What is Discrete Trial Training in ABA?

Unveiling the secrets of discrete trial training in ABA! Discover the effectiveness and skills taught for individuals with autism.

Understanding Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a teaching method used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to teach new skills and behaviors to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) [1]. It involves breaking down a complex skill into smaller, more manageable steps and teaching each step one at a time.

DTT is based on the principles of behavior analysis, which suggest that behavior can be changed or modified through the use of reinforcement and repetition [1]. By presenting tasks in a structured and controlled environment, DTT aims to promote skill acquisition and improve overall functioning.

The Basics of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a scientific approach that focuses on understanding and improving behavior. It is widely used in the field of autism treatment and intervention. ABA is based on the principle that behavior is learned and can be influenced by the environment. Through the application of ABA techniques, individuals with autism can develop new skills, reduce challenging behaviors, and improve their overall quality of life.

In the context of DTT, ABA provides the foundation for the methodology and strategies used to teach new skills. ABA therapists and practitioners utilize principles such as reinforcement, prompting, and shaping to facilitate learning. The goal is to create an environment that maximizes learning opportunities and supports the individual's progress.

By implementing DTT within the framework of ABA, individuals with autism can receive targeted and individualized instruction to acquire various skills in areas such as communication, social interaction, self-help, and academics. This structured and systematic approach allows for the customization of teaching methods to meet the unique needs and abilities of each learner.

Understanding the fundamentals of DTT and its connection to ABA lays the groundwork for effectively implementing this teaching method. In the following sections, we will explore the components of DTT, its effectiveness in skill acquisition, and the specific skills that can be taught through this approach.

The Components of Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a teaching method used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that involves breaking down skills or behaviors into small, discrete steps or trials. This structured approach allows for systematic and focused instruction, promoting skill acquisition and behavior change. Two key components of DTT are breaking down skills into small steps and following the ABCs of DTT: Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence.

Breaking Down Skills into Small Steps

In DTT, skills or behaviors are broken down into smaller, more manageable parts. By breaking down complex skills into smaller steps, individuals can focus on mastering each step before progressing to the next. This approach ensures a solid foundation of understanding and increases the chances of successful skill acquisition.

Breaking down skills into small steps also allows for precise data collection and analysis. Each step can be carefully measured and evaluated to determine progress and identify areas that may require additional instruction or support. It provides a systematic framework for both learners and instructors to track and assess skill development.

The ABCs of DTT: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence

The ABCs of DTT refer to the three main components of each discrete trial: Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence. These components are integral to the teaching process and help create a structured and consistent learning environment.

By systematically presenting the antecedent, observing and prompting the behavior, and providing a consistent consequence, DTT creates a repetitive and structured learning process. The scripted nature of discrete trials allows for consistency and analysis of teaching methods, ensuring the effectiveness of instruction and facilitating individualization in ABA programs [3].

Understanding the components of DTT sets the stage for effective implementation and skill acquisition. The next section will explore the effectiveness of DTT, providing insight into the research and benefits of this teaching method for individuals with autism.

The Effectiveness of Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) has been extensively studied and has shown to be an effective intervention for individuals with autism. Research has demonstrated the positive impact of DTT on skill acquisition and behavior in this population [4].

Research on DTT for Individuals with Autism

Numerous studies have explored the effectiveness of DTT for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These studies consistently provide evidence of the benefits of DTT in improving various skills. For instance, a study conducted by researchers at Florida Atlantic University found that DTT was effective in teaching a wide range of skills, including communication, social interaction, and self-help skills.

Benefits of DTT in Skill Acquisition

The application of DTT is based on the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA suggests that behavior can be modified through reinforcement and repetition [1]. DTT provides a structured and systematic approach to teaching skills, making it particularly effective for individuals with autism.

Some of the key benefits of DTT in skill acquisition include:

By leveraging DTT, individuals with autism can experience significant improvements in various areas of development, including communication, social interaction, self-help, and academic skills. This evidence-based approach provides a framework for teaching skills systematically and promoting positive outcomes for individuals with autism.

Implementing Discrete Trial Training

When it comes to implementing discrete trial training (DTT), two key factors play a crucial role in its effectiveness: a structured and controlled environment, and reinforcement and prompting strategies.

Structured and Controlled Environment

DTT sessions typically take place in a highly structured and controlled environment. This environment ensures consistency and allows for the analysis of teaching methods to determine what is working and what needs adjustment [2]. By providing a structured setting, learners can focus on the task at hand and minimize distractions.

A structured environment in DTT involves:

Maintaining a controlled environment is crucial for effective DTT implementation. It helps to create a predictable and organized setting where the learner can focus on acquiring the targeted skills. The structured and controlled environment ensures that the learner receives consistent instruction and experiences repetition, both of which are essential in behavior change and skill acquisition.

Reinforcement and Prompting Strategies

Reinforcement is a fundamental aspect of DTT. It involves providing positive consequences for correct responses and behaviors, which increases the likelihood of their recurrence. Reinforcement can take various forms, such as verbal praise, tokens, or tangible reinforcers. The type and amount of reinforcement should be clearly defined to maintain consistency.

Prompting strategies are also an integral part of DTT. A prompt is a cue or assistance given to help the learner provide the correct response [3]. Prompts can be physical, verbal, or visual, depending on the learner's needs and abilities. The goal of prompting is to guide the learner toward the correct response while gradually fading the prompts over time.

Both reinforcement and prompting strategies should be individualized based on the learner's preferences and needs. It is important to establish a reinforcement system that is motivating for the learner and to determine the most effective prompts to facilitate learning. Data collection during discrete trials allows for the analysis of prompt levels and reinforcement effectiveness, enabling adjustments to be made to ensure optimal progress.

By creating a structured and controlled environment and utilizing appropriate reinforcement and prompting strategies, practitioners can effectively implement discrete trial training. These factors contribute to the success of DTT by providing consistency, motivation, and guidance for learners, ultimately promoting skill acquisition in various areas, such as communication, social interaction, self-help, and academic skills [1].

Skills Taught Through Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a highly effective teaching method that is widely used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) acquire various skills. DTT can be highly individualized and tailored to the specific needs and abilities of each learner, allowing for customization and flexibility in teaching different skills and targeting specific areas of development. Let's explore some of the key skills that can be taught through Discrete Trial Training.

Communication Skills

One of the main areas in which DTT is utilized is in the development of communication skills. It helps individuals with ASD improve their ability to effectively communicate their wants, needs, and thoughts. DTT can target various aspects of communication, including receptive language (understanding spoken language), expressive language (using words or other forms of communication to express thoughts), and pragmatic language (social communication skills). Through structured and repetitive trials, individuals can learn to identify and understand words, use appropriate language to express themselves, and engage in meaningful conversations.

Social Interaction Skills

DTT is also beneficial for teaching social interaction skills. Individuals with ASD often face challenges in social situations, such as initiating and maintaining conversations, understanding non-verbal cues, and interpreting social norms. DTT can focus on teaching these skills by breaking them down into small, manageable steps. By providing explicit instructions, prompting, and reinforcement, individuals can learn to engage in appropriate social behaviors, develop friendships, and navigate social situations more effectively.

Self-Help and Academic Skills

In addition to communication and social interaction, DTT can be used to teach a wide range of self-help and academic skills. Self-help skills include tasks such as dressing, grooming, feeding, and toileting. By breaking these tasks into smaller steps and providing systematic instruction, individuals can gain independence and become more self-sufficient in their daily routines.

Academic skills, such as reading, writing, math, and problem-solving, can also be targeted through DTT. By breaking down complex concepts into smaller, more manageable components, individuals can build a solid foundation of academic knowledge and skills. DTT allows for repetition and reinforcement, which can enhance learning and retention of academic material.

By utilizing DTT, individuals with ASD can make significant progress in the development of communication skills, social interaction skills, self-help skills, and academic skills. The individualized nature of DTT ensures that specific goals are addressed, and the systematic approach promotes skill acquisition in a structured and supportive environment.

Beyond Discrete Trial Training

While Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a widely recognized teaching method within Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), it is important to note that ABA programs have evolved beyond solely implementing DTT. Today, ABA programs incorporate a range of teaching techniques to cater to individual needs and maximize learning outcomes [5]. Let's explore some of these other teaching methods commonly used in ABA:

Other Teaching Methods in ABA

While these teaching methods expand the repertoire of interventions within ABA programs, it's important to note that using DTT alone does not make a program an ABA program. ABA programs utilizing DTT involve intensive and prolonged training, with several hours of direct 1:1 instruction per day over an extended period [5].

Importance of Generalization and Real-World Application

One of the challenges faced by individuals on the autism spectrum is generalizing skills learned in one setting to other settings. To address this, ABA and DTT programs emphasize the importance of generalization and real-world application. Merely using the same materials, phrasing, and setting in massed trials may not lead to skill practice or knowledge retrieval in new settings [5].

ABA programs aim to promote generalization by systematically teaching skills across various environments, incorporating naturalistic teaching strategies, and encouraging the application of learned skills in real-life situations. This helps individuals with autism to transfer their acquired skills to different contexts and become more independent in their daily lives.

By combining various teaching methods and focusing on generalization and real-world application, ABA programs strive to provide individuals with autism the skills they need to thrive and succeed across a range of settings. The tailored approach ensures that interventions align with the unique strengths and challenges of each individual, ultimately facilitating their overall development and independence.


  1. Autism Speaks. (2021). Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy: What it is and How it Works.
  2. Leaf, R., McEachin, J., & Taubman, M. (2008). An Early Start for Your Child with Autism: Using Everyday Activities to Help Kids Connect, Communicate, and Learn.
  3. Lovaas, O.I., Koegel, R.L., Simmons, J.Q., & Long, J.S. (1973). Some generalization and follow-up measures on autistic children in behavior therapy. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 6(1), 131-165.
  4. Reichow B., Barton E.E., Boyd B.A., Hume K.M. Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) for young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012; 10: CD009260.