Pre-Symbolic Strategies to Use and Avoid

The strategies described here for the entire pre-symbolic range (infancy-2 years).

Strategies to AVOID

Strategy to AVOID


What to Do Instead

Verbal prompts for transition

Student does not yet fully understand verbal language.

  • Use transition object (e.g., work object, lunch box, etc.)
  • Guide student to location

Audio or visual timers

Student does not yet understand visual representation of time (e.g., stopwatch timer or visual timer)

  • Build transitions into context of consistent routine (e.g., bathroom always happens before snack, free time is always after snack, etc.)
  • Use transition objects

Regular use of full physical prompting for student engagement

Prompting is an instructional strategy, NOT a way to support participation.

  • Identify alternate activity or task that is within student's ability level
  • Target pre-requisite skills to lead up to bigger skill

Skill and drill activities (e.g., counting, picture identification, etc.)

Student may memorize "routine" but will struggle to generalize skill and use it meaningfully.

  • Teach meaningful skills within student's ability level, breaking down the skill if needed (e.g., instead of rote counting, match numbers to templates for phone number, ID number, etc.)

Delayed reinforcement

Student is not yet able to connect accessing a reinforcer to the desired behavior after a delay, thus, desired behavior does not likely increase.

  • Immediate reinforcement (e.g., student finishes work task, provide reinforcer immediately do not wait until end of period/end of day, etc.)

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), or pictures and icons for communication/ schedule

Student does not yet reliably understand picture representations.

  • Shape more appropriate communicative behaviors (e.g., guiding, proximity, reaching/pointing etc.)
  • Use of objects for communication (e.g., cup to request drink)

Picture or symbol-based curriculum

Student does not yet reliably understand picture representations.

  • Differentiate and scaffold curriculum to provide instruction to target appropriate areas of need.
  • Utilize hand-on activities with manipulatives, real materials, etc.

Verbal explanation

Student does not yet fully understand verbal language.

  • Teach within the context of routines.
  • Utilize prompting as an instructional strategy, fading prompts quickly.

Whole group instruction

Student lacks attention span to engage, likely does not understand the verbal language used during whole group instruction, does not provide frequent access for student to engage meaningfully.

  • Individual and small group instruction
  • If whole group is used, educators must differentiate instruction, provide alternate activity and/or materials at the student's level to support engagement during lesson.

Strategies to Use

Strategy to Use



Skills embedded in routines and activities

Primary mode of learning at this stage is by experiences

  • Daily practice of unloading backpack at start of school day (target unzipping of backpack, putting lunch away, etc.)

Visual physical structure/boundaries

Provides clarity that activities happen in specific places.

  • Reading is on the carpet or beanbags
  • Table work happens at the table
  • Playtime is with toys on the floor

Transition objects

Providing object will help student understand where they need to go, as they understand objects as representational items (but not pictures or icons yet)

  • Lunch bag to transition to lunch tables.
  • Toilet paper to transition to bathroom.
  • Puzzle to transition to work area.

Objects for choice-making and exploration

Student understands objects, so seeing allows them to get what they want (student would not yet understand picture choice board)

  • Hold up two preferred items after work is completed, student reaches to make a choice.

Immediate reinforcement at regular intervals

Promotes higher level of engagement and participation, as student cannot yet delay access to reinforcement yet.

  • Allow short breaks with reinforcer after short work session (e.g., 30 seconds with toy after short work task)

First/Then structure

Allows student to learn routine of short work period followed by short break period.

  • First: do 4-piece puzzle. Then: 30 seconds music. Repeat.

Small group instruction

Allows for more frequent access to materials, feedback from the teacher, differentiated instruction to match ability levels, and more engagement than large group.

  • Small groups allow for differentiated instruction to meet different level needs.
    • Group 1: inset puzzles (level 1)
    • Group 2: matching pictures (level 2)
    • Group 3: reading single words (level 3)

Adults "read" student behavior for communicative intent

Students communicate largely through behavior, do not yet use symbolic forms of communication like verbal language or pictures.

  • Student cries every day 30 minutes before lunch time, adults hypothesize student may be hungry, incorporate an earlier snack to see if that reduces frequency of crying before lunch.

Opportunities for self-initiation

Students who communicate using primarily pre-symbolic forms often have their needs met by well-intentioned adults who take care of things before the need arises. However, students must have opportunities to practice communication, particularly self-initiation, to support learning.

  • Build opportunities for communication and initiation into the day in areas such as:
  • Free time / play (e.g., adult pauses activity, wait for student to request to continue)
  • Mealtimes (e.g., initiate request for "more")
  • Work (e.g., lay crayons on table, allow student to choose which color, etc.)

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