7 Amazing Steps to Earn and Maintain Instructional Control

When you are meeting your learner for the first time, it is important to first focus on and establish pairing. It is through pairing, that we can establish and maintain instructional control. Instructional control means that you and the learner have a positive working relationship where the learner is motivated to follow your lead. If you want to teach your learner a self-help skill, communication skill, or gain your learner’s cooperation in anything then earning and maintaining instructional control is the best way to go! Not only can ABA therapists and professionals earn instructional control from the learner, but the parents or guardians of the learner can earn it too. When it comes to instructional control, it is important to remember to continuously implement the steps every time in order to maintain the positive working relationship between you and the individual. Here are the 7 steps to earn and maintain instructional control:

1. Maintain access to the learner’s reinforcers 

Being proactive is key for this step. In this step, we arrange our space and gather all the learner’s preferred items and activities. It helps to keep these items organized and stored away to a location where the learner will not gain free access all the time. For example, this location can be a high shelf where ONLY YOU can reach or a closet where ONLY YOU can enter into. When storing these items away, be sure to inform and let your learner see where these are located. This way if the learner wants access to their preferred items or activities, the learner will need to go to you first in order to have that access. By being proactive in this step, it helps to make pairing easier. When I came into my learner’s home, I had a bag of toy beans in my BT bag and when I brought them out it caught my learner’s interest. Because I was the only one who can provide access to that bag of toy beans, I demonstrated that I was in control of that item and only I could provide that access. While a bag of fake plastic toy beans may be considered nothing, it is what the learner and I did with them that made step 2 become successful.

2. Show the learner that you are fun!

This is where pairing starts to come into play. We want to show the learner that their favorite items and activities can be even more fun when we join in. This helps to provide a better chance for the learner to want to interact with us and earn their cooperation to follow our directions. More importantly for parents, this step helps to create positive bonding experiences between you and your individual.

A good tip is to note it that when you are pairing, observe what tone your learner responds more positively to when you interact and praise them. Does your learner respond best to a playful, animated voice, such as, “That is amazing!! You did it!!” Or, does your learner respond best to a calm tone when being praised, such as, “That’s wonderful. You’re amazing at this.” Based on the tone your learner responds more positively best to, roll with that tone during your interactions and praises.

Thinking back to my young learner when I brought out my bag of toy beans, I remember letting my learner explore a few of them. When I noticed that my young learner started moving a bean back and forth in the air as if they were flying, I immediately latched on to the idea of playing superheroes with the beans. This is when my playful, high, enthusiastic voice came in and said, “Wow! A Superhero. I want to join!” After I said that, I picked up my own bean, started to fly it around and making animated whooshing noises. Worked like a charm! My young learner had the biggest smile, giggled, and started to copy what I was doing. We continued pairing with other items and activities and continuously maintained that fun positive energy throughout session. When I came back for session the next day, my learner was by the door with the biggest smile and told their parent, “Teacher is here!”

Because I showed my learner that I was fun and still maintained control of the access to the preferred items and activities, I was able to successfully pair myself. However, pairing is not a one-time thing. Every time I met my learner, I still needed to continuously pair myself in order to maintain the instructional control.

3. Show the learner that you can be trusted.

This means that for any instruction you give to your learner, it is most important that you and the learner follow through with that instruction. This includes utilizing prompts to complete the task when prompts are necessary. For example, if you have given an instruction such as “First sit down, then snacks,” stick with that instruction and ONLY that instruction. Once the learner has completed the instruction you provided, then you can deliver your promise of access to that reinforcer. It is important to note that you must not provide access to that reinforcer before the completion of the instruction. If you provide the reinforcer without completing the instruction it gives the learner the idea that any instruction you will provide does not need to be completed and will not matter because the reinforcer will be provided either way. We want to demonstrate the opposite by saying what we mean and meaning what we say. This leads into step 4 that following our direction is the quickest way to earn the reinforcer. 

4. Show the learner that following your directions benefits her/him

In other words, we want to demonstrate that completing our instruction is the best and fastest way to obtain what they want. In the early stages of earning instructional control, start with small and easy directions and then work your way up. It is important to start with simple and easy demands one at time and then reinforce the completion of those demands to demonstrate to the learner what the expectation will be when they follow your directions. This includes if you utilized prompting to assist the learner to complete the instruction.

With my young learner, for example, we were working on communication skills when my learner pointed to a puzzle I had next to me. Still maintaining my playful fun energy, I responded, “Oh! You want this! First let’s use our words, then puzzle.” Since my young learner was starting to learn how to communicate their requests, I assisted my learner through the process of saying, “I want puzzle” each word at a time. Upon completing the request with that assistance, I told my learner, “Nice job using your words! Now you get puzzle!” We then proceeded to play with the puzzle, maintaining the fun energy, and continued to practice the request for puzzle. While my young learner required prompting to complete the request, I provided reinforcement to my young learner for following my directions.

5. Provide consistent reinforcement.

When your learner has completed an instruction, even if it was expected of his/her, reinforce the learner for completing each instruction made. This is especially important in the early stages of earning instructional control with your learner. For example, if you instructed your learner to, “Come here”, “Take your shoes off”, or “Let’s sit”, then consistently combine each positive response your learner made with reinforcement. Once your learner is willing and able to consistently follow your directions then you can provide reinforcement in a variable schedule.

With my young learner, for example, when I began session, I provided easy and simple instructions mixed in with playing such as, “Let’s go over here”, “Let’s hop”, “Choose one” and combined each positive response my learner made with a high praise, such as, “Awesome listening!”, “You’re a Rockstar!”, and “Nice choosing!” I even combined some of my responses with high-fives and tickles, which my learner enjoyed.

As the session progressed, I would increase the number of instructions and deliver the reinforcer in a variable ratio schedule. For example, I would do the following:

  • Two trails, then provide reinforcer.
  • Five trials, then provide reinforcer.
  • Eight trials, then provide reinforcer.
  • I would then switch it to four trails, then provide reinforcer.

Throughout the variable ratio schedule of reinforcement, I continue to be playful and silly when I presented the instructions, play with the reinforcer, and play with my learner.

6. Demonstrate that you know your learner’s priorities as well as your own.

Always watch what your learner wants in the moment and keep a list of those new interests, so your learner doesn’t get sick of the same ones. With my young learner, for example, one moment it was all about the horses and in the next moment it was all about the dinosaurs. In the next day of session, it was all about superheroes. With another one of my young learners, he enjoyed playing with Legos, but went to the door to backyard during session. In that instance, I knew that the reinforcer has shifted from playing with Legos to wanting to play in the backyard.

While keeping in mind of your learner’s interest in reinforcers, you should also keep in mind of your priorities for your learner. This means prioritizing your goals such as pairing with your learner first or targeting a skill. You must prioritize want would be beneficial for both yourself and your learner. 

7. Show the learner that ignoring your instructions or choosing inappropriate behavior will not get them what they want.

This means that when your learner chooses to ignore your instruction or chooses to engage in inappropriate behaviors, you will withhold access to the chosen reinforcer and any outside reinforcement. While withholding access, you must also implement extinction, which means YOU will not provide any response whatsoever to their inappropriate behavior, which includes the following:

  • Waiting
  • No eye-contact
  • Turn your body away
  • Not acknowledging the inappropriate behavior
    • No arguing, debating, bargaining, or compromising
  • Avoiding touch.

While implementing extinction, you will engage with the reinforcer by yourself or with others in order to redirect and present to the learner what they could potentially earn. If your learner goes for a different reinforcer, you can acknowledge it by saying, “We can do that. First__, then __.” The priority then is steps 3 and 4: Show the learner you can be trusted and that following your direction benefits them to going back to the fun.

With my young learner, for example, I noticed they left a few horse toys on the floor. My learner requested puzzles and I responded, “That’s a great idea! First let’s put away horses, then puzzle!” My learner yelled “No” to which I responded, “Ok, I’ll play with the puzzle until you’re ready.” Once I said that, my learner ran to their white board and markers, to which I calmly followed, place my hand on top of the markers, and said, “Ooh drawing sounds fun! We can do that! First let’s put away your horses, then we can draw.” My learner looked between the horse toys and myself, went to the horse toys, picked them up, and put them in the toy box that was close by. Upon my learner’s actions for cleaning, I responded, “Awesome cleaning! Do you still want to draw or play puzzle?” My learner selected drawing and I enthusiastically responded, “Let’s do it! Let’s go draw!” and we both ran to the white board together to draw.

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