What is Instructional Control and, Why Do You Need it?

Instructional Control refers to the likelihood that environmental conditions and caregiver/teacher instructions will lead to expected behaviour outcomes.  The more likely a child is to follow routines and instructions, the higher level of instructional control you have earned with her. 

The use of the term “Control” in behavior analysis is unfortunate outside of the science, as control is not what people like to think about when working with children. It is just as easy to use the term Instructional Motivation because that is what we are ultimately trying to develop.

When developing Instructional Control, we are trying to gain a child’s desire to want to cooperate with our instructions on a consistent basis. This is not something we can expect but rather something each adult working with a child will need to earn.

It has become clear in my work over the past 20 years that Instructional Control needs to be a focus in any education or behavior plan. The sooner you have her willingly participating with her own desire to achieve your goals, the sooner you will be able to help her reach her fullest potential.

The following is a program I wrote recently in helping a school team understand how they would be able to start to earn instructional control with a child who is currently engaging in high rates of unexpected or inappropriate behavior. For this program to work, it needs to be implemented consistently by all the staff working with her during the day. The program is based on “The 7 Steps to Earning Instructional Control” and is meant as an example of how instructional control can be earned. Check out my books and online videos for a more in-depth look:

For individual support, there is always the option of a coaching session at www.robertschrammconsulting.com

In order to develop cooperation and build rapport, I recommend that the team work to be able to meet these 7 steps consistently. By doing so, I expect that she will begin to cooperate better, enjoy being with you more and you will be able to start teaching her more.

Step 1:   Identify and control access to all known reinforcers in the available setting.

From what gains her items and activities she wants, to what gets her attention and verbal language from us, we have to actively work to always be in control of the items and things she wants to have, do, eat, play with, and even what gains our willingness to talk with her. We have to begin to consistently make those things available ONLY after she has cooperated with the level of expectation or the immediate instruction we have given to her OR she is engaged in positive behaviour choices with the class.  

If she is eating food throughout the day, break the food up into small pieces and keep it available as a reward for individual important behavior choices she makes throughout the day. If she is generally going to eat 3 granola bars during the day, break them into small pieces or replace them with gold fish or popcorn, or blueberries and put them in a Tupperware bowl for her to get only when she is cooperating. Don’t ever give her the whole bowl but rather a single piece as a reinforcer for every good behaviour choice.   

We don’t have to and would rather not work only with food. We can also use known items and activities as reasons why she would want to cooperate but, just like the food items we have to break the items and activities up into small pieces that we can give her for each and every positive behavior choice and withhold or not give her when her behavior is faltering.

Once we know all the things we can control that she would want to do, if she had freedom to choose, then we can make good decisions about what she has to do to get access to those things.

Step 2:  To gain her cooperation, we have to be able to show her that being with us is always more valuable than being away from us. A child doesn’t leave a person who is more valuable to them than they are an aversion.  If we are doing Step 2 correctly, she will always see being with the staff as the most preferred option of the day. Kids run away from low levels of reinforcement to try to create higher levels. They don’t run away from higher levels of reinforcement to lower options. This means that our EA’s (teacher assistants) need to be sources of fun and attention through a majority of the day. This will allow them to then use that relationship to get cooperation when needed.

Even playing with letters and numbers and words, and drawing can be worth doing if we set it up so that those things are as fun as possible to her and/or they earn her things that are fun enough to make them “worth it.”

For step 2 to be in place, we have to find a way to be 75% worth it and only seen as 25% work at the maximum. We can get this by pairing ourselves with her reinforcers. Proving that we are mostly fun and cooperating with us is the best (if not only way) to get more of that fun.

Can she earn opportunities to do or have her favorite things often enough that she would want to engage in activities that she otherwise would not want to engage in? If so, we can start to get cooperation. If not, you will continue to battle her behaviour until she learns that she literally never has to do anything we tell her to do.

Step 3: Involves becoming very consistent in our language and expectation. In other words, we have to always say what we mean and mean what we say.

Once you say, it is time to put on your shoes, the only move forward for her to get the next thing she wants (food, her doll, more attention, a chance to be in the class with the other kids, the ability to earn more time on the swings etc.) is to put her shoes on.

We have to make the switch so that we were are no longer trying to get her to put on her shoes but instead showing her that putting on her shoes will be worth it and not putting on her shoes will be the blocker to gaining anything she might want to be doing instead.

To do this correctly we have to do the following 3 things:

  1. Use language that matches our intent. Is it a choice or is it an expectation?

Choice language – Do you want to?   Can you ____?  Are you able to _____?

Expectation Language – I want you to ___,  I need you to _____, It’s time to _____  First, ____ then ______.

  • Be unwilling to forget about any instruction you give. If you say “put on your shoes” and she refused but then asks for food or drink, the answer should always be: First put on your shoes and then we can discuss what we do next. No matter what she does, her shoes have to be put on before she would have any access to any known reinforcement.
  • Practice giving instructions under high probability. This means, try to only give her instructions whenever you know what it is she wants from you. Once we have a structure in place that always reinforces good choices, it will be easy to know what you have available at any point in time that she could be working towards? Then, when you know she wants something from you, you can give her the instruction she needs to follow to be able to get it. Often waiting for her to ask first is the best way. This way, she has a way to get what she wants rather than trying to decide what you would have to do to get her to cooperate. Whenever she is motivated for something you are in control of, the probability of her doing it is high. Remember, giving instructions under low probability leads to refusals and ignoring, which then leads to negative consequences. Giving instructions under high probability leads to positive behavior choices, opportunities for reinforcement, and a growing positive relationship.

Step 4: Make sure that often and immediately enough after each positive choice she makes she is able to earn something of value. Children will hardly ever do something because “she is supposed to” Or “because we said so” or “because it is time to” or because “the schedule says so.” These are all YOUR reasons for her to do it. They are never going to be HER reasons for doing it. Without her having a reason, she is likely not to. We need to make sure that she always has something she is looking forward to and trying to earn as her reason for doing what you want her to do in the moment. 

Although visual schedules are helpful for children who are unsure or prefer to know what the plan is, they don’t often serve as reasons why a child would respond. I would focus less on what you want her to do and more on what she is working toward getting. Then remind her of the expected first/then. We can do that by making the reinforcers available to her regularly throughout the day and give her a system or way to earn them. 

I would recommend setting up a system where she can choose from a menu of favourite activities whenever she has earned enough tokens toward the next break or fun time.  As food is currently her most valued reinforcer, I would recommend making food items available in small amounts that can be added to the benefits of a token helping her to want to earn those tokens. This will help with the goal of being able to replace food as a main reinforcer.

Step 5: Create an equation of fun + easy instruction + cooperation = more fun and get her used to this pattern. Then, over time, you can start to increase the number of instructions you give her and the difficulty level of the instructions.

Step 6: Always know her priorities as well as your own. Keep an updated list of her favourite things and know which of these items or activities that she likes better relative to each other. Show her that the better, more quickly and more independently she responds, the faster, longer and better the reinforcement will be. Also, keep an eye on what your priorities are.  Things to consider:

  • Do you just want basic compliance (staying seated when told?)
  • Do you want cooperation in learning tasks (writing her name on the paper?)
  • Are you expecting better quality effort (all the letters written well or with the proper grip?)
  • Are you looking to build independence (less help and less reminders?)
  • Are you looking for it being done with a better attitude (with a smile, without whining or complaining?)

Like Step 5 suggests, we would start with the most basic of these priorities that we need to secure and then build up expectations, over time, as we can demonstrate consistent success with our current level of expectation.

Step 7: Even though we are showing her that we are willing and able to make things as positive and fun for her as possible throughout the day (as well as making cooperation feel easy to achieve), we will always be vigilant about stopping, blocking and/or withholding all access to any and all of her reinforcers when necessary. We need to do this each and every time she tries to refuse, ignore or delay our instructions or if she ever chooses a known inappropriate behaviour. We will continue to block or withhold all access to any form of reinforcement for as long as it takes for her to choose to cooperate with the instruction she was avoiding. If there was not an instruction, she will need to demonstrate a willingness to cooperate again after making an inappropriate behaviour choice.

Here is an example of how all of this works:

When recess is over you have to show her that access to hanging on the swings is now no longer possible and you will block access to it as long as you need to when it is time to go in. Additionally, we have to have something she would be looking forward to having when she is walking together with you and that she would lose if she tries to run off. (Perhaps her favourite doll and a conversation about the doll while she is walking.) When she gets to class you can tell her that once she earns 10 tokens she can have her choice of more time with her doll, some playdoh, the ability to run in the sensory room, jump on the trampoline or play a game but, that she will only be able to have her choice of those items once she has 10 tokens. Then give her tokens and a small snack item (goldfish blueberries, popcorn, small broken bit of a granola bar) for each direction she follows while heading in. Walking with you hand-in-hand or right next to you for 20 steps can earn her one. Opening the door to go in can earn her one. Pulling off her boots can earn her one. Putting on her shoes can earn her one. Coming into the class and washing her hands can earn her one. Sitting at her seat and pulling out materials can earn her one. Then she will see she only has 2 or 3 more to get before she can have her earned fun break. Once she gets her 10th token she can choose her reinforcer for about 5 minutes and the be told she can have more of this or other reinforcement as soon as she earns 8 more tokens.  You can then give her a token for going back to the class when asked, washing her hands, sitting in her seat, cooperating with a few more school activities until she gets to 8 tokens. Then she can have reinforcement again, be it playdoh at her desk, her doll at the sink, a dance party in the hallway or whatever other options you can offer that she would be motivated for. This time tell her she needs to make 12 tokens to get it and show her that it is reasonably easy to get tokens by following basic simple instructions.

Whenever she doesn’t want to do something or go somewhere, you simply show her that she cannot have any more tokens or have access to any more of her favourite items or activities until she earns the rest of her tokens. You also have to work to try to shut down all forms of unearned reinforcement she looks for. This includes more talking and attention from you until she starts cooperating again. If you need to take her out of class to a location she is allowed to be upset in and given the time and space to calm down you can do this. Just make sure she is not able to access any additional fun in this setting. As soon as she is calm and cooperating again, she can go right back into the class and continue where she left off, working toward earning her next fun activity.

If she tries to run from you, she will need to be followed but immediately take the transition reinforcer away from her. Let her know she can’t earn any tokens and be willing to sit her down and have her sit with you unable to do anything fun or get you to talk with her until she has shown some cooperation. If she is willing to cooperate again you can start to walk with her again and if she walks with you calmly you can give her the transition item back and start working on her tokens. For cooperation maybe she will need to give you a high five, clap her hands, or touch her nose on command. But, get back to a cooperative state before getting back up and trying to walk together again.

Remember, anytime you want her to do something and you don’t know WHY she would WANT to do it, you are doing the wrong thing. Just get used to always following the 7 Steps throughout your time with her. Maintain control over access to all fun things including your words and attention. Give her lots of opportunities for fun things throughout the day and show her that she can have mostly fun with you if she is willing to cooperate when necessary. Give clear instructions under motivation and don’t forget about them or let her have reinforcement until she follows them. Then make sure that all positive behaviors are likely to lead to greater and more consistent access to those things. Build your expectations slowly from success over time and know her reinforcement priorities. Keep track of your priorities for her participation as well. And finally, be willing to withhold reinforcement, including your words and attention, for as long as it takes until she decides she would prefer to come back and follow the instructions you deemed were important enough to give to her. Then start reinforcing on a regular basis again.

Whether your child has Autism, Down Syndrome, or no diagnosis at all but they demonstrate challenging behavior and little motivation to cooperate with teaching, The 7 Steps to Earning Instructional Control will be your fastest way to a more effective and positive relationship.  Learn the 7 Steps so you can learn how to best teach your child.



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