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Priming: A How to Guide

We all want to see our children succeed, especially in new situations or when expectations are different. But how can we set up our children to succeed?

We can do this through the use of priming. Priming is a prevention strategy, also known as an antecedent strategy in which we provide relevant information prior to a situation or task.

Priming can be especially helpful for children that have a difficult time with transitions or changes in routines. Let’s face it, we all feel better when we have an understanding of the expectations of us, and children are no different. The point of priming is to prepare our children for novel situations and expectations, as well as reduce anxiety and ultimately reduce any potential challenging behaviors.

Priming can take many forms, such as:

Visual Schedules

Make an activity-based schedule or a daily schedule that shows what order specific activities will occur. This can be extremely helpful to highlight any changes in routines. For children that are not ready for a lot of pictures, you can start with a “fist/then” board that simply shows what activity will happen first and what activity will follow.

Visual Timers

These can take the form of a digital timer that shows how much time is left for the given activity, can be sand timers or timers that countdown remaining time in color. This can be especially helpful for children that exhibit behavior challenges when engaging in non-preferred tasks.

Social Stories

Provide a learning format to teach a variety of skills and behaviors as well as outline events and social situations. Essentially a story is used to teach about one topic, one event or a social skill.

Video Models

Provide a visual demonstration of a skill or behavior for a learner to gain understanding by observing someone preforming the desired behavior on video so that they can then imitate the target behavior.


Role-playing provides the opportunity for the learner to “practice” a target skill or behavior while receiving cues, reinforcement and feedback.

Verbal Reminders

Can be used to prior to an activity or event so that the learner is reminded of the target behavior, change in routine, etc.

How to use priming:

Priming should be done prior to an event. So immediately before an event, take the child aside and review what will happen. You can describe what is going to happen using any of the examples above. Ideally, you should always pair a visual with your verbal cues as while your verbal cues fade away, the visuals remain present and can be referred to as many times by the child as needed.

Priming Example: Sharing toys during play

Therapist/Caregiver: “It’s time to play with Johnny. Remember when he is playing with something that you want, you can ask for a turn.” (review picture cues or role-play)

During play, you can gesture to the picture cue as a reminder.

Priming Example: Putting dishes in the sink

Therapist/Caregiver: Before it is time for lunch, remind the learner. “Remember when you are finished eating you need to put your plate in the sink.” You can write down the words or have a picture of the sink that you place on the table near the learner during mealtime as a reminder.

Priming Example: Transitioning between tasks

Therapist/Caregiver: “It is time for bath. Remember after bath we get to have a snack.” (review picture schedule – first/then board)

During these unique times when schedules and routines seemingly are frequently changing, priming can prove to be an effective tool that can help everyone feel more at ease and ultimately aid in everyone’s success.


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