Prompts are different strategies for giving extra assistance that help a learner complete a task correctly. Having an understanding about each type of prompt as well as how to use them correctly can help the person you’re teaching learn to do a task more independently.

Prompts in Everyday Life

Growing up, my sister and I always had the impression that my mother was a little intense about laundry. We used to joke that our dirty socks barely hit the floor before they were in the washing machine. Now, as a mother of two kids myself, I have a far better respect for why she desperately tried to stay on top of laundry. When asked, my husband will help with the laundry, but sometimes asking him to help ends up just making more work for me because I have to follow-up and give him prompts to make sure it actually gets done.

Image by Andy Fitzsimon on Unsplash

What are Prompts?

Whereas I can keep up with the entire laundry process without any assistance, my husband typically needs reminders at various stages in the process. Without those reminders, I’ve been left with a soaking wet load forgotten in the washer, a still semi-damp load in the dryer, or, my personal favorite, a load that did manage to get fully dried but was simply left to take up residency in the dryer.

Hence the need for prompts. Prompts are strategies we use to help a child or adult complete a task when they are first learning how to do it. In general, prompts exist on a scale or hierarchy ranging from no assistance to providing full physical assistance to the learner.

Though the terms prompt and prompting are frequently mentioned in the special needs community, prompting is a strategy we all encounter regularly. We just may not refer to it using those terms. For example, when I provide my husband with prompts to finish the laundry, he refers to that as nagging.

Many of us often provide ourselves with prompts daily to remember tasks or steps of tasks. For example, if you have a habit of forgetting your wallet or your phone, you might place a sticky note on the back of the front door to help you remember it.

Along those lines, my secret to getting all the steps of the laundry process done is to leave the empty hamper somewhere visible, like the middle of the living room floor, so seeing it reminds me to check the load. The sticky note and the strategically placed empty hamper serve as prompts.

Image by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

Prompts typically fall into one of the following 6 categories: verbal, gesture, model, partial physical, full physical, or permanent cues. The sticky note and hamper examples land in the permanent cues category. All prompt categories are further explored in other articles as listed below.

Why is Understanding Prompts Important?

It’s important for us to have a basic understanding of what prompts are so we can be intentional with when and how we use them. When prompts are not used correctly to teach a new skill, there is a risk that the learner will become prompt dependent, meaning they won’t be able to complete a skill unless specific types of prompts are given to them.

And, though prompt dependency can be fixed with a lot of additional teaching, it’s much easier to just be purposeful with prompt use in the first place by keeping our focus on teaching independence. A great way to do this is to avoid teaching a skill with any kind of prompt unless we’re sure the learner needs that extra help.

Taking Action

Now that we’ve talked about what prompts are and why why they’re important, we next dive in to each of the 6 main prompt categories. Stay tuned for our next article exploring verbal, gesture, and model prompts!