Delivering Effective Instruction to Increase Compliance

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Have you ever provided a simple instruction to a child such as, “Please put on your shoes”, which was then followed with, “NO!!! Never! Ask me again when I’m 18.”?   We’ve all had experiences like this to some degree or another with a child.  One thing I always mention to parents is, you are not alone.  Non-compliance is a behavior that is prevalent in both neurotypical and neurodiverse children.   Parents can take an active role in teaching compliance skills by increasing the probability that their child is successful with following instructions.  Here are some guidelines to consider when delivering instructions.    

Eye-Contact:  Establish eye-contact when delivering an instruction.  By making eye contact you are letting your child know what you are telling them is important and you are likely to stick around to see the instruction gets followed.  Establishing eye-contact will also help you confirm that the child heard your instruction the first time and allows you to assess if the instruction was understood.  A blank stare back may warrant a supplemental instruction.     

Direct Instruction:  When possible, provide one-step directions followed by a 3-5-s waiting interval (e.g., “Come Here”).  This clearly communicates the task at hand and increases the probability that the instruction is followed.   The 3-5-s wait time allows the child the opportunity to respond independently and receive reinforcement for following the instruction on the first time.  Try to avoid instructions that are phrased as questions (e.g., “Can you walk next to me?”).   This gives the child an opportunity to tell you, “No”.  When delivering instructions also avoid using vague directions (e.g., “You need to behave nicely”) and chained directions (e.g., “Put your toys away then go wash your hands with soap and water, and come sit down to eat dinner).   Providing a rationale for an instruction may distract a child from following the initial instruction so this too should be avoided (e.g., “You need to put your shoes on because we need to leave to go to your dentist appointment”).     

“Do” Instruction:  Phrase instructions in a positive “do” statement instead of using “don’t” statements (e.g., Saying, “Keep your hands to yourself” instead of, “Don’t do that”).  Statements phrased in the “do” format explicitly state the behavior you are looking for which will help increase the probability that the instruction is followed.   

A conscientious effort to include these components will bring intentionality when delivering instructions and increase the likelihood your child is successful with following instructions.  Compliance to adult delivered instructions allows your child to: learn new skills, come in contact with new experiences and forms of reinforcement.  There are well researched antecedent and consequential interventions that have shown positive treatment effects in reducing non-compliance. Ask your BCBA for additional information and resources. 

Natalie Wratschko, M.S., BCBA, LBA
Associate Clinical Director, Washington D.C.
June 25, 2019