Give Choice A Chance

Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Behavior Analysis Quarterly, Vol. 1(1).

By Julie Ackerlund Brandt

Whether you are a practitioner or student, chances are you have come into contact with Discrete Trial Training (DTT) either as an instructor or as a learner. We are all too familiar with the consistent presentation of each step. Make sure you know your SDs, have an operationally-defined target behavior, know if, when, and at what level to prompt the behavior, and have the reinforcer, that you’ve carefully selected form a preference assessment, ready to be delivered. DTT is widely used to teach a plethora of skills. Now imagine adding the element of choice to your trials. While it may seem to contradict the rigid nature of DTT, allowing choice to be a component may in fact improve the effectiveness of this teaching strategy.

The act of choosing refers to how individuals allocate responding among concurrently available alternatives (Fisher & Mazur, 1997). Recent studies have sought to understand the value of choice and whether the act of choosing is reinforcing in and of itself (e.g., Fenerty & Tiger, 2010; Kern, Mantegna, Vorndran, Bailin, & Hilt 2001; Schmidt, Hanley, & Layer, 2009; Tiger, Hanley, & Hernandez, 2006;). Most of these studies presented identical reinforcers and measured whether participants preferred to choose the reinforcer or have the reinforcer be selected by the experimenter. What they all found is that choice conditions are preferred over no-choice conditions.

The value of choice as a component within teaching strategies is that it goes beyond the fact that choice reinforces correct responses in DTT; choice, it seems, can even help to reduce problem behavior resulting from task presentations! For instance, allowing individuals to choose the sequence in which to complete assigned tasks has been found to successfully reduce problematic behavior and increase desirable ones (Kern, et al., 2001). Furthermore, choice of reinforcement conditions has been found to be more preferred than no-choice conditions, even when the choice conditions required more work from the participants (Tiger, et al., 2006).

Choice can be imbedded in numerous teaching approaches, DTT included. If your student loves to eat Skittles, consider allowing him/ her to choose one from an array of identical Skittles before you reach for and select one yourself. If you have several tasks to get through, allow the child to select the order in which they will be presented. If you need the child to complete a worksheet, let him/her select which problem to work on first.


Fenerty, K. & Tiger, J. (2010). Determining preschoolers’ preferences for choice-making opportunities: Choice of task versus choice of consequence. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43, 503–507

Fisher, W. & Mazur, J. (1997). Basic and applied research on choice responding. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 387–410

Kern, L., Mantegna, M., Vorndran, C., Bailin, D., & Hilt, A. (2001). Choice of Task Sequence to Reduce Problem Behaviors. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 3, 3-10

Schmidt, A., Hanley, G., & Layer, S. (2009). A further analysis of the value of choice: Controlling for illusory discriminative stimuli and evaluating the effects of less preferred items. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42, 711–716

Tiger, J., Hanley, G., & Hernandez, E. (2006). An evaluation of the value of choice with preschool children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39, 1–16


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  1. See also

    The effect of choice on the motivation of young children on the autism spectrum during Discrete Trial Teaching
    By Ceri Elliott and Karola Dillenburger in Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs (JORSEN)

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