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

June 05, 2019

Since discrete trial training sessions are conducted in our classrooms and therapy settings, here is a little post to give a general understanding of how they work.

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. Sometimes when learning is only presented in a general way, or when concepts are assumed to be grasped incidentally, the challenges of learning can be great. 

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.

Let’s take the alphabet, for instance. The alphabet, A-Z, in its entirety, is magnificent, but might feel pretty abstract and overwhelming to some of our students. Especially if they’re trying to take in upper case and lower case, letters and letter sounds, words that letters start with and what does this letter say… it can seem kind of like 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. She collects data. Actually, the whole team takes data. Depending upon the goal at hand, data may be taken by anyone on the team, including the Teaching Assistants, Speech Therapists, and 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”, preferred reinforcers and schedules of reinforcement are all parts of how goals are 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.

While some students are working in their one-to-one sessions, others are in small groups playing with toys and each other. 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 also 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.

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 often 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 – 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.

Lots of parents of our students take advantage of monthly 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.

There’s so much to trials, but hopefully this has been a basic introduction and helpful to our readers’ understanding.


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