Talk the Talk: Response Prompts

Talk the Talk: Response Prompts

One of the goals of applied behavior analysis (ABA) is to help people learn the skills they need to be successful in their daily activities. Said another way, teaching a person what to do (i.e., target behavior) in a situation (i.e., cue) to get a preferred outcome (i.e., reinforcer).  

Learning often occurs through rules and/or direct experience. An example of a rule is a parent telling a child, “When your toy is on a shelf that you cannot reach, ask me for help, and I will get it down for you.” The statement identified the cue (i.e., when a toy is out of reach), target behavior (i.e., asking for help), and the reinforcer (i.e., being given the toy).  

Although rules may be effective for some learners, they may not be the most effective way to learn for all people or for all skills. An alternative method for teaching new skills is direct experience, where a person uses the target behavior when the cue is present, and a preferred outcome occurs. For example, when a child’s toy car is on top of a bookcase (i.e., cue) and he asks for help (i.e., target behavior), a caregiver retrieves the item and hands it to him (i.e., reinforcer). 

To maximize learning through direct experience, the cue, target behavior, and reinforcer need to occur in a specific sequence. The first part of the sequence requires the target behavior to occur when the cue is present (e.g., a toy being out of reach). To increase the likelihood of the target behavior occurring when the cue is present, ABA therapists, teachers, and caregivers use prompting.  

Prompts fall into one of two categories: response prompts or stimulus prompts. This post will discuss response prompts, and stimulus prompts will be reviewed in a future Talk the Talk post. 

Response Prompts Technical Definition: The actions of another person provided before or after the presentation of the cue to increase the likelihood of the target behavior occurring. 

Response Prompts Layman’s Definition: Providing assistance to ensure a learner is correctly completing a specific skill. Response prompts can be as simple as a gesture toward the correct item or as complex as hand-over-hand guidance to guarantee the learner is successful in completing the skill being taught.   

Example of Vocal Prompt: “Remember to ask for help if you can’t reach your toy.”

Example of Model Prompt: “Say help.”

There are different types of response prompts, including vocal and model prompts. Vocal prompts are statements that help a learner use the target behavior. For example, saying “Remember to ask for help if you can’t reach your toy” when a child is reaching for an item on a high shelf. Model prompts demonstrate the target behavior. For example, saying “Say, ‘help’” when a child is reaching for an item on a high self. Determining if something is a prompt or cue can be difficult at first. The difference between prompts and cues is that prompts are used on a temporary basis.  

Prompts develop a relationship between the cue and the target behavior. As that connection is established, the prompts are gradually removed, which promotes independence. If prompts are used unnecessarily, then it may prevent a person from learning what to do in a situation. Instead of responding to a cue, a person may wait to be prompted, which can limit independence. In ABA, this is referred to as “prompt dependence”. Keep an eye out for future posts where we will discuss this topic in greater detail and provide strategies increase independence.  


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.