Discrete Trial Instruction

July 29, 2022

7.29.22 Discrete trial training works by making the skill more manageable for the child.

One of the fundamental ways that children learn in an ABA setting, is by individualizing the child’s goals into sets and steps, and breaking the skills down to be more manageable. Since discrete trial training sessions are conducted in our classrooms and therapy settings, this post will give a general understanding of how they work.

Sometimes when a concept or skill is only presented in a generalized way, or when concepts are assumed to be grasped through incidental learning, students such as ours are challenged to the point of tuning out and engaging in non-preferred ways. 

Active learning is what we aim for here. Engaging our students takes a bit more than incidental, general instruction. Our students need instruction that is direct, that is meaningful to them and that is clear and concise.

Discrete trial training is a way to teach skills directly. It’s a fundamental technique of Applied Behavior Analysis, and one that is used across the program at Crossroads. For students who do better when skills are broken down into simpler sets and steps, discrete trial training is the way to go. 

Discrete trial training works by making the skill more manageable for the child. Taking a big skill and breaking it down into its parts can help a student can focus on the pieces first and put them together over time.  

Discrete trial training, also referred to as “trials” can help the learner focus on one part at a time, putting a big skill together a little bit at a time.

For example, let’s take the alphabet. Our English alphabet, A-Z, in its entirety, is magnificent. 26 letters are a lot to learn all at once. While most general education  children will learn the alphabet a bit at a time – the upper and lower cases of all the letters, what they are called and what their sounds are, how to sing the ABC song, words that letters start with and what does this letter say – most children of ours will find learning it all together over time abstract and overwhelming. It can seem too much to grasp all in a big whirl like that.

So, first off, the teacher would take a baseline to determine what the student already knows. The teacher and the whole classroom team collect data. Depending upon the goal at hand, data may be taken by everyone on the team, including the Teaching Assistants, Speech Therapists,  Behavior Analysts, Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapist.  Also taken into account is what the parents say the child is able to do outside of school. Maybe baseline data shows that the child already knows certain letters. Or maybe none at all.

Let’s say for this scenario that the child is able to identify A and T, but not label any letters, give their beginning sounds, nor come up with any words that start with letters. Letter identification coming first in this particular skill hierarchy, the teacher would pick a letter or letters for an “identify letters” goal to put into the child’s set to start off with. New letters will be added until the child can identify all of the letters A-Z. Next would come labeling them all, and then producing their starting sounds, and so on.  Prompting procedures, how to deliver the direction or “Sd”, what the child’s preferred reinforcers are, and schedules of reinforcement are all components of how the goal is taught.

Here are some of our teachers pictured conducting trials. You’ll notice that the instruction is one-to-one, but this is not always necessarily the case. Sometimes, when students are working on similar goals and have similar styles of learning, they can work in a “double” to start building the ability to be in a group.

While some students are working in their one-to-one sessions, others in the room may be working in small groups or centers. Sessions are scheduled by rotation so that each student gets time and contact with each member of the teaching team during the day.

You’ll  see materials that are meaningful to the student as well as age-appropriate. Using toys and materials that a student likes makes the goal feel more familiar and fun. New materials will be added into the student’s sets as he or she acquires the sets that are written based on the baseline data that was collected before starting the goal, when the need to address the skill was identified. This goes to show how we go through so many materials throughout the year – just think of all that 1 child has, and multiply it by 120!

Trial time is often the most highly reinforced work of the student’s day. This is because of the degree of challenge that is associated with the skill. The more challenging the skill, the more positive reinforcement is needed for the student to be motivated to work on it and to pursue accuracy. Positive reinforcement is powerful, and our students receive it for good working, nice attending, sitting with their teacher and all manner of desired behaviors. Data is taken so that the team can monitor for progress and make changes to the way they run the goal as needed.

With discrete trial training, there are many aspects which can be identified and set up to help the child achieve success. All can be adapted as the child progresses. Array sizes, or the the number of items arrayed for the child – can be increased over time. Prompts can be decreased and eliminated. Goals can be phased into generalization when the criterion is met. This means that the same skill is practiced but with different people providing the direction, with different materials and in different places. This assures us that the child can access this skill in different environments than just the one of the classroom trial training setting where he or she first started learning the skill.

Parents are able to take advantage of “parent training” to observe sessions like these ones. This way they are able to carry over the skills at home, and in other environment scaffold to the generalization of the goal. Parents schedule sessions with their classroom teacher, and also share valuable insights for the team when they come in.

See below some more examples of learning specific skills and how our students learn so well.

2.11.21 Building a Block Design

Check out “M” working his way through this block design! It is considered complex, as it has 5 different colors/shapes. There are 10 pieces to match, but he needs to select the correct pieces, and the array is larger than what is needed to fill the design correctly. This is a skill that is often taught in trials (discrete trial training) aka one-to-one sessions so that the learner can receive the attention, correction, and reinforcement of accuracy needed on an individual basis. Way to go, M, and Ms. Melissa, Room 3!

1.29.21 Mid-Year Progress Update

We now have 94 students enrolled in our center-based (school) program with another 10 or so being served by our clinic. As we say, again and again, a critical aspect of our work here is the individualization of each child’s program to meet his or her needs. In trials (discrete trial training), and in all other phases of the child’s learning, individualizing takes the form of approaches, reinforcers, reinforcement schedules, goals, materials, and prompting. All aspects are based on the careful and ongoing assessment by the team.

At this time in the year, children are making great progress with skills and it seems a good time to share some visual stories with you. From learning to make eye contact, to high fives. From pointing to a requested picture to writing words, students are learning step by step to meet their goals. We applaud every step and celebrate every achievement.

9.30.2020 Back to School and Back to Work

When it comes to working well, students at Crossroads deserve some kudos. One-to-one sessions are designed specifically to make progress with each child’s individual goals which are broken down into discrete sets and steps so they are measurable and manageable for the learner. Discrete trial training is one of the important phases of ABA (applied behavior analysis), and a large number of students here make significant gains in acquiring skills this way.

This group of pictures highlights the kiddos in Room 13 during one of their recent work sessions. While some students are learning to use and utilizing technology to learn they are all using hands-on visual materials that are specifically made to meet the student’s individual interests and foster his or her best learning.

Please note, too, that students at Crossroads are all participating in increasing their mask-wearing throughout the day, even if pictures of a particular activity don’t capture all at the same time.

Click for a quick video! 

Click for a quick video!

Click for a quick video!

Click for a quick video!

8.25.2020 Well. A lot has certainly transpired since March, when this blog spot was last posted on. It’s now nearing the end of August, and we’ve finished, just last week, a full session of ESY (Extended School Year). It was a smooth summer, thanks to the careful, thorough planning of our directors, and the vigilance and teamwork of all team members and parents.

Throughout the summer, students who returned to school worked on their skills again in their classrooms and therapy areas. While we also use a variety of group formats to teach here, a large number of our students do well with individualized learning in a one-to-one setting for some or all of their IEP (Individualized Education Plan) goals. This allows the student to learn and strengthen a skill that is broken down into steps and sets that are individualized for him or her. The student can be reinforced at a high rate for accuracy and effort, and progress can be tracked through data collected consistently between all members of the team. Over time, reinforcements are weaned and increased levels of independence are facilitated. Group practice becomes part of the process of generalization, which is important in anticipation of the child being able to perform the skill in his/her natural settings, outside of the classroom and away from his/her teachers.

Providing the many aspects of ABA (applied behavior analysis) is what Crossroads does. We have been founded upon the science and philosophy of ABA since 1998, and are considered leaders in the field. Please give us a call if you are interested in learning more about our program. 518-280-0083.



To help our students who are at home this week due to school being closed for precautions related to COVID-19, our teachers and therapists are making every effort to share helpful resources that would be helpful for their students and families. These can be found on the blog spots that the resource relates to, as well as on the Parent Resources page.

Here is a terrific resource that was discovered and shared by Mrs. Lindsay, Room 14’s Special Education teacher.


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