DTT ABA- Discrete Trial Teaching in Applied Behavior Analysis

What is Discrete Trial Teaching

There is an increasing number of children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder every year. Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT) is an important component of the interventions used by:

  • doctors
  • therapists
  • educators

Also known as Discrete Trial Training or Discrete Trial Instruction, DTT is an important applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy that addresses the way these children learn new skills. Discrete Trial Training DTT is also an excellent ABA therapy to teach social skills and other positive behaviors. It can be taught in the child’s natural environment. 

What is Discrete Trial Training and how does it help children on the autism spectrum learn?

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Discrete Trial Training Meaning- What is DTT?

Many children on the severe side of the autism spectrum have learning deficits.  Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT) can use DTT to help children learn basic skills in these five areas:

  • Cognitive
  • Communication
  • Play
  • Social
  • Self Help.

Discrete Trial Teaching ABA is a method to teach skills using a system of small, easily taught components. The method began in the 1970s through the efforts of Doctor Ivar Lovaas. Through the Discrete Trial Training ABA process, children can master necessary abilities.

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The 5 Principles of Discrete Trial Teaching

The basics of Discrete Trial Training are stated in five principles.

  • First, skills are broken down into small bites. Discrete trial teaching RBT’s give instructions 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 incentives and the point at which they are offered must be consistent. Dtteaching.com says that this early intervention technique is one of the main approaches therapists and educators use with children who exhibit autism.

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What are the Training Steps of DTT?

There are five steps of DTT:

Discriminative Stimulus 

The discriminative stimulus is a brief clear instruction alerting the child to the task at hand. This helps the student make a connection between a specific direction and an appropriate response. An example could be when a teacher says: “what is this?” before asking a child to identify an object.

The Prompt 

A prompt may be necessary to help the child form the proper response. The prompt may be performed between the discriminative stimulus and the response. It occurs when the teacher shows the child the correct response to guide their behavior. For example, a trainer may tap the correct object if it appears the child is having difficulty.

Child Response and Consequence

The child may give a correct or incorrect response to the stimulus.  The target response is clearly defined in advance.  The trainer knows exactly what behaviors are considered correct and can respond appropriately. The consequence will vary according to the correctness of the response:

  • Correct Response: A correct response is immediately reinforced with a positive reward. Often, the child is shown the reward ahead of time to know what they will be receiving. Whatever the reward, the type and amount are specified before each trial. The reward may be:
    • verbal praise
    • food (e.g., a piece of candy)
    • a token from a behavioral modification system (e.g., a star that goes toward whatever they are earning).
  • Incorrect Response: When a child gives an incorrect response during DTT trials, they are simply corrected. The trainer tries to remain as neutral as possible.  They give no reinforcement or punishment. For example, a teacher may point at the correct answer and say: “let’s try the next one”.

Inter-Trial Interval

The inter-trial interval is the last step of DTT. It is the period that occurs after the consequence. It indicates the end of one trial and the impending start of another. It is usually no more than five seconds. The shortness of the interval contributes to the continuity of the learning process.

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How is DTT Different?

The 5 Principles of DTT

DTT is just one type of training that uses ABA. Incidental Teaching is another. Incidental Teaching uses events in the natural environment as teaching opportunities. The practitioner arranges an environment attractive to children.  They allow the child to prompt the teaching by showing interest in someone or something around him. The instructor then “elaborates” on the chosen item to get the student to respond. When the child reacts appropriately, he receives a “confirming response” or a reward.

In Discrete Trial Teaching ABA, however, the learning opportunity is engineered and structured by the practitioner. The process is as follows:

• Acquisition: the child accomplishes the initial lesson.

• Fluency: the child demonstrates the ability to repeat the skill and 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 used in Incidental Teaching. There are numerous quick sessions with very little lag time between trials. There is also the factor of social relevancy. A skill must be relevant for a child to want to learn it. DTT sessions teach skills that can be used in the environment regardless of whether they are needed in the instant. Incidental Teaching, in contrast, imparts skills as the need for them arises. In either method, the reward must be something that the child values.  It must be given immediately after the child learns the task.

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The Value of Discrete Trial Training

As we learn more about autism, we discover better ways to teach children.  Through treatments like DTT, children gain communication and social skills that improve their quality of life.  We now say that children “fall on the autism scale,” which is a way of saying there are different degrees of autism. Any training method has to adapt to the level of cognition and communication of the child. DTT is an attempt to give children skills important to daily living that can adjust to the abilities of the student.  Through discrete behavior ABA therapy, children can reach their full potential.

In short, DTT is a concise step-by-step intervention and ABA therapy.  The discrete trial procedure is tailored to improve a specific skill in the most efficient way possible. DTT focuses on positivity and brevity.  This allows for the productive shaping of important behavior in an easy-to-digest format. Discrete Trial Training is a crucial ABA therapy that has assisted the autistic community for almost 50 years.

Written by: ABA Programs Guide Staff

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