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Teaching Independence

One of the most important goals of behavioral intervention is to increase independence.  Teachers, parents, and behavior analysts are almost always focused on teaching individuals how to do things or access what they need on their own, without support from others, and without prompt dependence.  Prompt dependence refers to the situation when a learner’s behavior is dependent on stimuli in addition to the teaching or natural environment events that would ideally control the occurrence and non-occurrence of behavior.  Of course, there are times when it is perfectly fine to rely on someone else for your wants and needs.  Most people are not trained in everything they might need to have done in their lives, so we rely on dentists for our dental care, mechanics for our car maintenance, and lawyers for legal advice.  We do, however, want to be able to brush and floss, drive our cars, know when we need appointments, make those appointments, and understand how to access expert solutions as needed - all independently.  Prompt dependence is a problem when it limits the person’s independence, if they find relying on others distressing, and/or if the needed supports are limited in availability. 

Here are some examples that might reflect problematic prompt dependence:

  • Your student looks at you for confirmation or correction before saying or writing an answer in academic tasks
  • If you don’t follow your child into the bathroom and narrate his actions, he may miss a step
  • You tell your student how to unpack their bag and hang up their coat every morning without waiting for them to do it on their own
  • Your client needs to be told to take a bite of her favorite food, or she will sit and wait or even cry because she is hungry - even if the food is easily reached

Prompt dependence can be avoided by starting from a good operational definition of the behavior to be taught or increased.  If the goal is independence, then that should be part of the way the behavior is defined.  In most cases, what we are looking to teach should be independent, not perfect.  Considering two of the examples above, students are not expected to get every answer correct in school, especially when doing work in school or at home on their own.  It would probably be preferable for the student to independently say or write a wrong answer, than to wait for prompting.  Similarly, although bathroom routines are important and should be done with accuracy most or all of the time, the person who relies on this level of prompting in the bathroom is likely to face greater dangers as they get older and family members are no longer able to provide this support.  Unless the behavior being taught presents a high level of risk if there is error, independence should probably be as, if not more, important than accuracy.

Independence can be included in the definition of target behavior by adding considerations such as latency to respond, level of assistance, and specific controlling stimuli to the usual description of topography (what the behavior should look and/or sound like).  To take the third example, “Jordan will hang up their coat and unpack their backpack” can be adjusted to “Jordan will hang up their coat and unpack their backpack within 5 minutes of entering the classroom, with no prompting, upon hearing the second bell.”  This enables the teacher or interventionist to shape to a clear goal that will give Jordan the autonomy to start their day independently, rather than simply with a hung-up coat and unpacked backpack that was mostly due to an adult’s prompting. 

Prompt dependence often occurs because of an overuse of verbal prompts, which leads to an association between behavior and the prompting person, rather than the natural or environmental cues that generally facilitate the behavior in the target environment.  In the example of the child who does not eat her favorite food without instruction, eating has come under the control of a person rather than hunger or the presence of food. It’s not reasonable or necessary to try to avoid verbal prompts entirely, but we can be cautious about overusing verbal prompts.  If verbal prompts seem like nagging, coaxing, or bribing, they are probably problematic. Strategies for teaching independence such as repeating or rephrasing instructions, asking leading questions, and talking through steps may also lead to prompt dependence if they are overused, so use them thoughtfully and not routinely.

The dependence on another person to deliver prompts can be transferred to other types of prompts that are less problematic.  Most very successful, functional, independent people rely on prompts such as calendars, reminder apps, alarms, planners, emails, texts, and to do lists.  These prompts are usually perfectly fine to be dependent on, because they are under the control of the person using them.  Unless they become dysfunctional in some way, these sorts of prompts can be used without limit.  We can teach our learners to use these prompts instead of relying on people to deliver prompts as an important step toward independence.  Other pivotal responses that can lead to greater independence include referencing lists, using a schedule, telling time, and observing and modeling from what others are doing.  Teaching someone to ask for help is also a great way to facilitate independence, because then prompts can be delivered only as needed - when they are asked for by the individual.

Finally, self-management is a crucial skill that can be taught to facilitate independence.  Self-management involves transferring control of behavior from external stimuli to the learner, by teaching the learner to engage in specific strategies.  These strategies for teaching independence include self-monitoring, or noticing and recording one’s own behavior, and self-reinforcement.  When someone learns to self-manage, they learn a skill set that can be applied to every area of life for increased autonomy and dignity.


About The Author

Dana Reinecke is a doctoral level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and a New York State Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA). Dana is a Core Faculty member and Associate Chair in the Applied Behavior Analysis department at Capella University. She is also co-owner of SupervisorABA, an online platform for BACB supervision curriculum and documentation. Dana provides training and consultation to school districts, private schools, agencies, and families for individuals with disabilities. She has presented original research and workshops on the treatment of autism and applications of ABA at regional, national, and international conferences. She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in published books, and co-edited books on ABA and autism. Current areas of research include use of technology to support students with and without disabilities and online teaching strategies for effective college and graduate education. Dana is actively involved in the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA), and is currently serving as Past President (2019-2020).