma, Carlos, Camille, and Ajay learn basic life lessons by effecting positive results.


This week only, SAVE 15% on the I See I Learn books, by entering in the promo code BLOGISIL3 at checkout.

The books are divided into the comprehensive domains of Social and Emotional Skills. Each title addresses a particular issue relevant to the experiences of young learners. In Percy Gets Upset, readers learn how to deal with frustration. Good Job, Ajay! helps children build confidence. Emma’s Friendwich explores the fun and challenges of making friends. In Camille’s Team, the gang must work together to share in the fun and learn cooperation. Percy Listens Up gently helps children understand that not listening often leads to missing out on great fun. And Freda Stops a Bully explores how it feels to be teased and bullied and what strategies kids can use to stop it.

Informative illustrations paired with diagrams that illustrate various issues encountered in children’s daily lives help make these lessons easier for young learners to remember.

Layout 1

Additional activities and questions in the back of the books also help educators and caregivers further explore each issue discussed in the stories with their children.

Experts in the field of educational development for young children agree that learning tools need to have the ability to apply children’s own viewpoints in solving the conflicts that they may face on a daily basis. Stuart J. Murphy does this exactly with a positive-child approach in his series. Each layout – each word – reflects Murphy’s ability to see scenarios and dilemmas “as a child” and to present them in natural, kid-friendly language with solutions that make sense from their perspectives. The dynamic illustrations in each story are engaging and help generate excitement in young learners when you decide to introduce a new title.

BLOGISIL3 Promo Code

This week only, SAVE 15% on any one of our selections from the I See I Learn series by Stuart J. Murphy, by entering in the promo code BLOGISIL3 at checkout.*




*Offer expires on May 14, 2013 at 11:59 pm EST. Not compatible with any other offer. Be sure there are no spaces after the Promo Code when you enter it at checkout.

Remembering Dr. Nathan Azrin, Psychologist Who Developed the Token Economy


Perusing the New York Times this morning, I ran across an obituary for Dr. Nathan Azrin.  The name rang a bell but it wasn’t until I read the article that I realized that he had taken B.F. Skinner’s work and made theory into practice.  He created the “first token economy” and was able to change and shape behaviors for many different types of patients. 

 I wonder if Dr. Azrin had any idea of the hundreds and thousands of children he supported and helped through the years.  It’s boggles my mind to think of all of those token boards, penny boards and reward boards we’ll all created and used.

As we quoted in our most recent catalog, according to Matson & Boisjoli (2009): “One of the most important technologies of behavior modifiers and applied behavior analysts over the last 40 years has been the token economy.”

While we’re working with our kids today, let’s take a moment and thank Dr. Azrin for making a difference in the lives of those on the spectrum.  Here’s the whole article: