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MODULE: Pivotal Response Training (PRT)
The first behavioral interventions for learners with ASD successfully used the basic behavioral principles of reinforcement, punishment, and shaping to teach target behaviors such as speech, imitation, following instructions, and reduction of unwanted behaviors (Ferster, 1961; Ferster & DeMyer, 1962). This basic teaching approach was developed further by Lovaas, Koegel, Simmons, and Long (1973), who demonstrated success at teaching functional behaviors such as toy play, simple social responses, and self-help skills.
Learners in these studies were taught in a discrete trial format. That is, interventions were implemented in highly structured, tightly controlled environments in which opportunities to demonstrate skills were determined by the researcher. These studies demonstrated that many of the participants receiving discrete trial training showed significant gains, including gains in standardized test scores.
However, there were also some weaknesses to this approach. First, it was extremely costly and time-consuming to implement, and it required learners to spend most of their waking hours in one-to-one instruction (Lovaas et al., 1973). Second, gains were limited to the specific behaviors that were taught, and they often were performed only in the teaching setting. Finally, skills were not easily maintained without continuous ongoing rehearsal and reinforcement, perhaps because the use of extrinsic reinforcers and punishers may have led learners to respond only to the stimulus that was reinforced (R. L. Koegel et al., 2001).
PRT was developed by Robert Koegel and Laura Schreibman, who arranged teaching settings in which learners were allowed to choose materials and activities while adults interspersed teaching opportunities within learning and play activities. Children in these settings learned new skills and maintained those skills over time (personal communication, Schreibman, 2006). PRT, like all other behavioral teaching approaches (and probably nonbehavioral teaching approaches as well), uses the fundamental teaching tools of reinforcement, antecedent control, prompting, fading, shaping, and chaining. PRT uses both motivational and learning principles and applies them systematically in natural settings to optimize the development of fundamental skills that are pivotal to the development of a wide range of other skills. With PRT, the team member provides play and learning opportunities, follows the learner’s interests and initiations, and uses the learner’s choices as the reward for attempting to perform a desired behavior. This approach gives the learner opportunities to make choices and share control of the interactions with adults. Teaching that follows these interactions enhances learners’ motivation to engage with objects and activities that maximize the reward strength (i.e., the intrinsic motivating power of the activity or object) and minimize the need for extrinsic reinforcers (e.g., stickers, tokens, edibles). The use of natural, direct reinforcers (i.e., rewards that are directly associated with the behavior being reinforced within the activity) allows learners to gain the rewards present in natural environments, fosters skill maintenance and generalization across environments, and prepares learners to develop skills through interactions within natural settings. Additional critical components of PRT that significantly increase maintenance and generalization include (a) using varied materials and stimuli to build responses to multiple cues, (b) using PRT techniques in multiple environments, and (c) interacting with multiple social partners (Stokes & Osnes, 1989).