What’s the difference between a cue and a prompt? Is there one? There sure is!!!!!

Let’s define and unpack both of these words a bit.

A cue is a signal that occurs in the natural environment, that clues you into doing or saying something. 

A prompt is an extra signal, not occurring in the natural environment, that directs your attention to something. Prompts can take many forms such as verbal, gestural, and physical to name a few. We will not be diving into the types of prompts that exist today as the purpose of this is to create a distinction between the two and give insight into the thought process that should be utilized when considering their use.

So why the distinction between the two and why is this important?

The ability to respond to naturally occurring cues in the environment is what allows us to function independently from the support and oversight of others. It is what ensures that we get to work on time in the morning, eat meals in a timely manner, pay our bills, and respond to social bids from others. The inability to read these cues therefore translates to the need for supports in daily living, socialization, and leads to a more restricted and dependent life. It seems obvious then, that we would want to teach our learners to respond to naturally occurring cues and not rely on prompts.

So does this make prompts bad? No absolutely not; when used correctly. What do we mean by this? Poorly utilized prompts can have adverse side effects up to and including:

Poorly utilized prompts can have adverse side effects…

  • Prompt dependence – learning to rely on prompts for the performance of a skill or task. This is equivalent to teaching the prompt to be a replacement for the naturally occurring cue.
    • An example of this would be not performing a task or skill until being explicitly and individually addressed and told to do so. The learner in this instance does not learn what the natural cues are and cannot respond to them.
  • Conditioning of prompt as permission – sometimes an over reliance and use of prompting results in the prompt serving as permission to do something.
    • An example of this would be a hungry child waiting for permission from their aide to go and get their lunch even though the direction was given by the teacher to the entire class to get lunches and the child see peers are getting their lunches.
So how do we know when we need to use prompts to teach responding to natural cues and when and how to fade those so that the natural cue takes over as the controlling variable for the demonstration of the skill? It helps to work backwards and to problem solve. Here are some strategies to do this:
  • Ask yourself what natural cue is being missed?
    • Is it that when a peer says hi, the learner does not read that as a cue to reciprocate the greeting?
    • Is it that a learner fails to identify a pause in conversation, and appropriate time to share something with others so the learner frequently interrupts?
  • Once you identify the cue that needs to be taught to and practiced, figure out why it is being missed.
    • Is it a skill deficit?
    • Is it avoidance due to some underlying other reason?
  • Once you know the reason why, you can create a plan to teach the skill to respond to the natural cue, by creating practice opportunities to do so. These initially may utilize prompting to help the learner identify the natural cue.
Prompts should only be used to teach the learner to respond to the natural cue! They are temporary assists for instruction and not to take the place of instruction or the natural cue! Something done with prompting is not mastered ever. Mastery means responding to the natural cue, independent of other supports always.
  • Once you set up enough practice opportunities, the prompts should be systematically faded over time. There are many ways to go about fading prompts, all of which require an understanding of where a learner is with a particular skill.
  • Ideally you would use data to support the decision making process. If the instruction or practice opportunities are not teaching the skill to respond to the natural cue, something needs to be adjusted.
So at the end of the day, it is important to know that prompts are not bad, but they should be used sparingly, thoughtfully, and solely as an aid to assist in instruction of responding to the natural cue, which is where the freedom lies.

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About the Author

Justyna Balzar, M.Ed. BCBA LBA (CT) Co-Founder & CEO

Justyna Balzar, M. Ed. BCBA, has a Masters in Curriculum and Education in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University. She has experience working with individuals with Autism and related disabilities in a variety of settings that include private school, public school, and home programs ranging in age from 3-18 years old. She is constantly seeking avenues to disseminate Behavior Analysis in conversation, presentations, and sharing Behavior Analytic content through her BehaviorChik Facebook page. She enjoys learning and discussing the boundless applications of ABA as they relate to all problems that involve behavior.