Staff Training: Building Student Independence and Using Non-Verbal Prompting Strategies

Ever get to that point in the year where you see and hear WAYYYYY too much verbal prompting and over prompting in general? That's where I'm at right now. And with only 4 1/2 weeks left of school and a BILLION deadlines looming (and a few that passed...which I sadly did not meet) the last thing on my mind is stopping everything for some staff training. Well that attitude was clearly getting me no where and cringing is unfortunately not an effective method of delivering feedback SO I bit the bullet and wrote up some new guidelines which I have just started reviewing in my class.

Our first training took place this afternoon during our built in meeting time (we get 15 minutes every day which is both never enough and a total lifesaver) and it was mostly an introduction. We started off addressing issues related to independence for our kids, especially as they are growing older and the absolute necessity to get the most out of their last few years of intensive support and instruction. 

Here are some of the common issues I run into and I have seen others run into over the years:

  • Stopping yourself from wanting to help someone with a disability. I think this is hard for everyone. Parents and other family members included. This child has limitations, how can I just let them struggle. I actually think it is often NOT a conscious decision someone is making, but either way it happens. Addressing it head on, discussing how much MORE important it is to focus on independence for someone with a disability is truly essential.
  • Figuring out when students are asking for help and truly need it vs times when students are trying to get you to do things for them that they are perfectly capable of doing. Guess what, you probably have at least one kid in your class who cons you into cutting his food, tying her shoes, zipping his coat, etc. who actually 100% can do that on their own. Yet, language use is so important and so not responding to a request for help is tricky for all of us! Find the balance, learn to address the request while encouraging attempts (e.g., you try first, then I can help) whenever appropriate can be a good first step here.
  • Learning to take a passive role in a child's education. For many of us working in specialized programs, we get very used to the high levels of support our kids need. And we really don't know what to do with ourselves when they become independent. Learning to monitor is so important, be sure to focus on this with your staff!
  • I am the first to admit that I too struggle finding the line between trying to avoid and eliminate errors and prompting too soon, it is not easy. However, if you have seen the student demonstrate the skill in the past it is a bit easier and proving a slightly longer "attempt" window is appropriate.
I won't go through the whole training (you can download it below), but one thing I want to touch on is this: Re-frame the way you think about prompting. Don't become fearful of providing necessary assistance. Do ALWAYS think about how you will fade out and how quickly you can do so.

-Consider how different types of prompts impact independence – would you consider a student who needs someone to stand in the bathroom and tell them what to do for every step of showering themselves to be independent? What about a student who needed a laminated visual schedule in the shower? If neither is truly independent, which is the least intrusive?

Now... Non-verbal prompts. I think this goes hand in hand with allowing for and pushing for independence. Nothing makes me cringe more than hearing a verbal play by play of every step in a chain once the initial direction is already given. I've heard myself do it before and had to bite my tongue. We know NOT to do this and yet sometimes it just seems to be the simplest route. Here's my current frame of mind on the matter. If you're in a situation with a learner who: 1 - cannot read an impromptu written schedule for a new task, 2 - cannot imitate or follow a live staff/peer model, 3 - doesn't respond well to physical guidance or other prompts are not effective at avoiding errors AND 4 - the student can understand the language you are using, by all means, in the moment use verbal prompts and then before the next opportunity take some time to develop supports which allow the student to succeed without them. If all of those things aren't true, verbal prompts are not an appropriate method of instruction. This may seem extreme, however having seen how difficult it can be to fade out those prompts, I think we really need to consider what we are doing when we use them. Is it terrible to do occasionally? No, but it shouldn't be a long term instructional technique. And it shouldn't be your go to strategy all the time.

I include a LOT classroom specific examples in my trainings, as well as examples of times when I have done both the right and wrong thing. We really have to see value and relatable-ness (clearly not a word!) in the skills we as teachers are learning, this is the same for classroom support staff and therapists. Best of luck moving your staff in this direction and pushing for your students to be more independent. As always do not hesitate to email me with any questions:

You can download an editable version of the handout I made for my staff here.

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