Fostering social awareness using discrete trial instruction

Updated: Mar 31

As teachers of children with ASD, our job is to ensure that there is a focus on the social dimensions of instruction as well as on content. Of course this means that children should be 'connected' in learning. Everyone agrees on this point. This is what makes the DRI approach so appealing... it's all about 'connection'. But, we can do better than simply saying that we want children connected or engaged. More specifically, we need to become more relevant to children, so that they gladly accept and invite our guidance, so that they learn to patiently observe what we do, to look to us for feedback, to check us out, to seek us out and to track our movement and attention. This is all possible, even when considering the use of discrete trials.



Teaching is more than simply being 'Sd and reinforcer dispensers'

Some current trends and practices in ABA-based intervention tend to undercut the social dimensions of teaching. We see this, for example with 'paced instruction'. During 'paced instruction' Sds are fired off as quickly as possible in the hope of maintaining attention. However, a side effect of this approach is that 'speed' supplants social aspects of instruction.

It is possible to do both

While it may seem counter-intuitive, we can actually slow things down in order that children maintain attention to task and to us (which is not to say that paced instruction should never be used...but not most of the time or exclusively). We can implement instruction so that technique and design encourage social reciprocity, social awareness and social acuity while also enhancing accuracy and attention to task. From the outset of intervention, we can establish the foundation for these things by developing a simple routine of 'look, listen, respond, look, consequence' (see blog article, "Teaching eye contact and the eye contact controversy"). Getting this routine off the ground allows us to implement complex and nuanced exercises which pull for attention to task and which 'bake in' the social dimensions enumerated above. This is illustrated in the exercise below.

The example below (found in Lund and Schnee 2018), illustrates how common exercises can be used as vehicles that reach beyond specific content. Thus, within this 'matching' exercise, children are required to attend to the instructor, to that which the instructor attends, to track the instructor's point, to track the instructor as they move about the room and to learn to flexibly switch responses between different kinds of instructions... all within one 'matching' exercise.


Shifting between instruction modalities


Set up: Pictures are placed on a wall(s). Some matching pictures are placed on the child’s desk and some are distributed around the room. The child is seated at a desk, the instructor is standing by the wall on which the pictures are placed.

Procedure 1: Point to a picture on a wall. Present random instructions:

“What’s this?” (Pointing to picture on the wall)

“Touch same” (Pointing to picture on the wall the child touches the matching item on their desk)

“Touch this and this” (Point to two pictures on the wall consecutively, child touches matching items on their desk);

“Bring me this” (Point to picture on the wall, child retrieves it)

“Bring me the (ball)” (No point)

“What color is that car” (Pointing to car on wall)

"Is this a (color, eg. green), (name, e.g, a horse), (for expressed function, e.g., for drinking)?

“What color is this?” (Pointing to item on wall)

Procedure 2: Same set-up as in procedure 1 except pictures are now placed on two different walls and items are also placed inside and outside of the room in order encourage search routines.


The exercise above illustrates how common exercises (in this case, matching) serve as vehicles to go beyond teaching only 'content'. Thus, concept development, attention dexterity, social acuity and social awareness, memory, executive function, and social pragmatics are all addressed in this one 'matching' exercise. Additionally, exercises can be designed to 'interconnect' abilities. Exercises can be designed so that children learn to attend not only to our words, but to us, so that we are relevant.


Discrete trial instruction, while only one procedure of many commonly used in a comprehensive intervention program, can be a robust tool used to address a multiplicity of targets within each exercise, social awareness being one of them.

​The better we are able to design exercises and instruction that fortify social awareness, the greater are learning efficiencies and enjoyment. Design in this way serves to better prepare children for participating and responding to the many social techniques employed within our communication practices... many of which often elude children and which may be overlooked during intervention.