Time delay


Time delay refers to the amount of time between giving a student an instruction and providing a prompt to help them follow the instruction. An example of an instruction might be telling a student to get their hat. The prompt from the teacher might be pointing to the hat. The time between the instruction and the prompt can be varied. When a student is first learning the skill, the instruction and the prompt might happen at the same time. As the student becomes better at understanding and following the instruction, the time delay between the instruction and the prompt can be increased. This time delay can help students become more independent and less dependent on prompts.

Using the strategy

Use of time delay is associated with prompting. Time delay is part of well-established and very technical strategies around changing behaviour. Using time delay and prompting correctly can be complex and staff might benefit from the support of other staff with expertise in this area within the school community.

To use time delay, you need to know the target behaviour and decide on the prompts to be used. The following steps can be important.

  1. Determine the target skill or behaviour to be taught, e.g. 'Cameron will come to class within a minute of the bell ringing at the end of recess'. This must be a specific skill ā€“ general descriptions like 'play nicely' are not specific enough.
  2. Decide what the initial cue or instruction will be to do the skill, e.g. it may be an environmental cue like the bell ringing at the end of lunch, or could be a person-based cue like an instruction from a teacher or a greeting from a peer.
  3. Decide on the prompt that will work every time to elicit the target skill. This could be
    • a model of the skill e.g. the teacher models saying hello to a peer
    • a physical prompt, e.g. tapping the student on the arm to remind them to wave and say hello
    • a verbal prompt, e.g. 'Say hello and wave to your friend'.
    • see the prompting factsheet for more detailed information.
  4. Decide on a reinforcement that will be used when the skill is used by the student successfully e.g. a high five or a tick on the sticker chart.
    • Reinforcement makes it more likely that a student will use a skill again.
  5. Consider the time delay you want to use. When teaching a new skill, there is generally no delay between the cue/instruction and the prompt. This makes sure that the student is successful in completing the skill when learning it. The time delay is then either set at a fixed number of seconds (constant time delay) or the time delay gradually increases (progressive time delay). See the websites listed below for more technical detail of how to determine the appropriate time delay.
  6. Look for opportunities for teaching the skill during the day. Teaching skills can be time consuming in the early stages. Consider what times will work best for the student, their peers and the staff.
  7. Practice the skill using consistent cues (instructions), prompts and reinforcement until the student is able to do the task independently.
    • If using progressive time delay, the time between cue and prompt is gradually increased.
    • Carefully monitor the student's response to make sure you are not moving too fast or too slowly.

Age group

As with prompting, time delay is appropriate for all ages, with modifications made for the student's cognitive and language levels, including:

  • preschool
  • Pā€“2
  • 3ā€“6
  • high school.ā€‹

Learn more

Last updated 10 November 2023