Gaining Instructional Control

For the past 6 years I have worked in numerous home programs with children on the spectrum. During this time I have had the privilege to meet many loving parents, dedicated grandparents, and supportive brothers and sisters in each of these homes. And although each family had unique behavioural challenges that they wanted their child’s at-home team to address, the one constant always seemed to revolve around something called instructional control. Of course, the comments usually weren’t phrased in such terms but rather came out like this: “He seems to really listen to you…I can never get him to do (x, y, z). How did you do that?”.
My answer to these queries was always, “I’ve worked really hard on gaining instructional control”
But what is instructional control?
Essentially, instructional control refers to our ability to gain a child’s willingness to follow our instructions and do the many things we ask him or her to do. At Spectrum Intervention Group, we have found Robert Schramm’s “Seven steps to earning instructional control with your child” to be a helpful resource.  You can find this resource at:  By following the steps outlined below, you too can start gaining instructional control with your child.
The seven steps to earning instructional control with your child
By Robert Schramm, MA, BCBA
1)    Show your child that you are the one in control of the items he wants to hold or play with and that you will decide when he can have them
Then, an easy way to start gaining your child’s willingness to listen to you is to give him simple demands he is likely to follow. An example of this is giving your child things he likes like pieces of chips while giving him the instruction to eat them. Another example might be giving him multiple cars to put down the ramp when he’s sitting nicely beside you and then hold the last one back a little until he looks at you or asks for the car.
2)    Show your child that you are fun by making each interaction you have with him an enjoyable experience
Pair yourself with fun toys and activities that your child is motivated to engage in by:
1)    Giving him ‘freebies’, where you don’t always expect something in return for an item
2)    Use non-verbal and declarative language mainly (i.e. it’s better to manipulate the items and make silly sound effects and comments than to have your child see you as ‘the one that always asks questions and expects something in return!’)
3)    Say what you mean and mean what you say
When you give your child an instruction, expect him to follow through on it. Do not reward your child for escaping a demand you’ve placed on him by letting your instruction go unfulfilled. If you’ve asked him to sit down to eat his snack and he hasn’t sat down, do not give him his snack until he has complied with your request.  By being consistent in following through on your demands your child will learn that it is in his best interest to listen to what you say.
4)    Show your child that following your directions is to his benefit and the best way for him to obtain what he wants
Once you have control over your child’s preferred items/reinforcers you can use them to support any appropriate behaviours/instructions he demonstrates. The more you reinforce a specific behaviour, the more it will increase. By that same principle, if you do not reinforce behaviour it will not increase.
5)    In the early stages of earning instructional control with your child, reinforce after each positive response moving to an ever increasing variable ratio of reinforcement
Schramm states that as your child’s willingness to follow your instructions improves, you can move from a reinforcement ratio of one to a variable ratio (VR) of 2 to 3. This means that at the beginning, you need to reinforce every instance of a specific behaviour. Once this is consistent, you can work towards reinforcing him after every second time he engages in that behaviour and so on (ex. Initially you might have to reinforce him after every time you ask him to sit down on his chair in order to increase this behaviour. After he starts to demonstrate this behaviour more consistently, you can work to reinforce him after every second or third time he engages in this behaviour).
6)    Demonstrate that you know your child’s priorities as well as your own
Know what your child likes and wants and use those items to your advantage when teaching. Remember, your child needs to be able to work for a wide variety of reinforcers in order to avoid satiation/diluting the value of a particular reinforcer (i.e. Chocolate chip cookies might work as a reinforcer for a while but eventually there’s a good chance that your child will get sick of them. If you don’t know what other powerful reinforcers your child is willing to work for, how would you reinforce him after the cookies lose their effect?).
7)    Show your child that ignoring your instructions or choosing inappropriate behaviour will not result in the acquisition of reinforcement
Be consistent in what you expect from your child. If you ask him to do something, withhold reinforcement until he has followed through with your request. If you say no, then that should mean no, no matter what inappropriate behaviour he engages in (i.e. crying and repeated requests for an item will not result in the acquisition of the item you have said no to).Stephanie
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