Discrete Trials Training
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Discrete Trials Training
STEVEN LITTLE: I’m Dr. Steven Little. And this week, we’re going to be talking about
discrete trials training. Discrete trials, the procedure is probably the most common
procedure used with individuals on the lower end of the spectrum. So, it’s very important
that you understand discrete trials.
Now, it’s not complicated, not complicated at all. So, we’re going to go through how it’s
implemented, the basics of it, and all that stuff. So, you’ll be very familiar with discrete
trials by the time we finish today.
Now, as usual, let me review last week. Last week, we talked about early intervention.
And I talked about early intervention in general. I talked about the goals of early
intervention, characteristics of good early intervention programs. And remember,
through all of this, that early intervention is ideal if we can diagnose, if we can identify
the needs of individuals at a younger age.
An early intervention really, in talking about the focus on the age of two to three. We’re
never talking about early intervention back in infancy. That’s not possible. We’re
generally talking about those toddlerhood days, of two to three, before they may actually
enter a preschool environment.
So, we talked about good characteristics. I mean, what do we want to see in an early
intervention program, and specifically, with ABA interventions. I talked about a few
different types of models, starting with the Early Start Denver Model, floor time, and
sensory integration therapy. I went through all of those not because I am a big
proponent of any of them, but because you may be in a facility that is using one of these
types of procedures.
When it gets to things such as sensory integration therapy, I think the data are
somewhat iffy. The Early Start Denver Model and floor time, I think for the most part,
they incorporate some ABA principles that make them worthwhile. Although, just doing
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ABA interventions without having a name for it, I think is sufficient, and maybe the best
way to go.
Also, talked about some other services, such as speech, occupational therapy, physical
therapy, that could be beneficial to individuals. And then I returned and finished up
talking more about ABA with young children. The fact is, ABA interventions, including
what I’m going to be talking about today, discrete trials– and I didn’t mention that last
week. I said to be going into more detail this week.
ABA interventions are really– I use this term that I’ve used before when I’m talking
about the assessment, the gold standard. ABA is what is primarily done because it
works. So, we’ll be talking about the discrete trials today. And in going through discrete
trials, you may be sitting there right now going, I’m really not sure what the discrete trials
What is the discrete trials? And that’s perfectly understandable. You’ll hear the term.
Now, those of you who have been working in an environment, providing services to
individuals with autism, are probably familiar with discrete trials. You may have done it
yourself. You may have been an RBT, a behavior technician that has been
implementing discrete trials.
Some of you who haven’t done that are probably going– what do I do, what do I do. I
don’t understand. Well, don’t worry. It’s going to become clear. And it is very, very
So, we’re going to be talking about the basics of discrete trials training. And you’ll see
that abbreviated as DTT. So but mostly, I just say discrete trials. We’re going to talk
about some components of discrete trials training, and primarily the three-term
contingency. Never forget the three-term contingency.
That was brought up in your first ABA class. And it has been discussed over and over
again. We’re basically just talking about ABC, antecedent, behavior, consequence, the
three-term contingency. I’ll talk about applying discrete trials, how we do that,
characteristics of discrete trials.
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And I’m going to talk about some sequencing, massed trials, its massed, m- a- s- s- ed, not m-a- s- t, m- a- s- s- e- d. I guess if you’re sailing, you’re going to have mast trials,
m- a- s- t. OK, not that funny.
One of the things I used to always tell my students when I was lecturing in front of them
and said, I’m going to tell jokes. You don’t have to laugh at my joke. It’s not going to hurt
you if you don’t laugh at my jokes. But you can get hurt if you do.
Now, I don’t know if you’re laughing at my jokes, or you’re just bowing your head and
saying, oh no, not again. But I throw them in there a little bit. Hopefully, it makes it a little
bit more interesting.
So anyway, getting a little bit off topic, massed, M-A-S-S-E-D. Which is what we usually
do. Now, I’ll define all these things. Don’t worry. Distributed trials, and pace trials. This is
the sequencing of how we present the discrete trials training.
I’m going to talk about the discrete trials in educational settings. And I’m going to talk
about training staff to use discrete trials. And specifically, I’m going to talk about one of
my dissertation students, who actually tried a unique approach to the training of the, the
behavior technicians in learning discrete trials.
And finally, we’ll talk about some disadvantages of discrete trials. The main one being, it
can take forever. It’s not a quick process. So let me have a sip of water, and we’ll get
The basics of this discrete trial training, so we have had evidence. We have had strong
evidence since the 1960’s that repeatedly has demonstrated the effectiveness of
systematic and structured behavioral interventions for teaching children with autism,
autism spectrum disorder, so systematic and structured behavioral interventions.
The best example of a systematic and structured behavioral intervention is discrete
trials. So that’s what we’re talking about. And we have had evidence of this for half a
century or more.
Now, when we talk about structured and systematic teaching approaches, we are
talking about approaches that are based on behavior analytic principles and
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procedures, things such as shaping. Again, going back to your first course, shaping the
reinforcement of successive approximations of the desired behavior.
In essence in discrete trials, we’re using quite a bit of shaping. We’re starting off in
building upon what they learn. And we’re shaping them to get more complex skills by
teaching them simple skills.
Prompting, it can be verbal prompting. It could be me prompting you right now. Look at
the screen. That is a prompt for you to look at the screen as I am lecturing to you. It
could be a physical prompt, taking in a hand, and actually moving it. We talked about
prompts. I did a whole lecture on prompts. So, in discrete trials, we incorporate prompts.
We talk about fading, which is again, something we’ve talked about before, thinning the
schedule, fading the reinforcer, so that other naturally occurring reinforcers come into
play. Now, you’ll see in discrete trials, we use edibles, especially at the beginning of
discrete trials. We’re using it.
Because when you have someone that is lower functioning, someone who may lack
communicative skills, especially with a young child lower on the autism spectrum, we
use things like Fruit Loops. It’s a cereal. Yes, there’s a lot of sugar involved in most of
the discrete trials that I’ve seen.
But it doesn’t have to be sugary. Yes, M&M’s can be used too. But also, it can be more
savory little snacks. I’ll give an example of taking some beef jerky, or turkey jerky, and
cutting it up in small pieces, and using that. It could be little crackers.
The one I always thought worked the best, were those crackers that are already bite
size. Have you ever seen those oyster crackers, the little round disks, that you can put
in soup and stuff? Those work very well too. It’s more savory.
But we’re talking about a lot of edibles, especially at the beginning of discrete trials. We
don’t want anyone to be dependent on having an M&M, or a Fruit Loop, or an oyster
cracker popped in their mouth for everything. But it is a way to get things going. It’s an
immediate reinforcer that has clear reinforcing value to the individual, an individual who
may not be responding that much to say verbal reinforcers.
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Now, pairing the verbal reinforcer with the tangible may make that verbal praise, have it
take on some reinforcing qualities. That’s all of what’s going on. So even though it’s a
very simple procedure, a lot of different things can become involved and work.
So, I’m getting a little bit off here, other things, discrimination training, getting individuals
to discriminate sometimes minor differences between stimuli. You know, it starts out
with color and shapes. So, we’re talking generally about some very basic skills. And of
course, it always involves reinforcement.
Again, and I’ll say it over and over again, it has been consistently demonstrated as
being effective for teaching skills, but also, for ameliorating behavioral deficits and
excesses associated with ASD. So even problem behaviors can be worked on using
discrete trials by giving them reinforcement for behaviors that are not consistent, not
compatible, with the behavioral excesses, the acting out behaviors, loud verbalization.
And it helps individuals maintain a focus.
So again, even though it’s a simple procedure, it can be used to facilitate the
acquisition, and the amelioration of multiple behaviors. So, I talk about this discrete
trials training is one approach for creating structured learning opportunities. It is the
most common approach used for creating these learning opportunities for individuals
lower on the spectrum.
In fact, in a quote from Sturmey in 2011 he noted that discrete trials training is– and
here comes the quote, “Probably the most commonly used method to teach skills to
students who have autism spectrum disorder.” Things haven’t changed since 2011. It is
still the most commonly used method to teach skills, especially basic skills for those that
are lower on the spectrum.
Even those may be higher on the spectrum that we’re identifying in earlier
developmental stage. They haven’t gone to school yet. They’re pre-preschool, the
toddler stage. If we can identify, then it’s still even individuals who are higher functioning
can be taught this way. It’s still a very effective procedure.
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So, let me move on to the components of discrete trials training. And that is the threeterm contingency. We’ve discussed this before. So, this is just a review for you. This is
just a review to help you remember what we talked about before.
And the simplest way to always remember this, is ABC. We have antecedent. We have
behavior. We have consequences. The antecedent conditions, it could be a
discriminative stimuli. It could be a set of events. It could be something that is
happening, anything that is happening prior to the behavior, the response that is evoked
by the antecedent condition.
Antecedent, I say hi, how are you? You respond back with a behavior. I’m fine today.
How about you? So that’s the type of thing. So, the antecedent prompts. It elicits. It sets
the stage for the specific behavior. So, the response is the behavior. It’s also called the
So, the operant, the response, that is evoked by the antecedent, that’s the behavior in
question. So, we have antecedent, what happens first, what comes next, which is the
behavior. And then we have the C, the consequence, a reinforcing consequence
produced by that response.
Now, the examples I have been giving you so far with regard to discrete trials, and at
least getting started with discrete trials, tend to be edibles, as I said, Fruit Loops, oyster
crackers, turkey jerky, cut little pieces, not a big strip of turkey jerky, a little thing put in
the mouth. Now it can be the technician, the person working with them, that are
implementing it, putting it in their mouth. It could be them reaching and putting it in their
mouth themselves. So may be something that shapes.
You may start off working with someone, and you put the reinforcer in their mouth. And
then gradually, you are shaping the behavior that they will reach. They’ll choose
reinforces. Most of the times when I’ve seen discrete trials being implemented, and I’ve
designed discrete trials, there is a choice.
So, it’s not just like you’re always giving them a Fruit Loop. They have a choice between
Fruit Loops, M&M’s, turkey jerky, oyster crackers, whatever. They have a choice each
time. Because as we talked about in a previous lecture, choice is one of the main things
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that we can do to increase the reinforcing qualities of something, and to maintain the
reinforcing qualities of something.
If you give someone the same thing over and over and over again, it may decrease its
reinforcing value. But if you give them a choice, it maintains it. Again, all things we
talked about before. So, what we’re talking about, three term contingencies, basically,
antecedent, behavior, consequence.
Now, in discrete trials, the antecedent may be a prompt on our part. It’s going to be
some sort of visual stimuli that’s put in front of them, or it could be an auditory stimuli.
So, there is something that we’re doing first. We’re seeing the behavior. We’re
reinforcing the behavior, ABC, antecedent, response, reinforcement. So discrete trials
training is a behaviorally based teaching approach that relies on this basic structure of
the three-term contingency.
The next thing I want to get into is applying DTT, discrete trials, applying it, without
actually doing discrete trials. You can understand it, but you need to know how it’s
applied. Now, when I talk from now on in this lecture, if I use the term teacher, I’m not
necessarily talking about a special education teacher, a classroom teacher. I am talking
about whoever is working directly with the child in discrete trials, in the implementation
of the trials.
Because it is a very intensive, time consuming intervention, you’re not going to have a
for the most part, a trained teacher, a trained behavioral analyst, even BCABA, which is
the board-certified assistant behavior analyst, the bachelor’s level position. They may do
some of it, but most of the time, it is going to be implemented by an RBT, or someone
else who has comparable skill training.
So RBT, registered behavior technician, which is the credentialing that goes along from
the BACB for those individuals who work one on one with a child with autism. In a lot of
places, they haven’t gone through the process of becoming an RBT, but they are
behavior technician. They’ve gotten training by the facility, the school, wherever it is
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So, the teacher’s role, that’s what I’m talking about, but most of the time, the RBT. The
teacher’s role includes presenting discrete learning opportunities, or trials, frequently
just called trials, discrete learning opportunities. When I say discrete, meaning, they’re
very narrow. It’s not a large-scale task. It’s a very specific behavior that we’re expecting.
So, it’s a discrete. We’re expecting one behavior. We give one stimulus, one
We expect one behavior. They get one reinforcement. So, it’s very narrow and discrete.
We’re not talking about teaching broad skills here. We’re talking about for the most part,
teaching basic skills. So, we have discrete learning opportunities, frequently called
Now, each one consists of an antecedent. It could be visual. It could be a prompt
pointing, just the stimulus in front of the individual. It could be a verbal prompt. It could
be a physical manual prompt. Then it entails at least one response from the child, and
at least one response contingent and consequence, one reinforcer. It sometimes can
incorporate more than one. But for the most part, we’re talking about one thing at a time,
one antecedent, one response, one reinforcer.
First of all, in the antecedents, by presenting a clear antecedents, clear stimulus, and it
can help the child understand when to respond. So we want to have a clear antecedent
condition so that the child knows exactly what is expected, what behavior will lead to the
reinforcer. The behavior itself should be very clear to the child. It should not be
ambiguous at all.
It should be like pointing to something, taking a block, and putting the block over on top
on another block, or some specific clearly understood behavior. And you may need to
teach the individual exactly what that behavior is. So shaping is involved in this also. But
we have a clear antecedent, a clear behavior, and obviously, a clear reinforcing
So, you present the individual with a clear reinforcer. Remember the definition of
reinforcement, something you should never forget if you’re in the sixth course in your
VCS, you should not be forgetting what the definition of a reinforcer, which is to
increase the probability that if the same response, or a similar response will recur under
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similar antecedent conditions. So that reinforcement increases the likelihood that the
behavior will occur again.
And any increase in responding by the child provides evidence that learning has
occurred. When we’re doing this, we’re doing discrete trials, and we’re doing something,
we just try to do it over and over again to make sure that they have learned the skills.
And then we gradually move on to other behaviors, other skill type behaviors, and build
But it provides clear evidence that learning is occurring. It may be slow. It may take
quite a while, but it is occurring.
Now, in your book, the Sigafoos et al chapter. And this is the Little and Aiken 2019
book. There’s a chapter in there by Jeff Sigafoos, and some of his colleagues. I mean,
Jeff is a huge name in behavior analysis, particularly with working with children with
autism. He’s at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
And as you all know by now, I used to live and teach in New Zealand, not at Victoria
University, but at Massey University. But I am familiar with things in New Zealand. Jeff
is a big name. He was in Australia before that. I think he was at the University of
Tasmania for a number of years. He’s a huge name. And I was so happy when he
agreed to write the chapter on the discrete trials for Dr. Akin-Little’s and my most recent
addition of the behavioral interventions book.
So anyway, this is a table that comes directly from that chapter. And he gave some
examples. And I thought, oh, I could come up with examples. And I looked at that
chapter, and I thought, why don’t I just go through that? And you can go through it in the
Unfortunately, when I wrote down my notes, I didn’t write down what page from the
book. But there is a table in there. And it provides a skilled domain, an antecedent, a
response, and a consequence. And he gives examples and self-care. And I’m going to
be looking down a little bit here.
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Because I’m reading, and I admit, because I have all the word versions of these
chapters, because they were sent for me for editing, and so I have all that. So, it’s
easier just to cut and paste that of my award file from his chapter into my notes. But it’s
kind of small font, so bear with me here.
In self-care, I’m going to give you the behavior first, is that the child washers and dries
his or her hands. The antecedents being after the child uses the toilet, the teacher
provides the instructional cue wash hands. So, the response is just that. The child
washers and dries his or her hands.
For doing that, a consequence occurs. The child receives praise from the teacher, and
the child has clean hands. Now, what we’re doing something like this, this is a more
complicated skill than what we traditionally do in the teaching process of discrete trials,
which is usually sitting across the table from a child and doing one specific activity. So,
this is a more complicated thing, but it’s illustrating the ABCs, the antecedent, the
So, some of these are more complicated, but still a discrete trial with more complex
behaviors. In daily living, the antecedent, after lunch, the teacher points to the sink and
says, wash the dishes. The child takes his or her plate and utensils to the sink and
washes and dries the dish. The child again, receives praise. Again, a higher-level
behavior, but also something that’s very clear antecedent, behavior, consequence.
And communication, so at lunchtime, the child is unable to open a package of his or her
preferred snack. The teacher asks, what do you need? The child either uses a
communication device, points, illustrates manually what they want.
And the teacher provides the needed assistance, helping the child to open the snack.
So again, something that can be done in the naturalistic environment, not just in the
contrived setting of most DTT learning trials.
So, I think you’re getting the idea. So, I’m not going to go through the other things that
are in that example. But it’s mainly to give you the example of the ABC. In discrete trials,
again, we’re usually sitting across from the individual, and the antecedent is usually just
a pointing, or just placing the materials down in front of the child.
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The child has already learned what’s expected, or maybe say, point to the triangle. The
child points to the triangle. So, the antecedent is point to the triangle. The response is,
the child points to the triangle. The consequence, the reinforcer is the child gets to
select between Fruit Loops, M&M’s, oyster crackers, turkey jerky.
Now, merely creating discrete trials will not necessarily ensure learning. And in just
presenting the materials, the child may not fully understand what is expected of him or
her. So, to more effectively teach the child, we may use prompting, probably being the
most common type of assistance to go along with the antecedent condition.
So, to ensure learning, teachers often need to add additional components to just the
clear three term contingency, such as the ones I just illustrated from that table, from the
Sigafoos et al chapter in our book. So, you’re adding something to the three-term
contingency. It could be an instructional cue, meaning a verbal direction to the individual
on what to do.
It could be a more physical type of response, taking the individual’s hand, and say,
pointing at that triangle. Because that is going to facilitate them doing that. You may
have to do that multiple times prior to the individual learning the response. The goal is
learning. And we may need to add things to the process to ensure that learning occurs.
So cuing, which is in essence a prompt, and prompting may have to be used many
times before the child can be expected to begin showing some independent proficiency
in the task. And that’s the goal, is to get them to be individually proficient in the task.
And the task is generally designed to make maybe eventually the goal is concept
formation, on shapes, on colors, whatever that is, multiple times, and then they do it
then they do it independently multiple times.
And then you may later on, come back to it to make sure that the learning has
remained. It’s a very slow and tedious process. And eventually, you’re going to get to
fading. And the aim of fading is to transfer the control of the child’s responses from the
cue, from the prompts, to a natural antecedent.
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So, the example I gave before, washing their dish after they ate, the natural cue is, they
have finished eating. They go and wash the dish. Now, that’s a more complex skill. And
the individual ones, clearly, they can see shapes, and they can sort the shapes, for
example. Those are the types of naturally occurring consequences.
And reinforcers can move on from the tangible reinforcers that I gave the example on to
praise, and eventually, the child may turn into usually some sort of self-reinforcement for
successfully completing tasks, which is what we do. We, for the most part, don’t get
immediate direct reinforcements for our behaviors. There may be tangible reinforcers
that come on down the line, but we reinforce ourselves, because we finish the task.
Getting to that point through fading. So, all of the things that I have talked about in
previous classes are put into play here.
OK. Next, I want to talk about some characteristics of discrete trials. Koegel, that’s K- oe- g- e- l. My pronunciation would be Kagle. I don’t know. I don’t know the person. So, it
could be Kergel, whatever. But K-o- e- g- e- l and colleagues in 2014, classified the
distinguishing characteristics of discrete trials, in terms of the types of the stimulus
I’ll go through each of these in detail in a minute, stimulus items, interactions,
environments, responses, and reinforcements, that are generally associated with
discrete trials training. Starting with stimulus items, so if you are taking notes, which
may or may not be, but if you are taking notes, stimulus items is the first one. Stimulus
items is the first one whether you are taking notes or not, but stimulus items.
Discrete trial training typically focuses on teaching the child to respond to a specific, a
precise antecedent, or discriminative stimulus. That’s the idea of discrete. It’s a very
specific precise antecedent. As I mentioned before, training is generally restricted to
one response, or stimulus at a time. So, we generally start with one stimulus at a time.
Training begins with this first response or stimulus. And a new response or stimulus is
taught only after the child has achieved mastery on the initial target behavior. So, we
are doing something very discrete. The stimulus is very discrete. And we only move on
from that one when the child has demonstrated proficiency in responding to that specific
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The interaction, in discrete trials, it’s always teacher initiated. There are BT, who
become the teacher, always initiates the task. We’re not talking for the most part about
natural environment things that may be initiated by other factors. It’s the teacher is
setting the stage. The teacher is setting everything up for the antecedent, the stimulus
items, for the specific behavior, and what the reinforcers going to be. So, the interaction
is between a teacher and the student, the RBT and the child with autism.
The next thing Koegel mentioned was the environment, the environment. Discrete trials
is generally conducted in a very structured, distraction free setting. And it’s usually one
on one, teacher and student. So, the environment, we’re not talking about being out in
the playground and doing discrete trials. We’re not talking about being in a play
environment with other children around.
No, we’re generally talking about a very prescribed environment, most cases, a table, a
desk, the teacher on one side, the student on the other side, relatively quiet, you know,
depending on the environment when you’re doing this. There may be other people
getting discrete trials in the same room. But from places where I have worked, places
where I have consulted, there are generally partitions between them.
For the most part, it’s distraction free. I wouldn’t say distraction free. It’s distraction
minimized. That’s a good way to put it. Because there are usually multiple children in
the room. And I’d say that this usually six, from my experiences, say six to eight little
cubicle areas where they’re working.
And you may have a child that sometimes may scream out or something. So yeah,
there’s going to be distractions. But they’re not going to be frequent distractions. Which
generally, maybe a little bit of rustling and things in the background. But for the most
part, it’s distraction minimized.
The response features, now, it’s usually the teacher who determines what response will
be considered correct. And only that response will be reinforced. Remember, what we
are dealing with here– again, discrete trials, we’re expecting a specific response. Only
that response is appropriate in that setting to the stimulus, to whatever the teacher used
as the stimulus, physical stimuli, a board with shapes in front of them, auditory stimuli.
There’s only one correct response.
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You do not want to create a situation where they could be multiple responses. That’s
why it’s called discrete trials. It’s one stimulus, one response. So, the teacher is
determining what that response will be, and also determining what the stimulus is going
While there may be a selection of reinforcers, the teacher determines what that
selection is going to be, generally based on the preferences of the child. But it’s not a
open learning setting. It’s not a constructivist type of environment. It’s not a child
initiated, it’s teacher initiated.
And finally, we get to the reinforcers. The reinforcers used in DTT are selected based
on their potency. And they usually have no functional relationship to the child’s
response. But that means they’re not directly related to the response. We saw in the
natural environment we try to come up with responses, reinforcers that are functionally
appropriate for the behavior.
But in discrete trials, edibles are usually used. My experience when we’re dealing with
individuals on the lower end of the spectrum, it’s almost always edibles, potent, people
like to eat. I mean, I imagine all of you, you like to eat. It’s reinforcing. You enjoy it. We
may have preferences for the type of food, but we tend to like food.
I never understood. I remember one person that I knew, he said, oh, I eat because I
have to eat to stay alive, but I don’t really care for eating. And it’s like well, woah. I
couldn’t believe it. Because you know, to me, eating is a very reinforcing behavior. I like
eating. Of course, I lived in New Orleans for 15 years. Food is a major part of the
So, but for most people, everybody that I’ve ever met, except for that one guy, food is
part of a reinforcing environment. So, food is usually used. I’m going to take a little sip.
Next, are sequencing, massed, and I’m not going to go into the whole thing about mast,
m- a- s- t. You know it’s m- a- s- s- e- d, distributed in spaced trial sequencing.
Now, I’m going back to Mulligan, and in 1980. Things haven’t changed since 1980, even
though it was a long time ago. Anyway, they distinguish between three different
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configurations, or schedules, for sequencing the delivery of discrete trials training. And
those are what I just said, massed, distributed, and spaced trial sequencing.
We usually use massed trial sequence. That’s what we generally are doing in discrete
trials, especially when you’re starting individuals, using discrete trials training. Massed
trial sequencing involves training sessions that consist of presenting a block of the
discrete trials, all of which focus on training the same single response or skill. So, we’re
doing the same thing over, and over, and over again.
We’re massing the trials. And this is generally what is done more frequently in discrete
trials training than anything else. We mass the trials. We do the same thing over and
over again, especially at the beginning of starting discrete trials training with an
We may move on to distributed, a more distributed trial format. And what distributed trial
format is, instruction occurs on two or more skills within a single teaching session.
Massed session is all the same skill. Distributed, there could be two or more skills in the
same session. And when I’m saying session, maybe a half hour with the teacher and
the student are working together.
Now this could be, for example, alternating between a receptive language task, like
pointing at an object named by the teacher, and an expressive language task, naming
the object to which the teacher points. So receptive, pointing to something, because the
teacher says, point to the car. And the child points to the car. And in expressive
language to ask, where the teacher points to the car, and says, what’s that.
Now, that would be an example of a distributed trial format. You have different skills that
are being used within the same session. So, my experiences are, we start off with
massed trials, and we move on once the individual has attained proficiency, shown that
they are capable of responding at a high level. And mastery is usually considered
somewhere around 90% of the trials they get right.
If they are getting 90% to 100% of the trials right, it is time to move on, either to another
massed task, or a distributed. So basically, understand that we’re doing something, they
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reach proficiency in massed trials. We may move on to another skill in a mass trial
format, or we could move to a distributed trial format.
So generally speaking, we start off with one mass trial sequence, another mass trial,
another mass trial, and eventually, getting into distributed trial. A more advanced type of
trial is space trial. In space trial, the teacher is building in longer intervals, longer pauses
So, the child may be taught to request something. They request access to a preferred
toy. And after the correct request, the child is allowed to play with that toy for a
reasonable amount of time. It’s not like they can play with that toy forever. No, they get
a specific length of time, three minutes, five minutes, usually wouldn’t want to see more
than that before the next trial is conducted.
We’re talking about larger scale behaviors expected of the child. And we can throw in
some space trial formats within mass, or distributed trial formats. But it’s usually a
higher-level skill. Because you can see, if you’re allowing somebody to play with
something for three to five minutes, that’s a much larger magnitude reinforcer than them
getting to pick a Fruit Loop and eating it.
So, the order, we usually associate discrete trials with massed trials. And that’s where it
usually starts. Once proficiency is achieved, then you can go to distributed or spaced
trials. But what you will see, if you walked into a setting where they were doing discrete
trials, you would probably be seeing the vast majority of mass trial sequencing.
Next, would be coming discrete trials in educational settings. Now, discrete trials, and
everything I’ve been talking about is basically in an educational setting. It may be in a
treatment facility, not in a school. But it’s all the same. And they use to teach new skills
first of all. You teach them to teach new skills.
You use discrete trials to increase the fluency, the accuracy of responding, and also, to
establish a stimulus control over responding. So, when they see something, they know
what to do. That antecedent takes on stimulus control over the response. And we talked
about stimulus control. I won’t be going into that in detail.
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Now, what type of skills are generally taught during discrete trial training? All sorts of
things. You can do motor, vocal imitation, very simple things, do this, touch your ear.
Touch your mouth. Could be say something. Bye, bye, bye, bye. It’s a very basic one,
but it’s something that you may try to use in discrete trials.
I gave an example before, for receptive and expressive language. Receptive, point to
the car. Expressive, the teacher points to the car and says, what is this. Self-care, doing
simple things, could be just brushing their teeth. All of these things can be taught via
Socialization, yes, socialization can. It starts on a one-to-one basis with the teacher in
basic socialization skills. Academic skills, now, most of what I’m talking about more
generally fall into the category of pre-academic skills, recognizing shapes, recognizing
colors, things like that.
But it can be used with larger scale academic skills. Although we tend to get away from
the discrete trials when we’re doing things like arithmetic and things like that. But we
could use discrete trials. But usually, when they are ready for those type of skills, they’re
ready to move on past the discrete trials. Play, recreation skills, all can be taught using
Now, next, I want to talk a little bit about training staff to use discrete trials. Now, it’s
usually an RBT or some similar level paraprofessional who implements DTT,
implements the discrete trials. And it’s important that they are properly trained and have
hands on experience before working semi-independently.
They’re always going to be supervised. So, they’re never going to be totally
independent. They’re going to be told what to do by the BCBA, possibly by a special
Now, when I talk about similar level paraprofessionals, a lot of places, they don’t go
through the process of getting credentialing for their technicians. But they do train them.
Generally, you don’t go to school– even a community college, for training to be an RBT.
It’s generally provided by the place where you are working.
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So, there’s going to be some sort of training. Hopefully, it meets the criteria that are set
out to become an RBT. And I think most places do do that. So, they get to the point
where they can work semi independently. Now, research has been shown that
personnel can be trained to implement discrete trials effectively after receiving about 15
to 20 hours of didactic instruction. And they say, on five specific steps.
So usually, 15 to 20 hours. So, we’re generally talking about two to three working days
of training for them to be able to implement discrete trials. Now, they’re not going to
immediately go in and just do it all day long and be expected to do it well. No, they’re
going to be gradually doing that. They’re going to be getting some feedback also.
But the training, generally, is for how to present the cue, how to prompt, how to observe
the individual’s behavior. Because it’s important for them to make sure in observing the
behavior, that they first of all, understand the operational definition of the behavior, so
that they can reinforce. So they have to become good at observing the individual.
They have to know when to reinforce, reinforce the correct responses. My experiences
in working and training with people is that you really have to work with the staff, so that
they are not reinforcing extraneous behaviors, other maybe possibly inappropriate
behaviors, or feeling sorry for the individuals. Oh, here’s the reinforcer anyway. Oh,
you’re a good kid. You’re trying. Even in just what they’re saying, there’s too much of
They have to know that they are reinforcing specific responses. And that’s what we
have to see. Things like pausing and doing the right type of pause before the next trial,
in how to transition from one thing to another. So, it’s not as simple as saying, hey,
watch what they’re doing. Go do it. No, they need specific training.
And training needs to include modeling. If you were the BCBA, you would probably be
the one training new staff. So, you would model what you expect them to do, and have
them get the opportunity to practice, starting the practice possibly with somebody else
who’s going through the training, or even with you.
So, you can get feedback, and then you get immediate feedback. So that whole process
is just like we train children, not necessarily in discrete trials all the time. But yeah, you
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may start off with teaching them via discrete trials how to implement discrete trials. But
obviously, you’re dealing with an individual who doesn’t have a disability, so you’ll be
able to use more complex teaching methods with them.
Now, I want to give you an example with one of my students. She did her dissertation
with me. She got her PhD in school psychology, when we used to have a PhD program
in school psychology. Her name is Deriana Fuentes. Or we used to call her Reyna, was
what she went by. Rena Fuentes, it was her dissertation.
The title of the dissertation was, Examining Paraprofessionals Use of Video Self
Modeling in Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In essence, what she
used was video self-modeling. She actually videotaped the individuals in training, was
able to put together a video of the individual doing things just the way they’re supposed
to do it. And used in addition to the traditional training.
So they got to see themselves doing it correctly. She had five participants, five. It was a
single subject design. Three of the five participants exhibited immediate and significant
gains in the implementation of discrete trials, and those gains were maintained over
time. So basically, three of the five people seemed to learn quicker with the discrete
trials than controls who just got their traditional training.
So the conclusion was that video self-modeling along with discrete trials training
instruction, may help paraprofessionals become better in administering discrete trials
with students with autism spectrum disorder. It’s an interesting one. If you’re interested,
it’s in the Walden library. Write to me. I could send it to you.
But it just gives you an idea of, she took something that I was interested in, which is
video self-modeling, although, I generally use with children with autism, and focusing on
social skills, social interactive behaviors. And she took it and hey, I’m interested in that,
but I’m also interested in training staff. So, we were able to come up with a dissertation
that was my interests and her interest combined.
The last thing I want to talk about here are the disadvantages of the discrete trials
training. It’s not perfect. One thing is, and the main thing is, it is time consuming. It takes
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a long time, and therefore, it’s costly. It’s costly for school districts, for insurance
companies to pay for discrete trials.
You basically have a full-time employee working with the individual throughout the entire
school day. And to really say, we want to also provide these services in the home. So,
the individual is probably getting a minimum of eight hours of one to one discrete trials
training a day. It’s one on one situation.
So, you have to have somebody. And those people expect to get paid. Yes, parents can
do it. But we usually don’t have parents do this all the time. We bring in a behavior
technician into the home to do, if it’s going to be done in the home.
Just to give you an example, there’s a school district not too far. It’s a county that has a
program, a very well-designed program for children with autism spectrum disorder. And
they focus on those at a lower functioning. And most of them are getting discrete trials
Now, it’s been a few years since I actually talked to anybody there about how much it
cost, but this was probably in about 2015. And I was talking to the director of the
program. And I said, what is the cost to run this program?
And the example he gave me was, they have some students in there that come from
school districts outside of the normal area. In other words, another school district will
pay that district to provide the services for one of the children from there. And in 2015,
they were charging $110,000 a school year. This did not include transportation of the
student to the school. Just for the educational services that were being provided, they
charged other school districts $110,000 for a school year.
So, you can see, it’s not cheap. So, it’s costly, because it’s time consuming, and it’s one
on one. So that is a disadvantage. I mean, unfortunately, we live in a society where how
much things costs matter. To me, it doesn’t really matter what the cost is, if that’s what
the child needs. That’s what they should get.
But there’s also a disadvantage in that this teaching does not take place in the natural
environment. Which as I said, we’re generally talking about like a little cubicle in a room
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with a table, a teacher on one side, student on the other side. That is a very contrived
environment. That’s not the way things work in the real world.
So, generalization can be an issue, how are they going to respond. The learning that is
taking place, will that learning generalize to other environments. So, it’s probably not
going to occur unless you do other training. So discrete trials by itself is not going to
facilitate generalization. You have to bring generalization into the program.
And third disadvantage, and don’t worry, this is the last one, almost done. A third
disadvantage is because the learning opportunities are all teacher initiated. At times,
they can take place without the child being motivated to engage in these interactions.
The child may be tired, maybe some other behavioral issues that are going on.
So, the child’s behavior can interfere with the efficacy of the discrete trials. And it’s
something you have to work through. It doesn’t mean discrete trials isn’t going to work.
But there’s some people that may be more difficult to work. But then, what else are you
going to do?
I mean, just because they may be engaging in behaviors that interfere with discrete
trials, chances are, that behavior is going to interfere with any other type of intervention.
But those are the disadvantages. It’s not ideal for all children. We’re generally talking
about something that’s being used with those at the lower end of the spectrum to
acquire basic skills, what we may call pre-academic skill, basic skills.
OK. The end of today’s lecture, yay. What did we talk about today? Obviously, discrete
trials training. You probably didn’t think I could talk for over an hour on discrete trials
training, but I fooled you. I did. We talked about the basics of discrete trials training. We
talked about components, mainly, revealing the three-term contingency.
We talked about applying it, some characteristics of secret trials, and the different types
of trials, massed, distributed, and space trials. We talked about implementing it in an
educational setting, training staff, and finally, the disadvantages. You will see and be
involved in discrete trials training if you work with individuals on the lower end of the
autism spectrum, no question about it.
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You will see it in action. You may have already seen it in action. It is pretty much done
throughout the United States and Canada, and other places in the world for which I’m
familiar. So, it is commonly used. You will become more familiar with this in your field
work, and when you finally get a job, if you’re working with individuals on the autism
Thank you for putting up with me for another week’s lecture. I hope you learned
something today. I hope you found it interesting. I hope you’re enjoying it. I hope you’re
enjoying everything that you’ve been exposed to, in terms of applied behavior analysis,
and that you’re excited about getting out there. Because you’re almost out there.
It won’t be that much longer. You will be a BCBA and working on your own. So have a
good week, and as always, good behavior. See you next week. Bye.
Discrete Trials Training
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