Talk the Talk: Stimulus Prompts

Talk the Talk: Stimulus Prompts

Learning often occurs through rules and/or direct experience. When learning through direct experience, ABA therapists often use prompts, which helps a learner complete the task. The supports (or prompts) can be categorized as a response or stimulus prompts. In an earlier blog, we discussed response prompting. This blog will describe stimulus prompts.  

Technical Definition  

Stimulus prompts are temporary changes made to physical stimuli that help a learner engage in a target behavior. For example, if one of a client’s goals was to increase the accuracy of from an array of three, a clinician could add shading to the target shape during the initial trials, then systematically fade the degree of shading based on performance.  

The figure below provides an example of how instructional stimuli can be temporarily changed to teach receptive identification of a rectangle.  

  • Cue: “Touch the rectangle”  
  • Target Behavior: Contact between the any part of the client’s finger and the rectangle. 

As the learner becomes more proficient, the level of support is gradually removed by decreasing the degree of shading. Trials completed during Step 1 used a rectangle that was filled with a dark blue, which made it easier to discriminate it from the other shapes. Trials completed during Step 2 used a rectangle with a slightly lighter shade of blue compared to the previous step. The process of using rectangles with lighter shades of blue was continued until Step 6 when no shading was used and the shapes in the array were the same color. When the level of support is gradually removed, a learner is less likely to make errors, which can help make the activity more preferred and increase the rate of learning.  

An important distinction between stimulus prompts and other changes to materials are their temporary use. If the change to the item is permanent, then stimulus prompting would not have been used. For example, if a client has difficulty feeding himself with utensils due to deficits in fine motor skills, using a utensil with a greater circumference might increase independence but if the circumference of the utensil is not reduced over time, then it would not be an example of a stimulus prompt.  

Although the technical description of stimulus prompts may appear complex, it does not mean the strategy can only be used in highly structured teaching trials. In fact, the strategy can be incorporated into common day-to-day tasks. In the following section, we provide a less formal description of stimulus prompts. 

Layman’s Definition 

Stimulus prompts are signs or signals temporally added to items to increase the chances a learner will complete a task correctly.  For example, a teenager is learning how to cook and frequently over-cooks or under-cooks items when the recipe cooks items for different times.  

To increase the likelihood that each item will be cooked correctly, the parent can draw attention to each item’s time with different colored erasable highlighters. The figure below provides an example of how this might look.  

To increase the likelihood that each item will be cooked correctly, the parent can draw attention to each item’s time with different colored erasable highlighters. The first figure on the right provides an example of how this might look.  

If each item is cooked correctly for a week, the parent could erase the highlights to see if the teenager still needs that level of support. An example of how the recipe might look after stimulus prompting is no longer used is provided.  

Similar to the technical description above, to meet the definition of a stimulus prompt the strategy should only be used temporarily. If the parent continued highlighting every recipe used by the teen s/he would not be using stimulus prompting.   
The temporary use of prompts is critical to promoting independence, which is one of the primary goals of ABA therapy. Keep an eye out for future posts where we will discuss this topic in greater detail!  


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.