What is a “Teaching Frame”

© David Sponder, L.E.P.; BCBA; Floortime C3c
Exectutive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

Instructional Activity or “Frame”

The Frame is simply a teachable moment.  You either set it up purposefully and/or plan it carefully, or you respond to natural teaching opportunities that arise spontaneously or unexpectedly in the course of the day.  In the ‘Frame’ you will give the Student a chance to exercise a skill or to think and meet a challenge that you give to him or her.  It is called a “Frame” because the elements described below all go inside this “frame” as the elements of a picture go inside a picture frame.

Many feel that it is easier simply to think of authentic activities first, and then think about the skills that can or will be taught within the activity.  But an activity is not the same as a lesson.  An activity can contain many planned and unplanned lessons.  A frame is more like a moment where there is a chance to work on a specific skill that you’ve been working on in several frames or at any available opportunity.  A frame can pop up at any time where you notice an opportunity to put a spotlight on a skill.

A frame is something that you can throw around practically any type of lesson, whether it be an activity-based and “authentic” activity (the activity has an end product that is meaningful and apparent to the Student), a traditional academic lesson (where the Student engages in only a part of a greater sequence of skills), a social interaction, sports activity or play, or a moment where an opportunity to work on a spotlighted skill comes up spontaneously.  What I mean by “throwing a frame” around something means that whether you’ve planned it in advance or not, you can turn “frame the activity” by including the following elements:

  • A spotlight on a skill targeted for development
  • The skill in the spotlight (e.g., responding to nonverbal cues to slow down or speed up actions; finding reference points that let one know if or how long to wait)
  • Whatever constitutes observable and/or measurable criteria for demonstration or mastery of the skill
  • Role actions for each Role
  • Moves or actions you will take or arrange to take place the provide opportunities for the Student to develop the skill.  THE GUIDE or Teacher, always has the responsibility for setting up or taking advantage of a teaching moment.

Patterns or Systems of Interaction

All interdependent activities require the partners to work hand in hand, providing reference points for each other (e.g., topic changes; changes of speed or intensity or tone; presentation or removal of objects; changes in the task actions required as the task develops, etc.)

  • Noticeable changes in the activity pattern that provide opportunities to think, search for points of reference to figure out what to do, and opportunities for the Student to discover or invent new ways to respond
  • A moment where you slow down, stop or do something otherwise unexpected, that cues the Student to think or try a new way of responding.  This is very different from telling a Student what to do or giving directions and direct prompts.
  • Using Mastery as a Reinforcer: success in meeting the challenge should be reinforcing and noticeable enough to the Student.  You shouldn’t have to say “Good job!” or offer any other incentives.

Explicit/Announced v. Nonverbal/Unannounced References

To introduce a new skill, you might want to start with very big and noticeable cues.  You may also want to preview with the Student what he or she should be looking for (after that – the Student should rely on discovery rather than prompts or directions).  Think of spectra of overt to covert cues, loud to soft ones, big to small ones.

“Ready/Set/Go” is an example of an explicit or announced cue.  At first, this can be done loud, regular and slow to ensure maximal coordination.  It can then be faded to softly announcing; “Ready/Set [head nod]” or just nods of the head or lifting the eyebrows.

Eliminating Competition for the Student’s attention

At every moment, be observant of what typically interferes with the Student’s ability to pay full and mindful attention to the reference points that lead to skill development and problem solving.

Do what you can to eliminate the competition.  At first, you may want to work in relatively quiet, clean environments where there is little else to attend to other than relevant reference points for action, thinking, problem-solving, etc…

Later on, you’ll want to introduce messier environments with normal levels of distraction and irrelevant cues.

Zone of Effectiveness

Since you use proximity to increase your noticeability and power when you need to (as opposed to getting louder, repeating yourself, or signs of desperation and ineffective teaching, etc.), you will “just know” when you are in and out of a zone in which you remain effectively engaged with the Student.  In the zone, the Student responds to your actions in as mindful of a manner possible for the Student.  Outside the zone, the Student attends to cues that are irrelevant to spotlighted skill or challenge.

Variations of the Challenge

This is similar to “generalization” procedures used in ABA or Special Education.  Once the Student’s success is regularly observed, it is time to vary the types of reference points he or she must respond to or the ways in which he or she can respond to the same cues, or to increase the complexities involved in the activity (the reference points aren’t so obvious).


These include the specific roles and responsibilities for you (as the Guide or Social Co-regulation partner) and the Student.


Guides provide regular challenges for the Student to think.  This is the essence of teaching dynamic thinking skills.  It is a way for a Student to learn by discovery and by trying different things.  This is a much more effective way of teaching than by giving instructions and prompts.

Frame Scaffolding

These are other aspects of any lesson of frame that you’ll need to think of.  Teaching Frames vary by formality and the amount of prior planning that go into them.

Types of Frames

Formal Frames

I call Formal Frames those in which the activity is really designed around the skill.

For instance, the Student may be learning to recognize nonverbal cues for starting and stopping actions.  The Teacher/Guide might organize the following frames:

  • Playing a Game of Red Light/Green Light
  • Walking together, where the Student has to use the Guide’s starting and stopping as a reference point
  • Playing a game of “Freeze”
  • Musical Chairs – but the Guide blinks or does some other nonverbal behavior as the sign for starting and stopping instead of music
Embedded Frames

I call Embedded Frames those that you can find within other activities.  The Guide starts with any naturally occurring activity (e.g., eating dinner together; cleaning up; taking a walk; going to the mall, etc.) and then looks for opportunities within them that yield opportunities to work on the skill.  Using the same example of recognizing nonverbal cues for starting and stopping actions…

  • The Student fills a container while watching the Guide for a type of nonverbal cue to start, continue or stop filling the container
  • When playing catch, the Student learns to throw the ball only when someone is looking or not (‘looking/not looking’ being the nonverbal reference point for throwing)
  • The Student stops talking when the Guide shows obvious signs of not paying attention (e.g. covering ears; looking away; walking away; turning her back)
  • When crossing a parking lot, the Student starts and stops walking by using the Guides starting and stopping as a reference point
Spontaneous Frames

Spontaneous Frames are those that come up unexpectedly but that provide clear opportunities to exercise a skill.  In spontaneous frames, especially if there has been enough work and preparation with the skill in previous frames, there is the advantage of the Guide being able to recognize opportunities when they occur, and to have some idea of the scaffolding required beforehand.

Again, using the same example of recognizing nonverbal cues for starting and stopping actions…

  • You can always use established or noticeable reference points when the Student’s behavior is inappropriate.  For instance, Guides may use established facial gestures as cues to start or stop the behavior
  • If any activity requires interdependent roles, the Student can learn the specific environmental reference points that function naturally as cues for starting and stopping (e.g., seeing the other children stop and start functions as a cue for the Student’s starting and stopping; partners carry a bag or chest that has two handles – requiring the coordinated starting and stopping of action in order to hold on).

The effectiveness of the Guide depends on providing as many opportunities as possible to work on the skill.  Being able to recognize natural and spontaneous frames for the skill allows Guides to be more effective.


Guided Participation Menu Card: Articles on Guided Participation teaching and framing techniques http://sponderworks.com/?p=3512

Framing Sheets: These are blank templates that help you organize and plan opportunities that develop a skill.

Examples of Teaching/Skill Frames and the use of Framing Sheets

Framing Sheet Example 1: Spotlight on “Personal Space”

Framing Sheet Example 2: Spotlight on “Prosody”

Framing Sheet Example 3: Spotlight on Topic Changes