Use Prompt Fading Techniques to Increase Your Child's Independence

Using prompt fading techniques after a child has mastered a skill is often essential to helping her retain what she has learned. Prompting is a great way to help your child learn just about anything. But prompt fading will help your child to maintain the skill she has learned without needing the prompts anymore.

If you haven’t read the page on prompting, I suggest reading that page first and then coming back here. Then this page will make a lot more sense to you. (Unless you are looking for information on how to fade rewards, in which case you can just continue reading or even skip to the bottom of this page.)

Once you have read about prompting, it’s important to know how to reduce those prompts to the point that the learner no longer needs them.

Now you may be thinking that this seems like a lot of extra busy work, as if we parents have nothing else to do with our time. 

I wouldn't suggest you do something extra unless it was important. 

As you know, our kids learn quite a bit differently from most children, and sometimes this step is needed. I'll explain this below.

fading words

Why Prompt Fading Works for Children With Autism

Suppose you have taught your child how to wash his hands. You’re using the hand-over-hand technique. You’re turning on the water for him, holding his hands, and moving his hands for him.

Now it’s time to phase out that prompt. Why?

Because if you don’t, he might remain dependent on cues and prompts. He might fail to learn how to perform the task without any help.

This doesn’t mean that you’re going to let his hands go and let everything fall apart.

With a prompt fading technique, you will be gradually reducing the amount of prompting you are giving him until he can do the task well without your help.

I’ll give you a couple of examples of how to do this.

Let's Start with the Hand-Washing Example

Okay, Susie is washing her hands well because you are helping her using the hand-over-hand technique.

Now it’s time for the prompt fading phase so she can wash her hands without needing your help. I’ll outline some steps you could follow to phase yourself out of the hand-washing process.

  1. Touch her hands, gently guiding her through the process. At this point, you’re not doing the action for her like you were before. You’re just giving her hands little pushes, directing them where you want them to go.
  2. Once she is doing the task well with that prompt, you could move to tapping her hand, tapping the soap and tapping the faucet handle. This tapping will let her know what she needs to do next.
  3. Once she is used to the tapping prompt, you can move to a verbal prompt only. You could say, “Turn on the water. Get some soap.” And so on.
  4. Next, reduce the verbal prompts to just one word. “Water. Soap. Rinse. Dry.”
  5. Eliminate the verbal prompts, and let her wash her hands on her own.

You could vary the prompt fading procedure according to your needs. For example, you could be giving her verbal instructions along with step 1 if you think she needs it. Then in step 3, you can remove the physical prompt, leaving only the verbal prompt.

Learning to Write Using Visual Prompts

fading lettersFading Letters

Remember that on the prompting page I discussed moving from a more intensive prompt to a less intensive one?

I described starting with the hand-over-hand technique. The next step was to push the wrist to keep it down against the paper. And the last step was a touch on the hand as a cue to write. That was an example of fading physical prompts during a writing lesson.

That same writing lesson could be done with visual prompts, too. Here are some possible steps you could follow for prompt fading when you've been using visual cues.

  1. First, your child will trace over letters you have written ahead of time.
  2. Next, he will trace over letters written with dotted lines.
  3. Then you gradually reduce the amount or intensity of the dotted lines until they are almost nonexistent.
  4. Finally, he will write the letters without any visual prompts.

Remember that it’s also important to be sensitive to the needs of the child, and change the procedure to suit his needs and abilities.

And I am sure there are a thousand different ways you could phase out your prompts. As someone has said, “Do what works.”

If your child picks up very quickly on what he is supposed to do, he may not need any more prompting. You can eliminate the whole fading process for that task. Remember the principle to use prompts only as much as the learner needs them.

But in another situation, he may need to stay at a certain stage of the phasing-out process for a while before moving on.

The point here is to be aware of your child's needs and to change your plan accordingly when necessary.

Fading Rewards

Fading rewards is similar to reducing prompts. 

If you're teaching your child a new skill, such as toilet training, and you want her to keep making progress, you would give her a reward each time she uses the bathroom.

But once she reaches the point where she is trained and using the toilet consistently, it's time to start reducing those rewards.

You might think you can stop all rewards immediately. But that could be a serious mistake.


Because if you do that, she may also stop using the bathroom because the rewards stopped. 

This is a common problem with stopping rewards abruptly, and that's why it's best to phase them out randomly.

You would move from rewarding her every time to only once in a while. You might choose to withhold the reward every second, third, or fourth time she uses the restroom. 

Changing it up each time is also helpful. Rather than always give the reward every third visit to the bathroom, you would give her the prize on the third visit, then two visits later, then four visits later, etc.

Gradually, you'll want to give her fewer rewards until she only receives it once every five, six or seven visits to the bathroom.

Finally, you'll be phasing them out until she no longer receives them at all. 

This is called a variable schedule of reinforcement, a method of phasing out rewards until they're no longer needed. This technique is proven to be effective in keeping the new behavior or skill from disappearing.

Once you've phased out all rewards, she may even forget about the prizes she used to get.

But if she asks about it or indicates that she wants the reward, I would say something like, "You're going to the potty so well now, and you're such a big girl that you don't even need that anymore. Way to go! I'm so proud of you!"

Need More Help?

Carrie Clark of Speech and Language Kids understands the concept of prompt fading quite well.  As a speech therapist, she is applying what she knows to teaching her own child new skills.  She has a great way of explaining this concept and demonstrating how any parent can use this knowledge to help their children acquire new skills or overcome bad habits.

Armed with this information you can teach your child just about anything that he is capable of learning.  I believe prompt fading is an under-used technique that more parents of children with autism could apply with a lot of success.

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