What is instructional control?

There is a fundamental step for teaching any child new skills while preventing problematic behavior. It is establishing what is called instructional control. In its simplest form, instructional control means the child listens to you because you have established a good working relationship with him. When done right, he readily approaches you, willing and eager to learn, and excited to take part in learning opportunities. Why? Because he knows that if he cooperates with you, he will be able to get things he wants.

Having instructional control with your child represents the probability that your delivered instruction will lead to the desired response from the child (Schramm, 2017).

🎯Reinforcement: It is critical that instructors are certain that they have control of a powerful reinforcer prior to presenting any instructions.

🎯Pairing: The simplest way to gain instructional control is to ensure a positive relationship by pairing yourself with positive reinforcers.

🎯Follow through: You will always want to ensure you follow through with any instructions or requests. For example, if you ask the student to do something, and he does not complete the task but still gains access to the reinforcer, this will increase the likelihood of non-compliance the next time he is asked to do something. In addition, you must always follow through with the promise of the reinforcer. For example, if you state: “1 more token then we can have a break,” you must follow through with the promise and delivery of that break after that 1 trial is completed.

🎯Continuous reinforcement: When you are first trying to gain instructional control you will want to start by reinforcing every appropriate response…that includes approximations!

🎯Environment: It is very important to teach in all environments and locations (rug, beanbag, chair…) to foster both participation and generalization.

The Seven Steps to Earning Instructional Control with your Child” by Robert Schramm, M.A., BCBA is a MUST read if you work with behaviorally defiant students.

There are many thoughts and ideas regarding instructional control from escape-avoidance blocking (keeping the student in a specific area and physically prompting to complete the task) to allowing the student to escape and controlling highly preferred reinforcers. To gain initial instructional control, it is important to give many instructions that the student can already respond to easily and then subsequently reinforce correct responses, as to build a history of reinforcement for compliance.

ABA Instructional Control Example

It is critical that instructors are certain that they have control of a powerful reinforcer prior to presenting any instructions.  If the student is not motivated and attending, instructions should not be presented.  Rather, the instructor must determine what the student’s current motivation is, by observing what he may be attending to, gain control over that item, and then present the instruction once the student is attending to the instructor.  In order to maintain the student’s attention effectively, it may be necessary to arrange the environment so that he cannot easily access potential reinforcers on his own.  For example, items could be put on shelves or in clear plastic containers, so that he can see them, but cannot access them without a communicative act with an adult, therapist or teacher.

Once the student responds readily to very easy types of instructions, give instructions for tasks that are slightly more difficult or otherwise less preferred, while still maintaining a high rate of responding and high success rate by interspersing easier tasks.  After one or two more difficult trials, easier tasks should be presented.  It is very important to keep “pushing “ the student to the next level of response without pushing so fast as to lose his motivation to respond.  However, this will be a difficult balance unless the instructors are well paired with the reinforcement! It is always better to present fewer instructions and have the student respond with higher-quality responses rather than try to present more instructions and compromise the quality of responding and attending.

It is extremely important to teach in all environments to both foster generalization and to ensure his participation in learning activities in all environments.

Research & Resources

Schramm, R. (2011). Motivation and reinforcement: Turning the tables on autism. Pro-ABA.

Schramm Presentation Notes

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