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Oldie But A Goodie

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

A long, long time ago, when I was still teaching and my surname was still maiden (Brierley), some colleagues and I investigated the effectiveness of a group instructional extension of one to one discrete trial teaching (DTT). Group instruction? Of DTT? Wasn't the gold standard forty hours a week of one-to-one? Yes, except I had found myself emergency credentialed and teaching in a dynamic public elementary school classroom full of developmentally delayed children. Equipped only with BA from UCLA, my training from Dr. Ivar Lovaas himself and three years of behavioral treatment experience, I used the only tools in my toolbox at the time - namely discrete trial teaching - only I didn't have the luxury of a one-to-one ratio. Public school, remember?

I had managed to train my amazing classroom assistants in stolen minutes before and after school, and we had at it... helping each child reach their full potential. Let me explain how we applied this clinical sort of experience in a dynamic classroom. First off, we issued individual trials during large group instruction, small group instruction, on the playground, in the bathroom, while waiting for the bus... one student at a time - sequentially. Discrete trial teaching wasn't relegated for a cubicle in a corner. Rather, we embedded that type of instruction throughout the school day understanding acutely that minutes mattered. So do seconds. While the sequential delivery of DTT in a group arrangement had distinct benefits like efficiency and individualization of instruction, peer communication and certainly social interaction among students is limited. In an effort to offset the limitations of sequential instruction, sometimes we would issue an instruction to the whole group simultaneously, with the expectation that all the students would reply in unison, or chorally. Here we could check off the benefit boxes for increased opportunities for social and observational learning, but individualization would go out the window. Balancing both these formats became critical. Other times though and more often than we even realized, we presented a third type of group instructional format. We overlapped trials. Simply stated, overlapping instruction means that more than one trial is going on at any given time. An instruction for a student may begin before a trial for another student is finished. Overlapping the trials was born of necessity. For example, I may have opened a trial for one particular student and while they were responding, another student's behavior required my immediate attention. One of my assistant's may then provide the feedback for the initial student while I had yet another trial open for the second student. Classrooms are dynamic and special education classrooms are especially so. Young students with developmental disabilities are generally not inherently patient, which makes cooperatively waiting for the teacher to wrap up a trial with their neighbor extra challenging. What may have begun as a survival strategy, revealed itself as this amazing variation and compliment to group instruction and wasn't just relied on when behaviors occurred. It was integrated with intention. The benefits were plentiful. Overlapping trials allowed for skill acquisition in groups (acquisition of the student's own target objectives as well as the target objectives of their peers), improvement in pro-social behavior including social interaction, opportunities for observational learning, efficient behavior management AND individualization. Wow, we'd discovered the holy grail! Integrating these three methods (sequential, choral and overlapping) and relying predominantly on overlapping is in my opinion, the trifecta of group instruction and successful integration of discrete trial teaching in classroom settings.

What we were able to demonstrate through our research is as valuable today as it was then. The generalizability and naturalistic nature of group instruction is noteworthy. The methods are evidence-based. The application yields efficiency and allows for comprehensive skill areas to be targeted. Although the research is nearly twenty years old, too many classrooms today still fall short embedding this precision instruction. So while it's past the point of being new, it's still something to be cherished.

Taubman, M.T., Brierley, S., Wishner, J., Baker, D., McEachin, J., and Leaf, R.B. (2001). The Effectiveness of a Group Discrete Trial Instructional Approach for Preschoolers with Developmental Disabilities.  Research in Developmental Disabilities, 22, 205-219.

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