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Why We Should Stop Over-Prompting Kids on the Spectrum

Think about when you were learning to ride a bike. Are you picturing it? You’re in the park, you’ve graduated from your training wheels and you’re ready to try this thing. But “Don’t worry” your dad reassures you, “I’m going to be holding on to the back of the seat. I’ve got you. I won’t let you fall.” Eventually you’re riding so straight and smooth that it’s time for Dad to let go. And you’re off!

Now, how did you learn to ride the bike in the first place? Was that day the first day that you got on the bike? Absolutely not. You’d been working on that for months, years maybe. There were so many steps involved. Maybe the first step was riding a tricycle, next you had training wheels, then your dad held on to the back of the seat, and finally you rode that bike on your own.

What would happen if your dad tried to teach you how to ride a bike by putting you on a two-wheeler, and giving the bike a shove? You would fall, no doubt. That’s not how kids learn to ride bikes.

So why do we act like that’s how kids learn language and how to navigate social situations? Us therapists, are all too often, the dad bike shovers. We are the over-prompters. We want so much for our clients to succeed that we do all the work for them. We set them up on that bike. The problem is, it’s not maintainable. The child on that bike doesn’t have enough skills to ride off on his own.

Let me walk you through a classic over-prompting situation.

Picture entering a classroom with one of your clients, Charlie. Let’s say it’s an 8-year old boy on the spectrum.

You: Oh, Robert’s here today. Let’s go say hi.

[You pull Charlie’s hand and walk over to Robert.]

You: Here’s Robert! Charlie, say ‘Hi, Robert!’

Charlie: Hi Robert.

My question for you is this…next time Charlie walks into that classroom without you or another adult, do you think he will be able to do that? Most likely no. And it’s not because he doesn’t have the skills to execute, it’s because he hasn’t had the practice with the planning.

Planning and executing are very different and both very important skills to have. A lot of the kids we see can execute, which is why they are successful when prompted. It’s that they lack the ability to plan. Why? We are so busy prompting them to execute that we forget about how important it is to give them practice planning.

A better way to work on that interaction, would be something like this (and when I say better, I mean more effective and more meaningful):

[You walk into the classroom with Charlie.]

You: Oh, look Charlie. Who’s here today?

Charlie: Robert’s here.

You: Yeah, Robert’s here. What should we do?

Charlie: Go say hi.

You: Good idea! How should we say hi?

Charlie: [Comes up with an idea - say hi, give a high five, ask him to play, etc. - there are many ways to say hi!]

I know this change seems simple, but it makes such a big difference. In this second scenario, the child is the one generating the ideas and making the plan. We are stimulating his brain by asking him questions so that he can come up with ways to interact in this situation. We are helping him with his ideation.

So next time, before you tell one of your kids to say this or do that, see if he can come up with his own ideas! Don’t put the child on the bike and give him a shove. Instead, teach him all the steps for riding a bike on his own.

If you want to know the best questions to ask kids to improve their ideation, check out my free download: Top Questions to Ask to Promote Ideation.

Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist, autism expert, and founder of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multidisciplinary clinic in Los Angeles.

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