Consider a student who is first learning the alphabet. This is commonly done by pairing syllables to written letters and helping the student independently identify and associate these concepts with each other. As a teacher or a parent, how would you start this process? Would you lay out all the letters in the alphabet and ask them to find an F? Of course you would not! Most teachers would begin by isolating a single letter and just teaching to that concept, and then eventually move the student on. This is an example of decreasing the amount of distractors. A distractor is anything which does not have to do with the current teaching element being addressed. Distractions are part of everyday life and are often part of the teaching process – but initially, many students will benefit from the removal of these distractors to allow them to be successful, gain confidence and be reinforced. Reducing the amount of distractors is the first step, but what if a student is still not successful?
If a student makes a mistake this poses a few things; he may not comprehend the material, he might not yet be independently able to complete the task and / or there could be behavioral challenges which are inhibiting his response. The 'and / or' in the previous sentence is important because students with autism and other learning challenges often have a complicated combination of challenges which may be affecting his / her responses. Let's consider behavioral challenges. A student may respond incorrectly because; she could be prompt-dependent, ie does not respond independently, she may be seeking attention since she has received more attention in the past for incorrect responses, she may be frustrated, distracted, hungry, excited, tired, bored or simply testing the teacher. Since there is a lot of 'may's' and 'could be's' in a discussion on why a learner is not being successful – errorless teaching procedures reduce the chance that the previous myriad of possible variables will negatively effect the student's response. By minimizing the chance that the student will respond incorrectly (at first) the teacher is building a foundation of correct responses for the student to draw from. This also allows the teacher to initially reinforce the student for these prompted responses which will help him associate learning with fun and enjoyable situations.
Students can be prompted by changing their environment, ie in the above example of distractor reduction, or by physically helping the student to respond correctly. Physically prompting, in respect to errorless teaching, would be accomplished by completing the desired response with the student by having them respond correctly. For example, when teaching to colors, a teacher could request, “Please point to red”. The student would be assisted by physically helping him point to the red item in an appropriate amount of time. The teacher would then reinforce that prompted response. Without this level of reinforcement, a student will be less likely to respond independently in the future when he / she is not being prompted. This form of prompting works well with certain activities but other skills like language and verbalization can not be physically prompted in this manner. Here, repetition and the modeling of correct responses are more effective. Physically prompting a student is, of course, not sustainable in the long term because the goal of most skills is for a learner to independently complete an activity. At what point, though, does a teacher know when to stop or begin to stop prompting a student in this manner? After using errorless teaching procedures for an appropriate period of time, teachers can analyze the amount of progress being made by removing the prompt and making the exact same demand. Based on the student's response without being helped, the teacher can then determine whether more teaching trials are required or the prompts can be faded. The process and extent to which these prompts are faded is completely dependent on the student and his un-prompted responses. Reinforcing future attempts and / or independent responses is extremely important in the student's long-term success and ability to sustain and generalize these skills.
Learning a new language can sometimes be challenging. One way to help learn some of the names of everyday objects is to label the items in your room or house with the word in the other language. This is a form of errorless teaching since it (initially) eliminates the chance for incorrect responses. Not unexpectedly, these items will not be labeled in such a manner when speaking with an individual using this other language; so these labels or prompts will have to be promptly removed. Prompts such as these can be difficult to fade if they become embedded in the learning process. Removing then as soon as possible, or systematically fading them over a relatively short period of time, will reduce your dependency on them and allow you to more independently recall the names. One way to begin to fade a prompt such as this is to cover a letter or part of the word with tape. When you are comfortable here you would cover more and more of the word until it is completely unreadable. These and other forms of errorless teaching procedures can be very helpful to all learners – but they are especially beneficial for students on the autism spectrum. The key points with all errorless teaching methods are; the consequent fading of these prompts, providing adequate reinforcement and the goal of independence.