Discrete Trial Teaching: The Worst Form of Instruction Except for All Those Other Forms of Instruction
John McEachin (Autism Partnership)
John McEachin is a licensed psychologist and behavior analyst who has been providing intervention to children with autism as well as adolescents and adults with a wide range of developmental disabilities since 1974. He received his graduate training under Ivar Lovaas at the UCLA Young Autism Project. During his 11 years at UCLA, Dr. McEachin served in various roles including Clinic Supervisor, Research and Teaching Assistant, and Lecturer. His research has included a long-term follow-up study of the children who received intensive behavioral treatment at the UCLA YAP, which was published in 1993. In 1994 he joined with Ron Leaf in forming Autism Partnership, which they continue to co-direct. In 1999 they published A Work in Progress, a widely used behavioral treatment manual and curriculum for children with autism. Dr. McEachin has lectured throughout the world and co-authored numerous books and research articles. He is an instructor at Long Beach State University and consults regularly to families, agencies, and school districts, assisting in the development of treatment programs and providing training to parents, interventionists and teachers.
Discrete trial teaching (DTT) is one of the most widely implemented interventions for children with autism and at the same time one of the most maligned. It can be an incredibly powerful tool and is an acknowledged key component in intensive early intervention for children with autism. But it is also the intervention that everyone loves to hate: “It is too rigid and formulaic…Behavior change does not generalize to real-world contexts…It is overly contrived and unnatural…It does not have curb appeal.” But we have to consider whether all these purported shortcomings are inherent in the DDT model or are they by-products of rigidly formulated or incompletely implemented translations of the model. This talk will propose a broader conceptualization of DTT that allows for flexible application along a number of relevant continua according to the readiness of the learner. It will be argued that while the structure that is commonly viewed as a defining characteristic of DTT and arguably a major contributor to its effectiveness can and should be varied according to the needs of the student. In other words, we should aim to provide the just right amount of structure. This flexible but systematic approach has been referred to as progressive (e.g. Leaf et al., 2016). Within this progressive model all elements of DTT are fair game for rethinking what we do and why we do it. Willingness to contrive learning opportunities and space them closely together could actually be an advantage, not a shortcoming of DTT. The research behind this model will be described and the areas where more research is needed will be highlighted.