Tips on Preventing Challenging Behaviors during Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DT) is designed to increase student motivation and decrease challenging behaviors associated with learning new skills. DT uses high rates of reinforcement, breaks larger skills into smaller components, teaches prerequisite skills, and uses errorless learning. Although the combined behavioral strategies used during DT often lead to fewer challenging behaviors for students with autism, some students still struggle behaviorally. If you have a student exhibiting challenging behaviors during DT see the quick tips below for some easy ideas!

DT Tips to Decrease Challenging Behaviors:

1.     Complete a preference assessment and identify several new toys or activities to include in your session (see an upcoming newsletter for more on how to complete preference assessments). Don’t forget to use social reinforcement (e.g., tickles, patty cake, bouncing on your lap) or other unusual interests (e.g., twirling string, popping plastic wrap, using hand sanitizer) as the reward. Ninety percent of the time, it’s a motivational issue and you need to identify new reinforcers!

2.     Go back to a 1:1 tangible reinforcer (instead of using a penny board). This may be especially helpful when learning a more difficult DT skill.

3.     Provide a visual system so that students know how many lessons they need to complete and when they are finished with DT.  

4.     If a student consistently shows challenging behaviors on the third trial during a lesson, consider probing target skills to make sure the student hasn’t already mastered the lesson.  If the student is on the correct lesson, try requiring 1 or 2 trials for mastery of a specific skill and move quickly between lessons to mix it up.  This can be a bit tricky to maneuver but can reduce behaviors associated with repeating the same skill multiple times.

5.     Use a transition item (e.g., preferred activity) that a student can earn during DT. This can assist students who have difficulty leaving a more preferred activity and transitioning to DT. Once they get to the work area, allow the student to have 1-2 minutes of time with the preferred activity before starting discrete learning trials.

6.     Teach students an alternative communicative response to communicate they are all done. Some of our early learners have difficulty transitioning to the table and getting started with another activity even when highly reinforcing items are associated with the work area. These students, must first be taught an appropriate way to let others know they don’t want to stay at the work table, before they are asked to complete discrete learning trials. Initial steps may involve:

·         Helping a student transition to the work area. As soon as they are calm, providing the student with the opportunity to tell staff they are all done and being allowed to leave. This may include touching or handing you a picture symbol that says, “all done”, pressing an icon on an IPad that says, “all done” or signing or verbally saying, “all done.”  Over time, you can introduce the student to several preferred activities for 1-2 minutes of play and then provide the student with an opportunity to tell you they are all done. Gradually, intersperse one DT trial, allow them to earn the reinforcer for a minute, and then communicate that they are all done. Over time, as the student is successful you can increase the number of trials they must complete before they are allowed to leave the DT area. Before you know it, they will be completing 1-3 lessons without challenging behaviors!

7.    Consider changing the time of day and/or the length of your sessions. Many students exhibit more challenging behaviors at the beginning and end of the day.

8.   Use behavioral momentum. Many students have difficulty getting started with and following through with less preferred tasks. Behavioral momentum theory involves asking students to complete a series of requests that they are more likely to complete (high probability requests), followed by a request they are less likely to complete (low probability request). During DT, this might look like: touch your nose, give me five, clap your hands (high probability requests), match bowl (low probability request). You may only need to do this for the first couple of DT trials, and once they are warmed up you can stop using the high probability requests and go straight to the DT request.

9.    Create a “safe spot” for students who have difficulty relinquishing a preferred item during DT.  The safe spot can be a marked area on the corner of the desk, using masking tape or a plastic bin. Instead of saying “my turn” and asking the student to give you the preferred item, ask the student to put the preferred item in his/her safe spot. Giving the student control over where the item is stored during discrete trials can decrease challenging behaviors associated with having to give the item to an adult.

Challenging behaviors during DT are sometimes unavoidable. Often times, simple environmental changes such as changing the time of day or length of the session and identifying new reinforcers can result in more positive student behaviors. See our March newsletter for ways to conduct quick preference assessments and identify reinforcers that can be used during DT.