Too often, the term discrete trial training (DTT) is used interchangeably with ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) as if they are one in the same. In the early days of early intensive behavioral interventions, it was often the case that ABA programs were based solely on the intensive use of discrete trial training (DTT). However, most ABA programs have evolved beyond simply implementing DTT. ABA includes a range of teaching technology such as natural environment teaching, pivotal response training, chaining, and many other techniques. With that said, what exactly is discrete trial training? The following is a brief explanation of discrete trial training, and the pros and cons of this approach.
Discrete trial training (DTT) is a method of teaching. The discrete trial method has three distinct parts: (1) the trainer’s presentation (“point to the red block”), (2) the child’s response (the child points), and (3) the consequence (correction or reinforcement). Pausing between trials can provides an opportunity for data collection. However, the pacing and length of the pause should be timed to maintain child’s attention. The model looks like this:
Many readers may also be asking the question, “Don’t ALL educational programs involve some use of the discrete trial method?” The answer is yes. However, using DTT does not mean that these are ABA programs. Many educators use discrete trial teaching or massed trials as part of their daily instructional programming. Since students on the autism spectrum learn best with repetition, it is a strategy of direct and purposeful teaching that many should and do use. However, there is often confusion between an informal or periodic use of this teaching model, and doing discrete trial training as part of an intensive ABA program. What distinguishes ABA programs using DTT is the intensity and duration of the training and the primary role of the discrete trial method for instruction. DTT programs generally involve several hours of direct 1:1 instruction per day (including high rates of discrete trials) over many months or years. It is a model that allows staff to provide an intensity of instruction that facilitates learning.
While a useful tool, there are cons to only using discrete trial training. Generally speaking, children on the spectrum excel in rote memorization. Massed trials of training capitalizes upon this strength in children. Unfortunately, rote memorization is often confused with true understanding or comprehension. For example, a child may have memorized a story repeatedly read to them. Adults may confuse the student’s memorization of the story with true comprehension or understanding.
Children on the spectrum have difficulty with generalization also. If massed trials are provided using the same materials, same phrasing and in the same setting, professionals cannot be sure the child will be able to practice the skill or retrieve the knowledge with novel materials and in new settings. Generalization and real world application should always be programmed for purposefully within ABA and DTT programs.
Ultimately, the success of any strategy can be measured by how well the child performs a skill in non-instructional settings. This should be addressed in the beginning stages of any type of programming.
Pratt C., & Steward, L. (2018). Discrete trial training: What is it?
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