Simply telling your child what you want them to do and walking away is not an effective teaching strategy. You can’t “talk” your child into learning a new skill. The most effective teaching strategy is to do it with them and then have them practice. Research has repeatedly proven that the only way we all learn is through practice, practice, practice.
Prompting is the most important tool in teaching your child a new skill. Prompting is the action of persuading, encouraging, or reminding. There are four main types of prompting: verbal, gestural, visual, and hand over hand.
- Verbal prompting is standing beside your child while they are doing the task and telling them what to do next.
- Gestural prompting is when you point or act out the behavior to help your child know what to do next.
- Visual prompting includes pictures, visual schedules, written lists, etc. An example of this is putting a list of the process of getting ready on their bathroom mirror.
- Hand-over-hand prompting is when you take your child’s hands in yours and do what you want to see. For example, if you are asking your child which car is blue, you would touch the car with his hand while saying, “This car is blue.”
This approach is invaluable because it negates any language barriers, provides an opportunity for the child to get the right answer and earn praise, and it encourages the child to comply.
Shaping is the next tool. Shaping is simply reinforcing small accomplishments towards the skill you are trying to teach. For example, let’s say your goal is that your child sits at the dinner table until the end of the meal. Shaping starts exactly where the child is. If your child walks around eating and has never been forced to sit at the dinner table, start there. Shape the behavior by putting them in the chair for 10 seconds, praise them for sitting, and then let them return to walking around. After a short time, do this again. If 10 seconds occurred without any extreme frustration, you can move up to 15 seconds and then 20 seconds. The next day, you increase the time and continue shaping until your child can sit through the meal. We always begin shaping from where the child will be successful, so if 10 seconds is too long, start at 5 seconds. If that is too long, start with sitting in the chair. No matter how your child behaves, praise them for trying, even if they are angry. If you praise what you want to see, your child will do it again willingly.
I can’t talk about prompting or shaping without conveying the importance of precursor skills. Precursor skills must be mastered before you can move to something more complex. For example, if your child can’t write her name, make sure she has the precursor skills of holding a pencil, writing on paper, writing letters, and attending long enough to write her entire name. We strongly encourage parents to think through the precursor skills a child needs before working towards a goal. Otherwise, you are setting your child up for failure and frustration.
Practice makes progress, but effective practice must include starting where they are, prompting when necessary, and shaping complex skills.