Discrete Trial Teaching is a facet of applied behavioral analysis therapy that is used by therapists, physicians, educators, and caregivers to help modify behavior in children with mood disorders. It tends to factor heavily in many autism spectrum disorder treatment strategies

Sometimes referred to as Discrete Trial Instruction, DTT’s science-based data-driven approach has proven to be an effective way to help children learn new skills. At the same time, it’s also an innovative way for ABA therapists to teach new social skills in the child’s natural environment.

How Discrete Trial Training Helps Children with ASD

Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have communication problems. Especially those on the severe side of the spectrum who also have significant learning deficits. Many Registered Behavior Technicians use DTT techniques to help these children learn basic skills. This includes cognitive skills, communication, and interacting with others, as well as learning to practice self-care.

Discrete Trial Teaching often breaks larger skills down into a system of small, easily taught components. As the child learns each component and masters it, they learn to combine them until they have eventually mastered the entire larger skill.

The Steps of Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training is founded on five important steps to help children with ASD and behavioral mood disorders.

Step One

The therapist or caregiving deconstructs a larger skill, breaking it down into small bites. Then each “Digestible Bite” is assigned consistent, concise instructions. Simplicity is key in step one, as you need to make absolutely sure that the child understands the instructions. If they don’t grasp it within the first few tries, then you’ll need to deconstruct the skill into even smaller instructions until they do.

If a child doesn’t quickly grasp an instruction like “Hand me the blue ball,” you might have to break it down to “Point at the Blue Ball.” Then add “Pick up the blue ball” followed eventually by “Give me the blue ball.”

Step Two

In the second step, the therapist or caregiving teaches each “digestible bite” until the student masters it before moving on to another skill. This might evolve from “Pick up the blue ball,” to “Pick up the red ball.” On and on until the child learns to pick up all the balls and put them away.

Step Three

The third step in the discrete trial training process is more intensive. The child amalgamates the different skills, picking up all the balls regardless of color at the same time, and putting them away.

Step Four

At this point, the therapist or caregiving installs prompts as needed, to help the child recognize the task that needs to be performed without intensive instructions. They then gradually decrease them.

Step Five

The therapist or caregiving then uses incentives that they are offered consistently for a job well done. This develops a positive association with performing the task making it enjoyable for the child.

The Core Principles of Discrete Trial Training

Discrete trial training relies on core principles that help children with ASD and similar mood disorders to learn new skills and modify behavior.

Discriminative Stimulus

Discriminative stimulus focuses on providing brief concise and consistent instruction to the child for the task at hand. The goal is to help them make a connection between a specific direction and the desired response.

The Prompt

A prompt is often needed to help a child with ASD form the proper response. This might be performed between the discriminative stimulus and the response itself. Though the prompt often occurs when the therapist, teacher, or caregiver shows the child the correct response to guide their behavior.

The Child’s Response & Consequence

If the child gives the correct or incorrect response to the stimulus the caregiver or therapist will dole out the consequence or reward according to the correctness of the response. This often comes in the form of praise or a small reward for every correct response.

Inter-Trial Interval

The inter-trial interval is the final phase of the discrete trial training process. It happens only after the consequence or reward phase of the training. It clearly signals the end of one trial and the impending start of another. It is usually no more than five seconds. The brevity of the interval helps maintain the seamless continuity of the learning process.

Discrete Trial Training & Incidental Teaching

As a core concept of applied behavioral analysis therapy, discrete trial training incorporates incidental teaching which makes the most out of events that occur in the child’s natural environment and repurposes them as teaching opportunities. The therapist or caregiver then arranges the environment to make it attractive to the child.

With patience, the child is prompted, and the teaching process begins when they start showing interest in something in the environment. At that point, the instructor elaborates on the chosen item to get the student to respond. When they react appropriately, the child receives a confirming response, a token, or some other type of recognized/perceived reward.

Sometimes numerous rapid sessions are performed with very little time between trials/lessons. Every skill must be relevant for the child in a way that encourages them to want to learn it. At the same time, the reward must be something that the child values and appreciates. It might be a favorite little snack or perhaps bonus time playing a game they enjoy. Then the reward must be given immediately after the child learns and correctly performs the task.


The way that discrete trial training breaks down skills into digestible bites and trains them incrementally helps children gain communication and social skills, as well as promotes their cognitive function. All in a way that helps them achieve the kind of skills and milestones they need to live their best life.

Discrete trial training does a good job of adapting to the child’s level of cognition and communication and can be adjusted to their abilities.

The entire process can be tailored to improve a specific skill in the most efficient way possible by focusing on positivity and brevity. It allows for the productive shaping of behaviors without forcing the child into a rigid structure.