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Friday 3 February 2017

Set Up A Stellar DTT Station in Your Classroom

Discrete trial training, or DTT, is an integral part of my classroom.  As one of the major teaching practices of Applied Behaviour Analysis, we teach most new skills through DTT.  Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a method of teaching in simplified and structured steps. Instead of teaching an entire skill in one go, the skill is broken down and “built-up” using discrete trials that teach each step one at a time.   There is a clear beginning and end to each trial with prompts and antecedents kept simple and at an appropriate level. By
breaking down tasks into short manageable trials and using suitable prompts and guidance ‘DTT maximizes children’s success and minimizes their failures’ (Smith, 2001).  I am not going to go into great detail about what DTT is, but thought it would be helpful to provide some background information.

The Basic Concept

It might be helpful to initially think of DTT as a series of “teaching attempts” with each “attempt” called a “discrete trial” or sometimes just a “trial”. As an example, say we’re teaching a child, Jane, to learn to identify the colours red and blue by asking her to point to red or blue cards placed on her desk. Each teaching attempt or “discrete trial” might be scripted (structured) like this: 
Discrete Trial One
  1. Teacher places one red and one blue card on the table in front of Jane
  2. The teacher then says “point to red”
  3. Jane responds by pointing to the red card
  4. The teacher would say “That’s right! Great job!”
  5. There would be a very short pause before a new discrete trial would begin
Discrete Trial Two
  1. Teacher places one red and one blue card on the table in front of Jane
  2. The teacher then says “point to blue”
  3. Jane responds by pointing to the blue card
  4. The teacher would say “You’re right! That’s Brilliant!”
  5. There would be a very short pause before a new discrete trial would begin
Within DTT, each trial has a very specific set of steps that are clearly defined and scripted, and always need to be followed. Clearly defined steps allow the instructors to identify what specific teaching methods are working and which ones are not.

Steps for Implementation: 

Step 1: Deciding What to Teach 

Effective DTT sessions are well thought out, fast-paced, and highly organized.  Before you can begin to implement DTT in your classroom, it is essential that you decide what you are going to teach.  Before I choose the skills we are going to teach, I complete an assessment.  We use the Hawaii Early Learning Profile Assessment and Curriculum in my classroom, but other common assessment/curriculum tools are the ABLLS-R, the VB-MAPP, or STAR, among others.  Once the assessment is complete, teachers decide which of the learner's IEP objectives will be taught using a DTT approach.  Some learning objectives are better taught using DTT than others. Objectives that involve fine and gross motor skills, language, recreation, self care, cognitive, and academic skills are very often appropriate for DTT. 

Step 2: Setting-up the Data Collection System

One of the defining characteristics of a high quality discrete trial training program is the collection of trial by trial data. When setting up the DTT instruction plan, it is important to have data sheets specifically designed for the skill being taught.  I like to use these data sheets from Christine Reeve's Book, Taming the Data Monster.  

These data sheets contain all of the information needed for the instructor to run the program, take the data and graph it all on sheet.  You can also customize them to meet your specific needs.  A good data sheet includes a brief description of the skill being taught, teaching phases, prompt level, mastery criteria, scoring code and space to add comments/notes.

Step 3: Designating Location(s)

Selecting an appropriate location or locations for teaching is a very important part of planning DTT instruction. When the team meets either during the IEP meeting or separately, it might be helpful to generate a list of possible locations where the teaching can take place. Each location should be carefully examined to determine the advantages and disadvantages of that location. Considerations might include: a quiet place without too many distractions, sufficient space for instruction and for breaks, and adequate lighting and seating.  

In my classroom, our DTT area has two large tables which can each accommodate 2 students and 1 instructor at a time.  The area is defined by shelving units which section it off from other areas in the classroom.  Teaching materials are within reach and there is enough space for the students move around for movement breaks or to perform gross motor movements if required by their programs. On the whiteboard, I have posted visual reminders for the staff with tips on how to run effective DTT sessions.   

Step 4: Gathering Materials

Having the correct materials will make your program easier and more efficient to run.  Below is a list of materials that will be helpful in setting up your program:  

  • Binders for data collection and team communication 
  • Pencil case with pencils, pens, ruler and calculator (for data binder)
  • Variety of tangible reinforcers (edible and non-edible)
  • Choice board of possible reinforcers based on preference assessment for those students using a token economy system 
  • Instructional materials (flashcards, flip books, real life objects, scissors, crayons, dry erase markers for teaching fine motor skills) 
  • Bins for storage which can be clearly labeled 

In my classroom, we store small teaching materials, such as flashcards, flipbooks, and small manipulatives in shoebox bins.  These bins take up little space and also allow us to take the materials to another area of the classroom or school if needed.  We also store edible reinforcers or small toys used as reinforcers and token boards, choice boards and first/then boards as appropriate for the student based on their schedule of reinforcement.  On the lids of these bins, I post some information about the student for staff to reference.  It includes information about their preferred reinforcers and schedule of reinforcement, their current learning goals, mastered skills, excessive behaviours and information about how staff should respond to these behaviours.

 For larger teaching materials, we store those in the large bins in the shelving units in this area or in letter sized poly zip pockets I got at Costco.  All the teaching materials are labelled according the HELP goal number, along with a brief description of the goal.  This assists staff with quickly locating the teaching materials they need for each goal.  This information is also on each data sheet for the student.  The student's data binders are kept just below their DTT Bin on the shelving unit.  That way staff can grab both at the same time.

Step 5: Delivering the Trials 

 There are 6 possible parts to a discrete trial: 
  1. Antecedent
  2. Prompt
  3. Response
  4. Consequence for a correct response
  5. Consequence for an incorrect response
  6. Inter-trial interval
Authors generally state that there are 5 parts to a discrete trial (e.g. Malott & Trojan-Suarez, 2006; Smith, 2001) because the consequences (my parts 4 and 5 above) are usually regarded as just one part. I have separated them into two because I think it’s helpful to show that there are two possible consequences and that both need to be clearly defined.  A seventh step could be also be added; that being data collection.  After the response is given and/or prompted, the student's response should be immediately recorded on the data sheet.

When conducting DTT sessions, it is important to intersperse easy and hard tasks to keep students engaged.  This is why we also store maintenance materials in this area as well.  Maintenance refers to mastered to mastered tasks or skills.  Storing these materials in this area also allows you to modify teaching if your student is having a rough day by lowering demands and also provides some "fillers" while you get organized to run the next program.

When using flipbooks for teaching, the natural prompt would be a gestural one, however if you want the student to focus on the stimuli and not your finger, I would suggest using a visual prompt.  It can be challenging to find the correct visual prompt, which is usually a flashcard, while running the trials and keeping the student on task.  I have found that it's easier to have all of the visual prompts velcroed to one page.  That way, you can quickly find the prompt you need and keep up the pace of instruction.  This is also effective when using flashcards, plus you can use this as a matching task!

I hope you have found this information useful and would love to hear how you organize DTT sessions in your classroom!  Do you have any brilliant tips to share?  I'd love to hear them!  Drop a comment below or email me!  Thanks for stopping by and have a great weekend!


  1. This post is AMAZING! I've been doing discrete trials for 4 years and continually struggle for an effective and efficient way to run sessions. Your post gave me a much clearer vision. Thank you!!

  2. Hello, this is a great post to help dive into setting up DTT a little more.
    I am trying to figure out how to incorporate DTT into my fluency rotations with classroom aide. I do not want to confuse the student/aide with what they are doing (DTT vs Fluency). I also am not sure how often we should do Fluency a week and how often we should do DTT a week.

    Any suggestions would be great-Thanks!


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