SPED 8013 | Chapter 18: Imitiation

Definition of Imitation

  • Any physical movement may function as a model (antecedent stimulus that evokes the imitative behavior) for imitation
  • An imitative behavior must immediately follow the presentation of the model
  • The model and the behavior must have formal similarity
  • The model must be the controlling variable for an imitative behavior

Types of Models

  • Planned Models
    • Pre-arranged antecedent stimuli that help learners acquire new skills
    • Shows the learner exactly what to do
  • Unplanned Models
    • Occur in everyday social interactions

 Formal Similarity

  • The model and the behavior physically resemble each other and are in the same sense mode (i.e. look alike, sound alike)


  • The temporal relation between the model and the occurrence of the imitative behavior is very important
  • Topography of a previous imitation may also occur at later times and in the context of everyday life situations
    • However when it occurs in the absence of a model, it is not imitation
    • The discriminative features of the environment are different in this context (i.e. the model is not controlling the behavior)

Controlled Relation

  • The controlling relation between the model and the imitative behavior is paramount
  • This is best evidenced when the model is novel and it still evokes an imitative response
    • After this first occurrence, the new behavior has a history of reinforcement
    • Becomes a discriminated operant

Imitation Training

  • Typically developing children acquire many skills by imitating unplanned models
  • Some children with disabilities require instruction in order to learn to imitate
  • Objective: teach children to “do what the model does”
    • Generalize a rule to imitate models
    • Also known as generalized imitation

Steps to Imitation Training (Striefel, 1974)

  • Assess and teach prerequisite skills for imitation training
  • Select models for training
  • Pretest
  • Sequence models for training
  • Conduct imitation training

Assessing/Teaching Prerequisite Skills

  • Prerequisite skills needed:
    • Attending (staying seated, keeping hands in lap, looking at teacher when name is called, looking at objects when prompted by teacher)
    • Problem behaviors that may interfere with training may need to be decreased

Selecting Models for Training

  • Begin with selecting about 25
  • Include gross and fine motor examples
    • Movement of body parts
    • Manipulation of physical objects
  • Use only one at a time (don’t sequence them–save sequences for later)


  • Purpose: to determine if individual already imitates some models
  • Procedures:
    • Prepare learner’s attending behavior
    • If object is to be used, placed in front of you and individual
    • Say learner’s name, get eye contact, and the “do this”
    • Present the model
    • Immediately praise each response with formal similarity to the model
    • Record learner’s response as correct or incorrect

 Sequence the Selected Models for Training

  • Arrange from easiest to most difficult
  • First models for training are ones the individual has imitated correctly on some, but not all, pretest items
  • Next, teach ones the learner approximated but did incorrectly on pretest
  • Finally, teach items the learner did not perform or performed incorrectly on pretest

 Conducting Imitation Training

  • Pre-assessment
    • Purpose: evaluate learner’s current performance level and determine progress in learning to respond to model
    • Brief pretest prior to each training session
    • Use first 3 models currently selected for training
    • Present them 3 times in random order
    • If the learner performs them correctly 3 times, remove from the training sequence
  • Training
    • Use repeated presentations of 1 of the 3 models in pre-assessment
    • Use model most often responded to or responded to with closest similarity during pre-assessment
    • Continue until learner responds correctly 5 consecutive times
    • Use physical guidance if necessary to prompt the response
    • Gradually fade prompts as quickly as possible
  • Post-Assessment
    • Purpose: to evaluate how well the learner can perform perviously – and – recently learned behaviors
    • Present 5 previously learned models and 5 models still in training
    • On 3 consecutive post-assessments
      • If child consistently imitates a model correctly without physical guidance, remove it from training
    • Physical guidance may be used
  • Probes for Imitative Behavior
    • Purpose: assesses for generalized imitation
    • Select 5 non-trained novel models to check for occurrence of imitation
    • Do at end of each training session or intermix in training sessions
    • Use pre-assessment procedures, but with no antecedent verbal response prompts or physical guidance

Guidelines for Imitation Training

  • Keep training sessions active and brief (10-15 minutes, 2-13 sessions per day) with no more than a few seconds between trials
  • Reinforce both prompted and imitative responses (in the early stages)
  • Pair verbal praise and attention with tangible reinforcers
  • If progress breaks down, back up and move ahead slowly
  • Keep a record
  • Fade out verbal response prompts and physical guidance