How to Use Prompts Effectively in Special Education!
How to use prompts in special education

Using prompts Effectively

Using prompts effectively can be easy! Sometimes we talk about prompting so often that we forgot what prompting actually is!

A prompt is just a cue that is given to a child when they are completing a task. 

The amount of support that is needed from student to student can vary.  Today, I want to go over the prompt hierarchy and why it's important to learn how to fade those prompts.

Remember, our goal is to always have students complete tasks independently.  Our end goal is to ultimately fade these prompts until our students are doing these tasks on their own.  

You Are Already Using Prompting:

Chances are, if you are working with students with special needs, you are already prompting the students without even knowing it.   Any action that is taken after giving the student the assignment, is considered a prompt.

For example, it is time for Math and you just gave Johnny a game to do.  He doesn't begin right away so you say, “Johnny it's time for math, you need to get started.”

That's a prompt!


It’s important to remember that not all prompting is “bad”. Every student needs some prompting to learn new skills. 

Too much prompting can lead to what is known as becoming “prompt-dependent“.  I see this so often in my high school special education classroom. 

For example, if a student always needs a verbal prompt to sharpen his pencil when it is dull, even though they may have already mastered it, then the student is “prompt-dependent” on someone telling them they need to go sharpen the pencil. 

picture of the prompt hierarchy

The Prompt Hierarchy

When you are working through the prompting hierarchy, you will want to move from the least restrictive prompt to the most restrictive prompt when you are first beginning.

We need to see just how much our students can do on their own before we are jumping in to help them. 

It is very easy to just do things for students and I have seen all too often teachers and staff providing too much prompting and support, which will only enable them to do less. 

You can grab this poster inside the paraprofessional Binder that I have in my shop!

picture of a teacher and boy helping with desk work

Full Physical Prompting

Full physical prompting is basically what lots of special educators will call hand over hand support.  This type of prompt is designed for students who need the absolute maximum support when it comes to completing tasks.  This type of prompt is the MOST restrictive because you are physically moving the student's hand or body to complete the desired activity.  You are physically guiding their bodies. 

Let's look at an example.

You ask Susie to clap her hands and she doesn't respond.  You would physically pick up her hands and say, “clap hands” as you are helping her clap her hands.

Partial-Physical Prompting

Partial-physical prompting is basically what I like to call an elbow tap! 

Once your student no longer requires full-physical prompting to complete an activity, you can move on to the next intrusive prompt: partial-physical

This type of prompt is designed for students who need a gentle touch or tap on the shoulder or elbow to prompt them to the next step.

For example, you ask Susie to clap her hands and she doesn't respond.  You would gently tap her hand or elbow and say, “clap hands”.


Modeling is the next step in our hierarchy.  Modeling is a great place to start if you feel your student doesn't need any physical prompting. In this type of prompt, the teacher is modeling what is to be expected of the student.  This is showing the student the correct response. 

Using the same example, you ask Susie to clap her hands and she doesn't respond.  You can calp your own hands while you say, “clap hands”.

Gestural Prompting

Gestural prompting is basically pointing at something.  This type of prompting is when you are giving some type of gesture or movement that shows what the student should do.

I often see this done unintentionally when students are working on an assessment and the teacher keeps staring at the correct response and then the student chooses the correct answer as well. You may not realize but your eyes can be giving gestural prompts!

Verbal Prompting

Verbal prompting requires you to use verbal language to get the correct response. However, there are two types of verbal prompts that you can give.

Direct Verbal Prompt

A direct-verbal prompt is when you give the child the answer.  For example, if you show a flashcard of the number 5, and say, “say 5”, that is a direct verbal prompt.  You gave the child the answer. 

Indirect Verbal Prompt

An indirect verbal prompt is when you give a hint to the student without giving away the answer. 

For example, if you are teaching them to use adapted books after your student finishes the page, you can say, “what should you do next?” Hopefully, that is enough of a verbal cue to get them to turn the page. 

I have found that sometimes verbal prompts are the hardest to fade even though they are not the most intrusive.   

Visual Prompting

Visual prompting is the least restrictive prompt that you can give a student. This could be photos, videos, or texts!  Visual schedules show students where to go and what to do.  That is a visual prompt.   Visual prompts can also be positional.  For instance, if you have a child that is trying to complete a puzzle and can't seem to find the missing piece, placing the piece in front of them is an example of visual prompting. 



The end goal of everything we do as special education teachers is to have the child achieve independence with any task or activiy. This means that the child can perform the task without prompting, all on their own!

It takes lots of practice to learn how to fade those prompts and to teach your paraprofessionals how to use the prompt hierarchy. 

Some Reminders: 

Using prompts effectively in your special education classroom is key!

Don't forget about wait time.   Have a conversation with your staff bout waiting time. We often jump in to help students before giving them an opportunity to respond.  

Remember to move slowly through the prompt heirarchy.  You are not gonna to jump from one end to the other in a few days.  Its okay if a student is stuck on one level for a long time. 

Don't forget about Errorless Learning!  And yes Errorless learning is a teaching strategy! You can utilize prompting when using errorless learning which ensures that skills are taught correctly by providing immediate prompts. The whole idea behind errorless learning is so that students don't get stuck in a chain of incorrect responses. 

If you are looking for errorless learning activities to get started with, you can grab them HERE!

I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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