Discrete Trial Training

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Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a method of teaching in which concepts are broken down into isolated targets and taught using a 4 step sequence: cue → response → consequence → pause. This method of teaching was developed by Ivar Lovaas in the 1970s. Discrete trials are particularly suited in the context of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because the trials are brief, the trials build motivation through positive reinforcement, and instructions are concrete. DTT is a form of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

What Does DTT Look Like?

  1. Develop a Plan: A qualified professional, such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst or “BCBA,” meets with the family and teacher and designs a program to meet the needs of a child. Some curricula are designed to be implemented in classrooms by autism support teachers and staff.
  2. Develop Goals: A large goal (for example, Johnny will learn shapes) is broken down into smaller steps:
    • Step 1. Johnny will match circles
    • Step 2. Johnny will match squares
    • Step 3. Johnny will distinguish circles from the squares

    Goals are selected based on assessment. There are a variety of assessments used in designing DT programs including the ABLLS-R, VB-MAPP, and the Student Learning Profile from the STAR Curriculum.

  3. Use Prompts: The teacher tells the child something like, “It’s time to work,” then gives a simple direction such as “Match” or “Match shape.” If necessary, the teacher gently moves (also known as a Prompting Heirarchy) the child’s hand to teach him or her what to do. As the child learns and can respond to instructions with less and less help, the teacher “fades out” and prompts less and less.
  4. Keep Data: Teachers record each response, noting whether the child responds correctly or incorrectly and with or without prompts. Overtime these notes record the child’s progress towards learning the goal.
  5. Provide Reinforcement: The teacher rewards the child for doing the task. The teacher might give a small piece of favorite food, high fives, fist bumps, hugs, or access to a favorite toy and say, “You matched it!” or, “Good matching!”
  6. Repetition and Mastery: Prompts and reinforcement are repeated frequently. When a child can do a task on his or her own almost every time, the child is ready to work on something a little more difficult.
  7. Generalization: The child is rewarded for showing the skill under different conditions.

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Last Updated: December 17, 2013

The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.


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