G-9: Use discrete-trial, free-operant, and naturalistic teaching arrangements ©

Important note: Fictionalized clients are used to demonstrate the skill items in the second half of the task list, sections F-I. They make the most sense when read in order. Please remember that there is not substitute for real-life supervision and consultation. Get your case-specific advice from professionals – not from the internet! These examples are just that – examples of how behavior analytic skills might be applied.


Case example: Jada is an elementary school student. She experiences Level 3 Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Level 3 is the severity level of Autism which is characterized by “requiring very substantial support.” Jada has also been diagnosed with a severe Intellectual Disability (ID). Jada has just transferred to a private school for individuals with global needs. She loves all kinds of play and messy activities, such as finger paint and water play. She also enjoys swinging on the playground, eating popcorn, and watching Disney movies. She loves to be read to, and laughs when staff make dramatic gestures while reading picture books. Jada does not use any vocal speech. She makes noises sometimes, such as humming. Jada engages in motor stimming, including upper body tensing and flapping her arms. Jada engages in severe challenging behavior, including self injury (hand to head and head to surface) and aggression (including hitting and biting). Jada has a mom, dad, and older brother living together in one home. Jada’s family has advocated for her to attend a private program, and they are excited for her to get high quality services. Jada’s new behavior analyst is Dr. Brown-Davis, who is a BCBA-D employed by the private program.

Example of Item G-9: Discrete trial instruction (DTI) is the use of the ABC sequence to teach one specific behavior. An Sd is provided and a response is systematically taught and reinforced in the presence of the Sd. Any response can be taught in a discrete trial format (it does not have to be with cards at a table). By definition, a discrete trial involves one response. Jada’s DTI programming involves teaching her a variety of useful skills, including how to respond to safety questions (such as “Who are you?” “What’s your name?” and “Where do you live?”) by providing an ID/safety card. 

In a free operant arrangement, reinforcement remains available and the learner can continue to respond without having to wait for a new stimulus to be presented. Free operant arrangements involve naturally occurring or contrived Sds, but in either case, the main difference between free operant and discrete trial arrangements is the absence of an intertrial interval in the free operant arrangement. Examples of this in Jada’s programming include her art times, when she has materials available and can continue to produce behavior (such as paint strokes) which result in reinforcement (such as color on the paper) without having to wait for new stimulus to be provided. 

Naturalistic or “loose” teaching techniques are those that are conducted in loosely controlled contexts, that provide multiple exemplars, and that incorporate the client’s preference into the teaching interaction. Naturalistic teaching requires a tremendous amount of skill and clear goals for the implementers. In Jada’s case, Dr Brown-Davis designs programming that mainly involves naturalistic teaching arrangements for Jada. Her programs are conducted within the context of activities that are meaningful for her, and utilize both free operant and discrete trial arrangements. 


Case example: Donovan is a high school student. He has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). He attends a public school and has been placed in a support program for students with social/emotional/behavioral needs. Donovan enjoys playing video games and drawing in his sketchbook. He would like to be a welder when he is an adult. Academic achievement and attendance have been challenges for Donovan historically, and he is currently not on track to graduate with his peers due to missed work and failing grades in several classes. Donovan’s team has identified challenges including frequent non-attendance to school, walking the halls during class times, non-attendance at expected guidance appointments, and non-completion of classwork. Donovan lives with his mother and older brother. Donovan’s mother is concerned about her son’s school challenges and expresses frustration about his “lack of commitment” to his education. She wants Donovan to understand how important it is to graduate from high school. Donovan’s behavior analyst is Ms. Bailey, who has just started contracting with Donovan’s school district through the agency she works for.

Example of Item G-9: See Jada’s examples above.

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