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The Struggle Is Real: Strategies to Promote Compliance

My son, Dotchie, is taking swim lessons. You'll hear a lot about my son. He has taught me patience and refined many of my professional skills. In other words, he keeps me on my toes. He also has a slight language delay which helped to create a nice history of "stinker" behavior. At times, he can be a stinker! Well, it just so happened that he was being a stinker at swim class this week. Imagine 6-7 little 3-year-olds patiently waiting on the steps for their turn to blow bubbles in the water or kick their legs while the rest of the pool is splashing and jumping off the ledge - both things my son loves to do. After 25 min of crying on the steps, he started to comply with the swim instructions. Good thing he has a savvy daddy who knows strategies to promote compliance.

There are three strategies that work with our son (and many other kiddos) and we often follow these strategies in this order. One thing to note, these strategies are for "won't do" behaviors - not for "can't do" behaviors. If your child CAN complete your request (has done so successfully before) but WON'T do it now, then these strategies may be helpful.

1) First/Then

If your child understands consequences and has a history of "good things come after I do xyz", then this may work! Essentially, you are clearly stating how wonderful life will be if your child does what you ask. "If you finish your dinner, then you can have dessert," "If you pick up these toys, then we can play outside," "If you listen to your swim teacher, then we can jump off the edge." Sometimes the little ones just need a reminder of the good things in life that naturally come when we follow directions.

- Side Note - It is helpful to have a bit of language for this strategy to be successful since it is a verbal rule. Also, how you deliver the reminder can be essential for your child. For Dotchie, he is less likely to be successful if we just say, "If you want to jump off the edge, then you need to kick with your class." Even though we KNOW what he wants, he is more successful if HE states what he wants. So, our exchange is more like the following:

Dad: "What do you want?"

Dotchie: "I want to jump!"

Dad: "Ok, you can jump AFTER you kick with your class. OK, Dotchie?"

Dotchie: "Ok, Daddy" (For Dotchie, he is more compliant if we end the exchange with him saying "ok")

Sometimes it takes a few exchanges of the same script back and forth. If you are not successful after 2-3 reiterations of the 'reminder', then move on to strategy #2 or #3.

(Billingsley, 2016)

2) Behavioral Momentum (Warm-ups)

In our field of behavior analysis, this strategy has a very technical name. When talking with parents, I like to call it "the warm-up". If your child is not following your directions, you ask him/her to follow quick, simple directions that are super easy for your child. This sequence can go as follows: "touch your nose, clap, blow a kiss, jump, turn around, now take a bite of chicken!" The idea is that you build up momentum to comply with easy tasks that are to be completed quickly and can even be fun - and then you sneak in the direction that was not successful at the onset after you get a nice sequence of fast compliance. Therefore, you are "warming up" compliance to make it more probable that they will comply with the less probable instruction that resulted in refusal.

- Side Note - your child needs to have a handful of skills that you could ask them to do to serve as the "Warm-up" requests.

(Billingsley, 2016)

3) Redirection

When all else fails, little kids are rather easy to redirect and forget why they were crying or refusing in the first place! Having them sing their favorite song, distract them with looking at something interesting, or talk about their favorite character. Dotchie's redirection is just to get him to laugh. It could be making a silly face, playing peek-a-boo (still a favorite), blowing noises on his belly, etc. If you can get him to laugh for a few seconds, then he is good. You just need to invest a few minutes on redirection and then he'll do anything you ask.

- Side Note - this tends to work more quickly for younger students than older. If you have an adolescent kid, redirection with talking about a video game or a movie can be really successful. However, you may just have to spend a longer time redirecting than with a child who is 3-years-old.

(Horner, Day, & Day, 1997)

Needless to say, going through steps 1-3 took Dotchie 25 min to finally comply. But he did. And typically developing a successful history of more of those interactions will lead to future instances of less refusals and more instances of engaging with his swim teacher.


Disclaimer: The nature of the The Learning Consultants blog is for informational purposes only to highlight evidence-based strategies that have been proven to be effective with a limited population in an limited environment. These strategies may not be applicable to all individuals in all settings. Individualism based upon biological, historical and environmental factors must be considered before implementation. Therefore, please consult with an educational, developmental, or behavioral professional before taking action. Untrained individuals using these strategies do so at their own risk.

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