Stimulus Fading

What are your thoughts on tracing? Like it? Love it even? Maybe you haven’t really given much thought about tracing. We can trace pictures, letters, we can even trace really big stuff like the inner rings on a tree. I am sure someone, somewhere has needed to do that… for science of course! I have walked into countless classrooms, and watched young kids trace their names, and trace their personal information. I have seen all age ranges, and all skill ranges tracing. But what I don’t see, is the gradual fading of that original stimulus that the learner is supposed to know and be able to write, I am guessing independently. I believe we don’t see this, because people don’t know about stimulus fading! As defined by Cooper, Heron and Heward (2014) fading is “a procedure for transferring stimulus control in which features of an antecedent stimulus (e.g. shape, size, position, color) controlling a behavior are gradually changed to a new stimulus while maintaining the current behavior; stimulus features can be faded in (enhanced) or faded out (reduced)” (p. 7).

For the purposes of this post, let’s focus on fading out a stimulus, and let’s choose a common (and important) one such as writing your name. When looking at an assignment, the top of the page typically has the word name, followed by a line behind it. We know that signals where to write your name, and evokes the behavior of doing just that! But this is something our learners need to be explicitly taught. They also need to be taught how to form the letters of their name, and practice making the necessary strokes to complete the task. We begin by having the student name in a dark color, and thick lines or dots to make it clear and noticeable. The student begins to trace their name with this heavy visual support, and continues to practice this particular skill. After the student is making consistent marks along with the dots or lines, we begin in to reduce this stimulus. This can be done in a few ways; we can make the lines less thick. We can make the dots a little farther apart. We can light the color of the lines to a darker grey. The important thing to remember is that, it still needs to resemble the student’s name, just less pronounced. The ultimate goal with this type of stimulus fading is to gradually reduce it over time, to evoke writing the students name independently. By doing this process gradually, we take away the need for the visual support of the student’s name, and then the original stimulus of name and line will evoke the student writing their name in that location.

Stimulus fading is a wonderful opportunity to promote generalization of skills. This practice will absolutely help to increase the independence of our students, and help them to participate in their daily lives!

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2014). Applied behavior analysis (pp. 492-493). Edinburgh gate: Pearson educational international.

Fields, L. (2017). Transfer of discriminative control during stimulus fading conducted without reinforcement. Learning & Behavior, 46(1), 79-88. doi:10.3758/s13420-017-0294-x

Markham, V. A., Giles, A. F., Roderique-Davies, G., Adshead, V., Tamiaki, G., & May, R. J. (2020). Applications of within-stimulus errorless learning methods for teaching discrimination skills to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities: A systematic review. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 97, 103521. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2019.103521