Discrete Trial Training in ABA: Explained

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Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is an evidence-based ABA therapy strategy that has shown to help many autistic kids establish and increase skills they are still developing in. Let’s explore if DTT is a good fit for your child!

What is Discrete Trial Training in ABA

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a key methodology used within Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, especially in teaching new skills to individuals with autism. At its core, DTT breaks down complex skills into small, teachable units known as ‘trials’ to overall simplify learning for autistic individuals. Each trial includes a clear instruction, the child’s response, and a consequence, which could be a reinforcement for a correct response or a prompt for an incorrect one. This technique promotes learning through a highly controlled environment, ensuring the individual receives ample opportunity to practice and master each skill before moving onto more complex goals. By isolating each unit of learning, DTT facilitates clarity, focus, and precision, making it an effective tool for teaching new behaviours and skills.

Understanding the Principles of Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is founded on a few key principles. Firstly, DTT operates on the concept of breaking down a large, complex task into its smallest components, allowing each piece to be taught independently, ensuring understanding and mastery of the overall task before learning more complex goals. Secondly, the ‘discrete’ nature of each trial means it has a clear beginning and end, which allows for easy identification of the individual’s responses and subsequent reinforcement or correction. The technique is very structured and systematic for the learner. The third principle is the idea of mass trials, where the same skill is taught repeatedly until the individual shows consistent correct responses, thereby establishing a strong link between the instruction and the correct response and being able to discriminate an incorrect response. Lastly, DTT emphasizes the use of positive reinforcement to reward correct responses, thereby increasing the likelihood of the desired behaviour occurring again in the future. These principles come together to form an effective teaching technique that enhances skill acquisition and behaviour modification.

Breaking Down Discrete Trial Training: A Five-Step Process

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) often involves a structured five-step process. First, the instructor provides an instruction or demand (also known as the discriminative stimulus in ABA). This instruction should be clear and concise. Next, the student gives a response, which can be a correct answer, an incorrect answer, or no response at all. The third step is the prompt, where the instructor provides a hint or guidance to the correct response if the student doesn’t respond or responds incorrectly. This step is not always necessary if the student responded correctly initially. The fourth step is the consequence, which varies depending on the student’s response. For correct answers, reinforcement (like verbal praise, a favourite toy, or a small treat) is given, while incorrect or no responses lead to corrective feedback such as letting the child know we can try again before getting the reinforcement they were expecting to receive. The final step is the inter-trial interval, a short break that separates each trial. This structured process is used repetitively in DTT to teach new skills in a controlled manner, ensuring a learner can maintain what they learned beyond the structured DTT session.

Practical Applications: How Discrete Trial Training Works in ABA

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) finds its application in various aspects of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, helping individuals with autism and other developmental disorders learn new skills and behaviours. It is a method typically used to teach complex skills by breaking them down into their simplest components or steps. For instance, if a child is learning to brush their teeth, a discrete trial might focus on just the act of picking up a toothbrush. Once the child masters that step, the next trial might focus on applying toothpaste, and so forth until they can independently learn and complete all the ‘parts or steps’ of brushing their teeth.

This method of “chaining” together small behaviours into a larger, complex behaviour is a hallmark of DTT. By providing immediate feedback and reinforcement after each trial, DTT creates a highly structured learning environment that is particularly effective for learners who benefit from clear, direct instruction and reinforcement. It’s ultimate goal is to simplify learning into an individualize way that is most effective for the child. The technique’s clear structure and focus on individual learning components make it a popular choice for many ABA practitioners.

Benefits of Discrete Trial Training: Advancements in Learning

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) offers a multitude of benefits, particularly for learners with autism or other developmental disorders who may struggle with traditional instructional methods. It uses a systematic, highly structured approach that breaks complex tasks into smaller, manageable parts, facilitating learning and mastery of new skills. One of the significant advantages of DTT is its emphasis on immediate feedback and reinforcement, which can be highly motivating and beneficial for learning new skills. Its clear, concise, and repeatable structure can be particularly helpful for learners who thrive in predictable environments.

Furthermore, DTT can be personalized to each learner’s pace, ensuring that they master each step before moving on to the next, which can lead to a higher rate of success and a positive learning experience. The amount of prompt, the speed of learning, and broken down the instructional steps are all individualized to how the learner learns best. Ultimately, DTT can contribute to substantial advancements in learning, particularly in areas like communication, social skills, self-care, play, and academics.

Challenges and Misconceptions Surrounding Discrete Trial Training

While Discrete Trial Training (DTT) has proven to be effective for many learners with autism, it also faces certain challenges and misconceptions. One common critique is that DTT can be excessively repetitive and rigid, potentially leading to skills learned in a very specific way that may not generalize to other contexts or settings. The setting of DTT is not natural and can be seen as a forced way of learning.

Critics argue that this can limit the flexibility and adaptability of the learner. Misconceptions also abound, such as the incorrect assumption that DTT is the entirety of ABA therapy when it’s only one component of a multifaceted approach. Additionally, some believe DTT is solely used for children with severe impairments, which is not the case. It can be beneficial for a wide range of individuals, given its adaptability and the skill of the implementing therapist. As with any therapy, the success of DTT depends on its thoughtful and individualized application. Anyone can benefit learning new skills when they receive immediate feedback on what was correct and what was incorrect, DTT only provides more opportunities to practice and learn for learners and this is something autistic individuals may need before fully mastering new skills.

Discrete Trial Training vs. Natural Environment Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) and Natural Environment Training (NET) are two commonly utilized methods in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, but they differ significantly in approach. DTT is characterized by a more structured, therapist-directed approach that occurs in a controlled environment, often breaking down skills into their smallest components focusing on the consequence of a child’s response. This approach is highly effective in teaching new foundational skills and behavioiurs in a systematic way.

On the other hand, NET is a more child-directed approach that focuses on teaching in the context of natural environments and activities, such as play. It uses a more opportunistic way of teaching where if the opportunity to learn something arises, we will use that to teach skills. However, if the opportunity does not arise, specific skills won’t be explicitly taught. This method prioritizes generalization and spontaneity of skills and behaviours. Both methods have unique advantages and are typically used in conjunction within ABA programs to maximize the benefits of each approach and ensure a comprehensive learning experience for individuals with autism.

Resources for Parents and Educators: Implementing Discrete Trial Training

For parents and educators looking to implement Discrete Trial Training (DTT) with their children or students, there are numerous resources available to guide them. Online platforms, books, and workshops offer comprehensive instructions and practical examples on how to structure and conduct DTT sessions effectively. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) is a useful starting point, providing detailed guidelines and ethical considerations.

Additionally, local ABA providers often offer training programs for parents and educators, while online communities can provide peer support and shared experiences. However, given the technical and systematic nature of DTT, it is highly recommended that anyone seeking to implement DTT should do so under the guidance of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) or other qualified professional to ensure the training is effective and appropriate for the individual’s specific needs.


What is discrete trial training in ABA therapy?

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) in ABA therapy is a structured teaching methodology that breaks down complex skills into smaller, teachable units, presented in a highly organized and sequential manner. Each teaching unit or ‘trial’ involves a clear instruction, behaviour, and consequence, with the aim to reinforce desirable behaviours and reduce unwanted ones. It’s a cornerstone technique of ABA therapy, used extensively in teaching new skills to individuals with autism and other developmental disorders.

What is discrete trial training in the treatment of autism?

In the treatment of autism, Discrete Trial Training (DTT) serves as an effective method for teaching individuals various skills, ranging from basic to complex. This structured approach allows children with autism to learn in a systematic, incremental fashion, which can be particularly beneficial for those who have difficulty acquiring skills in typical, less structured environments. By reinforcing correct responses and not responding to incorrect ones, DTT encourages positive behaviour while decreasing less desirable behaviours, helping to improve the overall quality of life for those with autism.

What are the 3 components of a DTT trial?

The three components of a Discrete Trial Training (DTT) trial are the antecedent (instruction or cue), the behavior (the individual’s response to the cue), and the consequence (the reinforcement, prompt, or corrective feedback following the response). These components form the basis of each trial, and this ABC (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) sequence is repeated many times in a DTT session to promote learning.

What are the 5 steps of DTT?

The five steps of Discrete Trial Training (DTT) are: presenting the antecedent (an instruction or stimulus), waiting for the response (the individual’s behavior), providing a consequence based on the response (either reinforcement for a correct response or no consequence for an incorrect response), a brief pause (to separate each trial), and recording the result (for data tracking and progress evaluation). These steps provide a clear and systematic structure that facilitates learning in a controlled manner, particularly for individuals with autism or other developmental disorders.