Treating Scrolling and Prompt Dependency


Reduce “Scrolling” (Random Guessing) and “Prompt Dependency” (Asking for answers) when the student is required to produce already learned verbal responses and written work.



When the curriculum gets harder, the student heavily relies on “Guessing” and “Asking for every answer” to remove pressure of interaction and worksheet.  Based on my observations, some of the work he delivers is correct on independent trial.

Discussed here are a few teaching strategies in a classroom setting.  Feel free to contact this writer for a protocol in ABA format.



  1. Allow for Choice. “How many questions you like today? 3, 4, or 5?” Let student make decision and help him stick with his choice.
  2. Spell out all letters. When student asks for every letter of a spelling word, teacher spells or sounds out all letters to reduce prompt dependency.  This can also enhance working memory, audio memory, fluency, and visual tracking.
  3. Use Draft Paper. Write out the immediate math question on a draft paper; provide prompts before student makes error for the first time.  For the second attempt, fade out the prompts on same question.  For the last time, student is to do the math correctly and independently on worksheet.  This will reduce anxiety in making errors on draft paper and help student feel successful on worksheet after practice on draft paper.
  4. Praise for Correction. If student self-corrects mistakes, provide big praise for doing correction. If student needs prompt to correct work, praise for good listening and appropriate correction.


Some Teaching Tips

  • Provide enough repetitions and practice to ensure student experience a final correct answer in one session.
  • Interrupt student’s automatic guessing and prompt dependency by looking away and waiting him out. After a wait time of 3-5 seconds, say “try again”, and restart the task with necessary prompts.
  • For math period, be aware that the student is transitioned from a highly favourite activity (Computer Activities) to a non-favourite activity (math worksheet). Generously reward group compliance by praising for good sitting, good answering teacher’s question, and nice looking at teacher.  Show him a “thumb-up” to deliver praise quietly.
  • Math is right before lunch and the period could be his most tiresome time of the morning. Consider offering a drink or pre-contract with him to work for his favourite activity (e.g. Lego, puzzle, blocks).

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The 4-D’s

If you see a challenging behaviour, and your formal ABA strategies don’t work to reduce it.  Try something different.  Same ABA logic.  Different flavors.

The 4-D’s: Detach – Deform – Demonstrate – Declare

Detach: Detach emotionally from the stress.  Your student does not purposely make you mad.  The child must have something to say.

Deform: Break down the situation into A-B-C.  What is the motive? What is the behaviour? What does the child want by doing this?

Demonstrate: Show the student what to say or do to get what s/he wants.

Declare: Officially praise the student for his or her success in doing the appropriate behaviour.

Hope you like this idea of “ABA Made Simple”.

Teach Decision Making Skills

Decision making is an important life skill in our everyday lives. Due to underdeveloped executive functions in individuals on the spectrum, the person could run into obstacles and even hazards in daily situations. We want to avoid that by teaching the client how to “think” and plan pragmatically.

The use of a Flow Chart could help lay out the immediate conceptual situation (or crisis) visually and state the solution steps textually. Here is a simplified example:


Decision Making Flow Chart 20160307

Decision Making Flow Chart 20160307

Please find some recommendations for using visual display in teaching decision making.

  • Start with simple situations. Examples are: Getting around in a crowded classroom. Picking toys during break time. Where to visit on Sunday? Who to invite to a playday? Someone took my gym shirt.
  • To begin with, offer 2 very different solutions (can be from different modalities). Later, offer more solutions and a variety of “say & do” options.
  • Sometimes the decision tree could be just a linear flow in either horizontal or vertical direction.
  • Use convenient graphics according to the situation. Examples: Stick person on a dry-erase board. Pencil sketch on a piece of paper. Computer graphics are not necessary.
  • Make sure the Flow Chart has a close loop. A “Problem-solved” status.
  • The wordings and pictures are all simple, positive, and encouraging.


Della is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®). Check with a BCBA® if you have questions about treatments based on Applied Behaviour Analysis. You could look up a Certificant in your city at Feel free to share your experience and discussions in my blog Visit my website at


To Instruct or To Reward?

In Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), a therapist or teacher will do both instruction and reward to make teaching or therapy effective.

Instruction is the antecedent to occasion a learning behaviour. That is, the teacher instructs the learner, “Complete this math worksheet.” The teacher is telling the student what to do.

When the student completes the worksheet as told, she delivers the required behaviour for the teacher. The teachers will reward (or reinforce in ABA terms) the learning behaviour by praise or free time to play.

We all know the above is a perfect scenario. Most often times, teaching and learning will run a little astray from our plan when we work with children with special needs.   In a group inclusion gym activity, a kind-hearted teacher asked me out of curiosity why I was not helping a certain student. To be specific, the question is, “Why am I not giving antecedents or rewards?”

To Do or Not to Do? A few factors are in play here:

Level of Physical Ability and Environmental Awareness: The student runs slower than other kids. It is very difficult for her to play attention to changing game rules and people around. If I instruct the student to play tag and run away from the “IT”, she will usually run around having fun and boosting her cardio.

The Program Goal and Behaviour Target: Be sensitive and avoid from “making” the client “act” like other children. The student has a different goal tailored to his physical and cognitive development. “Pushing” him too far will induce anxiety and undesirable behaviour. The worst outcome is the learner will not do the task beyond his ability. The therapist or teacher will lose his authenticity in the long run.

The Environment as a Natural Reinforcer: Let the child get a taste of natural reward from his or her environment. If the child finishes a race nicely and fast, she will naturally receive hurray from the crowd. Also, when the child sees that she can do things at par just like her peer; this is already a rewarding consequence for herself. Help the child get reinforcers from the natural environment as much as possible.

There are many variables affecting the decision to teach and/or to reward, or not to do these at all. To-Do-Or-Not-To-Do is often not that straightforward compounding quite a few variables involving programming, human factors, social validity, and environmental constraints. Check with a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) if you have questions. You could look up a Certificant in your city at Feel free to share your experience and discussions in my blog

Punish effectively, if you have to.

Have you ever seen an experienced Instructor Therapist or a BCBA reprimands a student? Most parents and school teacher will view this as something not very pleasant. Other kids even come over and protect the friend in “danger”.

Punishment is a positive stimulus given to a client as a consequence of the person’s doing an undesirable behaviour. The goal is to reduce the concerned behaviour in future. That being said, the therapist adds something as a consequence contingent upon certain behaviour to reduce its future occurrence.

The main purpose of mentioning about punishment here is that I would like to make transparent the careful calculation between social acceptance and effective treatment. In the eyes of bystanders, the therapist might look very mean.  We just like to let the world know that a professional behaviour analyst uses reprimand only if necessary. Reprimand is used when other sources of consequence control are considered and systematically exhausted. We use it only after careful weighing both the pros and cons.

Whenever we reprimand a child, we run the risk of the child’s resistance to the dosage. We have to plan ahead for upcoming meltdown or escalations.

We have to be very skillful (and sometimes technical) in what we say and how strong we have to say it.

We need to consider the maximum tolerance level of a punishment for the child. Sometimes, it can be interpreted as how mean or pushy a therapist can be.

We have to use it at an effective level so the child will not get desensitized. Imagine a circus animal being hit a little harder each time. At the end of the day, the animal is going nowhere, not learning any skills. The punishment even loses its therapeutic effect. In that case, why punish in the first place? The key is to use punishment at a dose just effective enough to eliminate the unwanted behaviour, while not hurting client’s feelings for an extended time.

We also need to replace the unwanted behaviour with a good behaviour that the child can do. Without anything else to do, it’s hard for the student to drop the unwanted behaviour.

We need to take care of the whole picture. Will the interaction be too loud or disturbing to the class or the other kids? Will other kids learn something bad? What will the teacher think? What will the parent think? What will the principal think? How can the educators explain to other parents or visitors in the classroom? We have to run through our ethical encyclopedia and think of all kinds of social validity in a few seconds.

The next time you see a reprimand event. Do observe the behaviour of the client. Better still; consider what areas of the client’s brain are at work to fight off the therapist’s intervention. The most important thing is to check if the undesirable behaviour decreases in future.

In certain cases, kindness kills. In same cases, planned punishment pushes for performance.Crying-Baby-iStock

Identifying a Powerful Reinforcer

Have you ever run out of a powerful reinforcer that can reliably engage a child to learn?

In a clinical setting recently, I found out that a student and his mom liked and bonded positively with each other very much. I created “The Happy Mommy” program. I “used” mommy both in a contract and as an antecedent. I also “rewarded” the child by mentioning mommy as a consequence.

With the parent’s enthusiastic cooperation on giving a delayed praise, severity and occurrence of unwanted behaviours was reduced close to zero. The therapist’s instruction reliably occasioned the learner to perform a task (even with difficult work) 100% of trials.

Some other positive side effects were recorded too. The child was much more willing to try harder work since he expected mommy’s praise at the end of the day. He was also much happier and smiled more in the classroom.

He verbally repeated the contract to his teacher, “If I work nicely with teacher, mommy will be happy.” He also creatively re-created the contract in another version in a very cute tone, “If I don’t work nicely with Miss X and Mrs. Y, mommy will not be happy.” Most therapists see that children on the spectrum tend to work to rules. The way that he elaborated the rule in a different way showed his language development in verbal comprehension.

As mommy was not always around in school, the program also taught the student the concept of inference and delayed gratification.

“The Happy Mommy” program is carried out effectively in the classroom as “mommy” works out as good as “money” in the adult’s world. “Mommy” (or even the mentioning of the term) is convenient, powerful, generalized, and rewarding like “money”. “She” will make the learner save and treasure “Her” beyond the physical environment.


How is Escape Behaviour different from Avoidance Behaviour?

We have discussed about how to reduce avoidance behaviour in classroom from a previous post.  You may be interested to learn about the forms of escape behaviour and how to treat them.  The following notes are snap shots to help a child function in a classroom while maintaining minimal disturbance to other children.

  • Identifying Escape Behaviours
    • Escape Behaviours are displayed AFTER the presentation of work demand, e.g. worksheet is distributed and placed on desk. Avoidance Behaviours are displayed BEFORE the presentation of work demand, e.g. while the teacher distributes the worksheets.
    • Escape Behaviours may come in a stronger format than avoidance Behaviours as the threat / demand is imminent. The function of escape bx is to remove the demand (and/or the teacher who carries the demand).
    • Escape Behaviours could consist more that one of these responses: Rocking, kicking, flopping, rolling, escaping from original position, exposing belly, spitting, saying bad words, sticking out tongue, voluntary drooling and smearing spit, hitting, vocalizing gibberish (to nullify teacher’s verbal instructions), crying, and grabbing objects in reach.
  •  Steps to Prevent / Reduce Escape Behaviours
    1. Reduce time lag between presenting demand and desirable bx.
    2. Hang on to worksheet until teacher is ready to instruct.
    3. Use checklist to let student choose reward and token.
    4. Put down worksheet and immediately instruct for an easy task, e.g. write your name.
    5. Praise and/or offer the first token.
    6. Provide maximum help (even modelling) for the first few tasks.
    7. Progressively let the student work more independently while giving praise or tokens on good bx.
    8. When student is in an escape mode, give more visual or gestural instructions (less verbal). Some physical prompts are ok.
    9. Consider easing on power struggle and eye contact. Consider to work side by side instead of face to face.
    10. Follow through with demand or instructions. Find a reward (token) time to exit the situation. If the teacher leaves at the height of escape bx, the student’s might use stronger escape bx to remove the teacher next time.

Reduce Avoidance Behaviour in a Classroom

Using formal ABA procedures to reduce avoidance behaviour in a classroom setting could be debilitating.  The therapist needs to take care of learning needs of other kids and the teaching style of the teacher.  If you are a therapist for a student with autism and you are supporting him/her in a classroom, consider trying these steps.  They don’t need to be carried out in full and in a particular order. 

  1. Observe Avoidance Behaviour on presentation of work demand.
    E.g. Crying, Kicking, Hitting Table, Rocking, Looking Away, Biting Fingers, Picking Nose, Picking Cuticles, Asking for Washroom (Teacher Says, “You can wait.”)

  2. Ignore and pay NO attention to all these forms of avoidance behaviour.

  3. Teach the student and everyone else as if you do not notice anything different.

  4. Provide Simple Instructions for either 1-on-1 or Independent work.
    E.g. Take out a pencil.  Tell me about “Something”.  Write the sentence by yourself, I will check later.  Fill the blank.  Write down the answer.

  5. Praise his good behaviour no matter how small it is.
    E.g. Good listening.  I love your idea.  Nice sentence.  Good job doing math.  This is a correct answer.