Understanding Prompt Hierarchy in ABA Therapy: Key Strategies and Benefits

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy is a well-established and evidence-based approach to supporting individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other developmental conditions. One of the critical components of ABA Therapy is the use of prompts to teach new skills and behaviors. Understanding the prompt hierarchy in ABA Therapy is essential for ensuring effective and systematic learning. This comprehensive guide explores the concept of prompt hierarchy, its benefits, and how it is used to support skill development in ABA Therapy.

What is Prompt Hierarchy?

A prompt hierarchy is a structured sequence of cues or assistance provided to an individual to help them perform a desired behavior or skill. The hierarchy ranges from the most to the least intrusive prompts, allowing for the gradual fading of prompts as the individual gains independence. The goal of using a prompt hierarchy is to promote learning and skill acquisition while minimizing dependency on prompts.

Levels of Prompt Hierarchy

The prompt hierarchy is typically organized into several levels, ranging from the most intrusive (physical assistance) to the least intrusive (natural cues). The main levels of prompt hierarchy include:

1. Physical Prompts

Description: Physical prompts involve directly guiding the individual's movements to help them perform the desired behavior. This type of prompt is the most intrusive.


  • Hand-over-hand assistance to help the individual complete a task.
  • Gently guiding the individual's hand to perform an action, such as picking up an object.


  • Provides clear and direct guidance.
  • Useful for teaching new or complex skills.

2. Modeling Prompts

Description: Modeling prompts involve demonstrating the desired behavior for the individual to imitate.


  • Showing the individual how to complete a task, such as brushing teeth.
  • Performing the behavior in front of the individual and encouraging them to copy it.


  • Provides a visual example of the desired behavior.
  • Encourages observational learning.

3. Verbal Prompts

Description: Verbal prompts involve using spoken instructions or cues to guide the individual in performing the behavior.


  • Giving a direct command, such as "Pick up the toy."
  • Providing step-by-step instructions for completing a task.


  • Encourages auditory processing and language development.
  • Can be easily adjusted in terms of complexity and detail.

4. Gestural Prompts

Description: Gestural prompts involve using gestures or body movements to cue the individual to perform the behavior.


  • Pointing to an object that the individual needs to pick up.
  • Nodding or using hand signals to indicate the next step in a task.


  • Less intrusive than physical prompts.
  • Encourages visual attention and comprehension.

5. Visual Prompts

Description: Visual prompts involve using visual aids, such as pictures, symbols, or written instructions, to guide the individual.


  • Using picture schedules to outline the steps of a task.
  • Providing written instructions for older individuals who can read.


  • Supports individuals with strong visual learning preferences.
  • Can be used independently by the individual.

6. Positional Prompts

Description: Positional prompts involve arranging the environment or positioning items in a way that cues the individual to perform the behavior.


  • Placing a toothbrush and toothpaste within easy reach to prompt tooth brushing.
  • Arranging items in the order they need to be used for a task.


  • Encourages independence by using environmental cues.
  • Reduces the need for direct intervention.

7. Natural Prompts

Description: Natural prompts involve using naturally occurring cues or situations to prompt the desired behavior. This is the least intrusive level of prompting.


  • Waiting for the individual to ask for help when they encounter a challenge.
  • Encouraging the individual to respond to natural environmental cues, such as a ringing phone.


  • Promotes independence and generalization of skills.
  • Encourages the use of natural environmental cues.

The Benefits of Using a Prompt Hierarchy

Using a prompt hierarchy in ABA Therapy offers several benefits, including:

1. Systematic Learning

A prompt hierarchy provides a structured approach to teaching new skills, ensuring that prompts are used systematically and gradually faded as the individual gains competence.

2. Promotes Independence

By gradually reducing the level of prompting, individuals learn to perform behaviors and tasks independently, increasing their confidence and self-sufficiency.

3. Encourages Generalization

Using a variety of prompts helps individuals generalize skills across different settings and situations, making it more likely that they will use the skills in real-life contexts.

4. Minimizes Dependency

A structured prompt hierarchy helps prevent over-reliance on prompts, encouraging individuals to respond to natural cues and situations.

How to Implement a Prompt Hierarchy

Implementing a prompt hierarchy involves several key steps:

1. Assessment

Begin with a thorough assessment of the individual's current skills and needs. Identify the specific behaviors or tasks that need to be taught and the most appropriate starting level of prompting.

2. Select Appropriate Prompts

Choose prompts that are suitable for the individual's learning style and the complexity of the task. Start with the most appropriate level of prompting and plan for gradual fading.

3. Provide Prompts Consistently

Use the selected prompts consistently during teaching sessions. Ensure that all therapists and caregivers are aware of the prompt hierarchy and use it consistently.

4. Monitor Progress

Regularly monitor the individual's progress and collect data on their responses to the prompts. Adjust the level of prompting as needed based on their progress.

5. Fade Prompts Gradually

Gradually reduce the level of prompting as the individual becomes more proficient in performing the behavior or task. Move from more intrusive to less intrusive prompts until the individual can perform the behavior independently.

6. Encourage Generalization

Practice the behavior or task in different settings and situations to encourage generalization. Use a variety of prompts to help the individual apply the skill across different contexts.

Tips for Successful Prompt Fading

Effective prompt fading is crucial for promoting independence and ensuring the individual does not become reliant on prompts. Here are some tips for successful prompt fading:

  • Plan Ahead: Develop a clear plan for how and when prompts will be faded, and communicate this plan to all team members and caregivers.
  • Be Patient: Prompt fading should be gradual and based on the individual's progress. Avoid rushing the process.
  • Reinforce Independence: Provide positive reinforcement when the individual responds correctly with less intrusive prompts or without prompts.
  • Monitor and Adjust: Continuously monitor the individual's progress and make adjustments to the prompt hierarchy as needed.
  • Use Errorless Learning: When introducing new skills, use errorless learning techniques to prevent mistakes and build confidence.


Understanding and implementing a prompt hierarchy is essential for effective ABA Therapy. By using a structured approach to prompting and gradually fading prompts, therapists can promote skill acquisition, independence, and generalization for individuals with autism and other developmental conditions.

At Step Ahead ABA, we are dedicated to providing high-quality ABA Therapy that incorporates best practices, including the use of prompt hierarchies. Our experienced team of professionals is committed to supporting the development and well-being of each individual. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help your child succeed.