Written By Anne Overcash, MEd
Is prompting harmful? Anne Overcash, MEd, explains the difference between prompting and restraining, in addition to providing helpful tips on how to implement prompting, and eventually eliminate them.

Have you heard a variation of these statements recently?

“We stopped using physical prompts at our school/clinic.”

“Some prompts are bad and should always be avoided!”

Prompt types and prompting, in general, are currently a “hot topic” and my guess is that you have heard similar or even more bold statements. One possible source of confusion is that some are using the term prompt when what they are describing is restraint. No wonder there are many outside (and inside!) of the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis who are confused and upset with not just the term “prompt” but also the use of specific prompts. In brief, prompts are added to lessons to teach skills and there are many different types of prompts that can be used. Restraint is used to stop behaviour and is reserved for dangerous or potentially dangerous situations. Think of physically blocking/stopping and maybe even holding on to a toddler who is running toward a busy street!

Prompts for skill building are the focus of the remainder of this article. Prompts work and are useful. When we use a prompt, it helps the learner perform the skill. Therefore, if you try something and it does not work, then whatever you tried was not a prompt since it was not helpful.

Let’s substitute the word help for the word prompt. “I helped this person, but it did not help.” Help is neither good/bad nor intrusive/less intrusive. Some examples of prompts in different settings:

Home: A physical prompt to help your child put on their shoes

Classroom: A picture prompt to raise your hand

Community: A vocal prompt (reminder) to pick up your gym bag when leaving the gym



When the goal is to teach skills and promote independence, add whatever help is necessary and then eliminate that help.

When presenting to groups about good teaching practice often pose this question: If you add a prompt to a lesson, we need to do what with that prompt over time? You guessed it, nearly everyone in the audience already knows the answer. Removal of the added help (the prompt) is necessary for independence.

Additionally, I encourage groups to consider what are some ways we can describe eliminating the prompt without using technical terms. Here are a few I have heard recently: get rid of, eliminate, and, take out. In what ways would you describe getting rid of prompts in general terms?

While there may be a variety of methods for prompt removal one efficient strategy is to choose one prompt type and remove that prompt as quickly as possible. Let’s consider each of the prompts mentioned earlier.

1. Physical prompt to put on shoes (build from the end)

After helping through the entire sequence, the next time there is a natural opportunity to put on shoes, stop helping/guiding at the very end of the sequence. If they complete that last portion independently, heap on the praise! Over subsequent opportunities, stop helping a little bit earlier in the sequence until they are completing the sequence independently.

2. Picture prompt to raise your hand (vanishing picture support)

Once they are reliably raising their hand in the presence of the picture, begin to eliminate it by cutting away a small portion. Over a series of days, continue to cut away small portions of the picture until the picture has been completely removed and they are still raising their hand in class.

3. Vocal prompt to remember gym bag (say less)

Perhaps the vocal prompt began as “Don’t forget your gym bag!” The next time, say only “your gym bag.” You can see how this works, next time “gym bag” and finally only “bag” and then nothing.

These examples describe only one strategy to remove these prompts, perhaps you can think of other ways as well.

In summary, for every lesson, carefully select the prompt type and determine the plan to remove the prompt.

Anne’s recommended Resources:

Prompting in AAC: Helpful or Harmful? short talk

The Pyramid Approach Webinar

Lesson Plan Book

Pyramid Approach to Education Book 


Additional Support

To learn more about Prompting attend our short talk: Prompting in AAC: Helpful or Harmful? in a live remote or in-person training!

For ongoing support with communication skills, AAC implementation, the PECS protocol, and the Pyramid Approach, join our online community on Facebook. Search “PECS User Support” on Facebook and request to join. This active group of over 30,000 professionals, parents, and caregivers is monitored by our Pyramid Consultants from around the globe daily!

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