Essential Things to Know About Discrete Trial Training in ABA Therapy

Demystifying discrete trial training: Learn the definition and key concepts of this effective ABA technique for skill acquisition.

Understanding Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a widely used and effective teaching method within the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). It is a structured approach that breaks down complex skills into smaller, more manageable components. By providing repeated opportunities for learning and reinforcing correct responses, DTT helps individuals acquire and generalize new skills.

Introduction to Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training is an instructional method commonly used in ABA therapy to teach individuals with various learning needs, including those on the autism spectrum. It is based on the principles of behavior analysis and focuses on systematically teaching specific skills through repetition and reinforcement.

By utilizing a structured learning environment, DTT aims to provide clear expectations and promote focused learning. This approach involves breaking down skills into small, discrete steps, allowing for repeated practice and reinforcement of each step before moving on to the next. The use of prompts, reinforcement, and data collection are integral components of DTT.

Definition of Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training is defined as a teaching method that involves presenting a specific stimulus (known as the discriminative stimulus or SD), eliciting a response from the learner, and providing a consequence based on the learner's response. The goal is to teach new skills and increase appropriate behaviors while reducing problem behaviors.

To better understand the components of a discrete trial, let's take a closer look at the key concepts involved in DTT, such as structured learning environments, breaking skills into small steps, prompts and prompt fading, reinforcement, and data collection and analysis.

As we explore these concepts, it will become clear how they contribute to the effectiveness of DTT in promoting skill acquisition and generalization, as well as managing behavior.

Key Concepts of Discrete Trial Training

To fully understand discrete trial training (DTT) and its effectiveness in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), it's important to familiarize yourself with several key concepts. These concepts are essential in creating a structured and effective learning environment for individuals undergoing DTT.

Structured Learning Environment

A structured learning environment is a fundamental component of DTT. It involves creating a consistent and predictable setting where learning can take place. This typically includes a designated space free from distractions, organized materials, and clear expectations for both the learner and the instructor. A structured environment helps individuals focus on the task at hand and facilitates effective learning.

Breaking Skills into Small Steps

Another key concept in DTT is breaking skills down into small, manageable steps. Complex skills are deconstructed into smaller, more easily achievable components. This allows learners to master each step before progressing to the next, building a solid foundation of skills. Breaking skills into small steps promotes success and prevents learners from becoming overwhelmed.

Prompts and Prompt Fading

Prompts are cues or hints provided to assist learners in responding correctly during a trial. They can be verbal, physical, or visual prompts, depending on the needs of the individual. Prompting helps learners understand what is expected of them and increases the likelihood of a correct response. As the learner becomes more proficient, prompts are gradually faded or removed, encouraging independent responding.


Reinforcement is a crucial concept in DTT. It involves providing positive consequences immediately following a correct response to increase the likelihood of that behavior recurring in the future. Reinforcement can take the form of praise, tokens, access to preferred items or activities, or other rewards that hold value for the learner. Consistent and meaningful reinforcement helps motivate learners and strengthens desired behaviors.

Data Collection and Analysis

Data collection and analysis play a vital role in DTT. Accurate and systematic data collection allows instructors to track the learner's progress, identify patterns, and make data-driven decisions. Data can be collected on various aspects, such as the learner's accuracy, response latency, and prompt level required. Analyzing the data helps determine the effectiveness of the teaching procedures and guides instructional decisions for future sessions.

By understanding and implementing these key concepts, DTT practitioners can create an effective and structured learning environment. Each concept plays a significant role in promoting skill acquisition and maximizing the potential for success. For more information on the steps involved in DTT, refer to their article on discrete trial training steps.

Components of a Discrete Trial

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) involves breaking down skills into smaller, manageable components. Each discrete trial consists of three key components: the discriminative stimulus (SD), the response, and the consequence.

Discriminative Stimulus (SD)

The discriminative stimulus (SD) is a cue or instruction that signals to the learner what behavior is expected. It sets the occasion for the learner to respond. The SD can be a verbal instruction, a physical gesture, or a visual cue. It provides the learner with relevant information about the desired behavior and prompts them to perform the target response.

For example, in teaching a child to identify colors, the SD could be the question, "What color is this?" while presenting an object of a specific color. The SD helps to establish the context for the learner and indicates the desired response.


The response refers to the behavior or action that the learner engages in after the presentation of the discriminative stimulus (SD). It is the specific behavior that the learner is expected to demonstrate in response to the SD. The response can be a verbal, motor, or social behavior, depending on the skill being targeted.

Continuing with the color identification example, the learner's response would involve stating the name of the color of the presented object. The response serves as an indicator of whether the learner has acquired the targeted skill or requires further instruction and reinforcement.


The consequence follows the learner's response and can be either reinforcing or corrective in nature. The consequence serves to provide feedback to the learner, reinforcing correct responses and helping to shape behavior. Reinforcement can be in the form of praise, tokens, or other rewards, while corrective consequences may involve providing corrective feedback or redirection.

In the color identification example, if the learner correctly identifies the color, they may receive verbal praise or a small reward as a reinforcing consequence. On the other hand, if the learner provides an incorrect response, the teacher may provide corrective feedback and prompt the learner to try again.

By systematically structuring discrete trials and incorporating the three components – discriminative stimulus, response, and consequence – practitioners can effectively teach new skills and promote learning. The use of these components helps to create a structured and predictable learning environment, enabling learners to acquire and generalize skills more efficiently.

Benefits of Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a highly structured teaching method commonly used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. This approach offers several benefits for individuals receiving instruction. Let's explore some of the key advantages of utilizing Discrete Trial Training.

Individualized Instruction

One of the significant benefits of Discrete Trial Training is its ability to provide individualized instruction tailored to the specific needs of each learner. A skilled ABA therapist assesses the learner's strengths and areas of improvement, identifies target skills, and designs discrete trials that focus on those specific skills. This individualized approach ensures that learners receive targeted instruction, maximizing their potential for success.

Skill Acquisition and Generalization

Discrete Trial Training is highly effective in promoting skill acquisition and generalization. By breaking down complex skills into smaller, more manageable steps, learners are able to grasp and master each component before moving on to the next. This systematic approach allows for a gradual and structured progression of learning, increasing the likelihood of skill acquisition.

Furthermore, the discrete trials are designed to incorporate generalization. Generalization refers to the ability to apply learned skills to different settings, people, and situations. By incorporating various stimuli, settings, and prompts during the training process, Discrete Trial Training promotes the generalization of skills, enabling learners to effectively use their newly acquired abilities in real-life situations.

Behavior Management

Another key benefit of Discrete Trial Training is its effectiveness in behavior management. The structured nature of DTT provides clear guidelines and expectations for learners, which can help reduce behavioral challenges and promote positive behavior. The use of prompts, reinforcement techniques, and consistent data collection allows therapists to track progress and make data-driven decisions to address any behavioral issues that may arise.

By focusing on the development of appropriate replacement behaviors and utilizing reinforcement strategies, Discrete Trial Training can help individuals with behavioral difficulties in acquiring new skills and reducing unwanted behaviors.

These benefits make Discrete Trial Training a valuable and widely used teaching method in the field of ABA therapy. It provides individualized instruction, facilitates skill acquisition and generalization, and offers effective behavior management strategies. By employing these key concepts, individuals receiving Discrete Trial Training can make significant progress in their learning and development.

Criticisms and Limitations of Discrete Trial Training

While Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a widely used and effective teaching method in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), it is important to acknowledge its potential criticisms and limitations. Understanding these concerns can help practitioners make informed decisions when implementing DTT as part of an intervention program.

Lack of Natural Environment

One of the criticisms of DTT is that it can be perceived as lacking in naturalness. The structured nature of DTT often takes place in a controlled environment, such as a therapy room, which may not fully represent real-life settings. Critics argue that the skills learned through DTT may not always translate seamlessly to natural environments, where distractions and variables are more unpredictable.

However, it is important to note that DTT is typically just one component of a comprehensive ABA program. Generalization and maintenance of skills are explicitly addressed through strategies such as teaching in multiple environments and incorporating naturalistic teaching methods alongside DTT. To learn more about generalization in ABA, refer to their article on discrete trial training examples.

Limited Generalization

Another limitation associated with DTT is the potential for limited generalization of skills. DTT often focuses on teaching specific skills in a highly structured manner, which may result in difficulties with transferring those skills to other contexts or with different people.

To address this limitation, ABA practitioners employ strategies such as teaching across different settings, using varied materials, and incorporating naturalistic teaching techniques. These approaches aim to promote the generalization of skills learned through DTT to real-life situations. For a comprehensive understanding of discrete trial training, consider reading their article on discrete trial teaching in ABA.

Potential for Overuse or Misuse

Like any teaching method, DTT has the potential to be overused or misused. Critics argue that excessive reliance on DTT may hinder the development of independent problem-solving skills and limit the individual's opportunities for spontaneous learning.

To avoid overuse or misuse, it is important for ABA practitioners to consider the individual's overall treatment goals and tailor the treatment approach accordingly. DTT should be used as part of a comprehensive intervention program that incorporates other teaching methods, such as naturalistic teaching strategies and incidental teaching. This ensures a well-rounded and individualized approach to skill development. 

By recognizing the criticisms and limitations of DTT, ABA practitioners can make informed decisions about when and how to incorporate this teaching method into an individual's treatment plan. It is important to remember that DTT is just one tool within a broader repertoire of ABA techniques, and a comprehensive approach should be used to achieve the best outcomes for individuals receiving ABA services.

Understanding Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a structured teaching method often used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to teach new skills to individuals with developmental disabilities. It involves breaking down complex skills into smaller, manageable steps and providing repeated opportunities for practice and reinforcement. By focusing on discrete trials, this approach aims to promote skill acquisition, generalization, and behavior management. Let's explore the key concepts of DTT in more detail.

Structured Learning Environment

DTT takes place in a structured learning environment that provides clear and consistent cues to the learner. This environment helps individuals with developmental disabilities to understand expectations and respond appropriately to specific instructions. Creating a structured environment enhances learning by minimizing distractions and promoting focused engagement.

Breaking Skills into Small Steps

To facilitate learning, skills are broken down into smaller, achievable steps. Each step is taught individually, allowing the learner to master one component before moving on to the next. Breaking skills into small steps promotes success, builds confidence, and enables the learner to progress gradually.

Prompts and Prompt Fading

Prompts are used in DTT to guide the learner's response. Initially, prompts are provided to help the learner understand and perform the desired behavior. As the learner becomes more proficient, prompts are gradually faded to promote independent responding. This process encourages the learner to develop independent problem-solving skills.


Reinforcement plays a crucial role in DTT. Positive reinforcement, such as praise, tokens, or preferred items, is used to reward correct responses and motivate the learner. By associating correct responses with reinforcement, DTT increases the likelihood of the desired behavior being repeated in the future. Reinforcement is tailored to the individual's preferences and can be adjusted to maintain motivation and engagement.

Data Collection and Analysis

Data collection and analysis are integral to DTT. The therapist or instructor records objective data during each discrete trial, documenting the learner's responses, correct and incorrect, as well as the level of prompt provided. This data allows for ongoing evaluation of progress and informs decision-making regarding instructional strategies and necessary adjustments. Regular data analysis ensures that instruction remains effective and individualized.

By implementing DTT, individuals with developmental disabilities receive individualized instruction that targets specific skills, promotes skill acquisition and generalization, and helps manage behavior. However, it's important to acknowledge some criticisms and limitations associated with DTT, such as the potential lack of a natural environment and limited generalization of skills. 


Is DTT only used for individuals with autism?

DTT was originally developed for use with children diagnosed with autism, but it has since been used successfully with learners of all ages and abilities. It can be adapted to meet the individual needs and goals of each learner.

How long does it take to see progress with DTT?

The speed of progress depends on many factors, including the individual's age, level of skill, and frequency of therapy sessions. However, research has shown that learners who receive intensive early intervention using ABA techniques such as DTT make significant gains in a relatively short amount of time.

Can parents or caregivers use DTT at home?

Yes! With appropriate training and support from a qualified ABA professional, parents and caregivers can use DTT techniques at home to reinforce skills learned during therapy sessions. This can help to generalize skills across settings and increase the overall effectiveness of treatment.

Are there any potential drawbacks to using DTT?

As with any teaching method, there are potential drawbacks to using DTT. Some critics argue that it is too structured and may not allow for enough naturalistic learning opportunities. Others point out that it can be time-consuming and may not be practical for all families or settings. However, research has consistently shown that when implemented correctly by trained professionals, DTT is a highly effective teaching method for individuals with autism.


In summary, DTT is a highly effective teaching method used in ABA to teach new behaviors to individuals with autism. By breaking down complex skills into smaller parts and reinforcing correct responses, learners are able to build a strong foundation and master each step before moving on to the next. DTT is evidence-based and has been shown to be effective in a wide range of settings and with learners of all ages and abilities. If you're considering ABA therapy for your loved one with autism, DTT may be an important component of their treatment plan.



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