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What is Discrete Trial Teaching?

There is an increasing number of children who are diagnosed with autism, and Discrete Trial Teaching is an important component of the interventions that doctors, therapists, and educators use with them. This is a fairly new methodology that addresses the way these children learn new skills. What is DTT and how does it help children on the autism spectrum learn?

Definition of DTT

Discrete Trial Teaching is an intervention method utilizing applied behavioral analysis. It teaches skills through a structured ladder of small, easily-taught components. The method began in the 1980s through the efforts of Doctor Ivar Lovaas. The skills taught are classified as “cognitive, communication, play, social and self-help.”

How it is Applied?

The basics of DTT are stated in five principles. First, skills are broken down into small bites. Instructions are given in the most concise manner possible. Instead of asking a child to show the teacher which card on a table is red, the instructor may say simply, “touch red.” In this way, students avoid confusion about what the practitioner is asking. Second, the educator teaches each “bite” until the student masters it before moving on to another skill. Third, each session is intensive. Fourth, teachers begin with prompts as needed and then decrease them. Fifth, learning must be reinforced by incentives. The offering of these incentives and the point at which they are offered must be consistent. says that this early intervention technique is one of the main approaches therapists and educators use with children who exhibit autism.

How DTT is Different?

Another teaching protocol, Incidental Teaching, focuses on naturally occurring events as teaching opportunities. The practitioner arranges an environment attractive to children and allows the child to prompt the teaching by showing interest in someone or something around him. The instructor then “elaborates” on the chosen item and elicits responses from the student. When the child reacts appropriately, he receives a “confirming response” or, in other words, a reward. In Discrete Trial Teaching, the learning opportunity is engineered and structured by the practitioner. The steps are:
• Acquisition: the child accomplishes the initial lesson.
• Fluency: the child demonstrates the ability to repeat the skill, and a mastery of it.
• Maintenance: the student maintains the ability to perform the skill over time.
• Generalization: The child can apply the skill to a different environment or area.

DTT sessions are more intensive than those in Incidental Teaching. Another difference is the factor of social relevancy. Although a skill must be relevant for a child to want to learn it, DTT engineers sessions that teach skills that can be used in the environment whether or not they are needed in the instant. Incidental Teaching imparts skills as the need for them arises. In either method, the reward must be something which the child values, and it must be given immediately after the child learns the task.

As we learn more about what Autism is, we will discover more and better ways to teach children how to communicate and interact in society to give them more normalcies in their lives. We now say that children “fall on the autism scale,” which is a way of saying that there are varying degrees of the condition. Any training method has to adapt to the level of cognition and communication the student possesses. Discrete Trial Teaching is an attempt to give children skills important to social interaction which can be configured to the abilities of the student preparing them to have the fullest life possible.

Related Resource: What is the TEACCH Method?