• Elisa Ferriggi

The Cycle of Prompt Dependence

I often hear parents say that their child is will only do things when prompted to do so or that they need lots of prompts for each step of an activity. In this article, I want to explore how we get to the point of children relying on prompts to get through tasks, how using prompts become reinforced, the problem with using prompts and what we can do about it to turn it around to create more independent thinkers.


How do we get to the point where a child is heavily reliant on prompts?


This often occurs in 2 ways:

1 – well-intending professionals have told you to prompt your child to get them to do a task. This may include saying typical things like “what’s next?” or giving an instruction to the next part of the task.


2 – your child does nothing or hasn’t responded previously and so you have found that this works in getting some response/ task completion.


How this style of interaction is reinforced?


You may have experienced that when you have prompted your child, you get a response and/ or the task gets completed. This action, as opposed to inaction means that you are naturally reinforced to use prompts again.


Eventually you and your child get into a pattern where it just becomes the habit, this is what you do because this is what works and this is what your child is expecting, so it is used for most interactions/ activities. It creates a somewhat ‘easy’ life for the here and now.


The problem with using prompts


When we get too comfortable in this habit and pattern of using prompts with children we become blind to the impact it has overtime. The problem with using (or rather over using) prompts is that:

1. Children become prompt-dependent; they only respond or act when prompted to do so.

2. Children therefore are not becoming independent thinkers; they are not thinking for themselves, making decisions or problem solving.

3. The long-term effect of this is that they do not learn how and when to take responsibility, make decisions, solve problems or complete simple tasks that they know how to do as they are waiting for the prompt.

4. It enhances a very static approach to interaction as it becomes a repetitive pattern and therefore reinforces static neural pathways (when we are wanting to develop dynamic pathways instead).

5. It slows down the ability to be an agentic self; that is to take responsibility for your own actions and live an independent life.


What can we do differently?


If your child has become prompt- dependent then you will want to take some action to turn this around. I do not recommend suddenly removing all prompts that your child is reliant on as this may cause stress and lead to shut down and inaction from your child. We know that when there is stress learning doesn’t occur. Instead follow these suggestions:

1. Notice times when you use prompts.

2. Decide if the prompts are necessary or not (you’ll know because you know your child can do the action/ knows what is next).

3. Reduce the prompts for the situations you have decided they are not necessary.

4. Try strategically holding back for a few seconds to see if your child will take an action without your prompt.

5. Switch to using indirect prompts if you feel your child still needs something the rest of the time.

6. Use your communication to help your child learn to think more for themselves (not ‘what next?’ prompts but instead comments and statements that offer an invitation to respond/ think).


If you would like to learn more about what to do when your child is prompt-dependent then you can access my free presentation that is available instantly on ‘What to do when your child is prompt-dependent’ here https://thinkautismmember.thinkific.com/courses/the-what-to-do-series-for-families



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