Many standard approaches to implementing the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) are well-known for a focus on compliance. To the extent that the misnomer of “Forced Compliance” has become commonplace vernacular for a field that is intended to be therapeutic in nature.
Most approaches see compliance as the primary focus of therapy. The justification being if you cannot gain compliance from your student you will be unable to acquire participation in therapy and positive results will be unlikely, if not impossible.
This method relies on first building “instructional control”. This is a result of a positive relationship in which the learner responds consistently to demands, tasks, or requests. Pairing, reinforcing, and engaging with an individual lays the foundation of compliance and engagement that leads to instructional control. Once the understanding is in place that the teacher is a source of good things, demands can be placed, and compliance is likely. Unfortunately, this is as a sole motivation is a manipulative foundation on which to build a relationship. Professionals pairing with their students to gain compliance are not building a real relationship of mutual compassion and care but rather for what can be mutually gained with little real connection being invested.
The approach Keystone Achievements is actively trying to move our field toward is one that sees cooperation from our students as a far more favorable outcome. As such, our first focus as a team pursuing a new form of Behavior Analysis is to change our language. It’s helpful to start by defining these terms.
By starting with the definition, it is clear at its core “compliance” implies a hierarchy of sorts. The relationship indicated is one of an individual who’s will is above the others and consequently, the “lesser” must yield. There is one placing demands and one conceding their own will to comply with these demands.
In application as part of an ABA therapy program compliance often plays out as an adult or therapist creating the restrictions and requirements that will shape a client’s choices and days.
Often, when the client is unwilling to accept these decisions that action is deemed “non-compliance” and is not accepted by the program. What ensues is a battle of wills as the therapist, in one form or another, attempts to “follow through with the demand”. In some cases, a redirection and rebuilding of behavioral momentum is used so we can return to the demand and move past it. In more rigid approaches, the demand might simply be stated repeatedly until the child gives in or escalates to the point that safety becomes the primary concern. Even after a major behavioral incident, the demand might be returned, at least in part, so the therapist can “end on compliance”. Many ABA therapist training programs focus on the benefits of instructional control to the extent that compliance starts to seem like our primary goal.
The application of compliance driven ABA results in numerous instances of coercion. Any perspective you take on coercion will reveal a very negative result. Either an individual comes to make a decision that is contrary to their own desires or feel that it’s the only way to escape unwanted consequences or outcomes. When engaging with coercion, a therapist is prone to threats, disregard of individual desires, and an overall lack of respect for the personhood of the other party.
The natural end of a focus on compliance is a relationship that inevitably and abruptly turns negative when a moment of disagreement arises. The rapport and positive relationship built will be damaged when the client see’s the complete devaluing of their desires and ambitions due to a rigid adherence to every demand placed.
Definitively cooperation immediately provides a sense of equality. Common effort and mutual benefit are key elements in a cooperative environment. Each member of the team must have a clear vision of the goal with a trust that other members of the team have that same vision and desire to reach it.
In application, to pursue cooperation, a relationship must be founded on trust and the engagement of each member; both are earned, never demanded. Trust is built best through positive reinforcement, compromise, and mutual respect.
An Applied Behavior Analysis setting sees the elements of cooperation developed through a few steps. We always begin by building a positive relationship with our students. To begin that positive relationship a therapist couples themselves to the reinforcing
and positive things in their students’ lives. When this relationship has formed demands can be placed and acquiescence to those requests can be expected. It is at this juncture the slippery slope of a compliance driven approach becomes a threat. To stay the course attention to actions and continued commitment to cooperation is a must.
In cooperation, language must remain team oriented and compassion driven. Use terms like “we” and “us” while seeking balance between time that’s “your choice” and time that’s “my choice”. Using frequent transition warnings and scheduling choices supports cooperation as well. Unexpected changes and abrupt transitions are avoided and a collaborative approach to the time spent in therapy should be adopted.
When a disagreement, non-preferred activity, or other frustration arises the response is one of a team.
This is an ideal time for an instructor to model the response to challenging situations as well. Vulnerability increases trust and an appropriate way a teacher can show that is acknowledging aloud their own frustrations in these moments.
Focus on Communication
Communication from those we work with is no small victory and should be encouraged. Requests of any size and especially for compromise are communication that should be taught and reinforced as often as possible.
Much of the time those in our care know that they want to communicate even if they don’t know how to go about it. It is important in these moments we seek opportunities to acknowledge that effort, especially when it’s appropriate. A single word utterance, in the heat of other frustrations, is far more appropriate than a tantrum or meltdown, even when the student is capable of full sentence requests. Professionals should seek those opportunities to reinforce communication.
Compromise is an excellent way to drive home, once more, this is a team effort. Compliance implies “my way is the only way”. Cooperation allows flexibility in leadership since we’re in this together. Taking a large task in smaller steps or adding an element of reinforcement or solidarity with our students are all great compromises.
Another approach for more effective communication is the use of choices. Choices are an incredibly powerful tool that is far too often forgotten. From the start, choices continue the “team speak”; everyone is involved in the decision-making process which further shows the student they’re a collaborator, not just a participant.
Choices can often be just the shortcut needed to get past a challenging decision. Narrowing down the myriad options at hand could be just the ticket to making a decision. Giving those around us an easier path to avoiding frustration or maladaptive behavior is always a worthwhile endeavor and an excellent way to continue to strengthen the knowledge that we are here to help.
Pick Your battles
It is unlikely that aversive tasks will ever become preferred or reinforcing, even with the best reinforcement or therapy strategies. However, through an approach that sees each student as the individual they are and includes them as part of the team that is seeking to improve their life, making aversive tasks any more aversive can be avoided.
Part of cooperation is knowing there will be days when highly aversive tasks are unlikely to be done. People very frequently make excuses for their lack of motivation or productivity due to poor sleep the night prior. Only rarely are accommodations made for tired students or children, even though a loss of sleep effects them much more deeply!
Cooperation means acknowledging the humanity of others, and as humans they are prone to times of exhaustion, day’s where they lack motivation, and times they’re more prone to frustration for one reason of another. As humans, acknowledgement and allowance of those days is a must.
Antecedent or transition strategies are frequently used to ease transitions into challenging tasks. Building space and communication into these strategies from the start is not hard to do. The recognition that just because something should be done does not mean it can be done is important. Getting wrapped up in the “shoulds” is a trap that is easy to fall into. It’s important to ask ourselves “Where is this “should” coming from?” The expectations society, our internal thoughts, or those around us create many opportunities to “fail” daily because of the things we “should have gotten done”. It is far more beneficial to chase after individual values than to invest so much time and energy in doing things for those around us or to please the internal nagging that’s always there to point out these faults. Providing those in our care that same compassion is likewise necessary.
There are tasks in life that it would be impossible to completely avoid, and that expectation should be an objective for our students. However, the expectation that everyone should smile through non preferred tasks or challenging moments is unfair and unhelpful.
Making space for students to be unhappy and not setting the expectation that frustration and even anger are bad things is a much more beneficial approach and a solid foundation for a more successful relationship with them. Acknowledging and labeling emotions while giving them space to exist is excellent preparation for better understanding and management of negative feelings.
When given the opportunity to respond to these tricky moments the instinct to fix the problem is often the wrong instinct. It will be more beneficial to acknowledge and empathize. The caretaker has an opportunity to make their student feel heard and validated which often can be half the battle to moving past the difficult feeling. Even when it doesn’t end the current challenge, it’s an ideal time to expand on emotional vocabulary and strengthen emotional intelligence.
Using broad words like “upset” or “sad” and allowing the individual to guide us towards the more precise adverb is often the best route. From there, providing more in-depth language can deepen the ability to express, acknowledge, and manage emotions.
When emotions are more precisely recognized strategies to diffuse from those emotions can be brought to bear more effectively.
As an Organization, Keystone Achievements has Chosen to seek Cooperation
ABA for people
At Keystone, we seek cooperation over compliance. The reason for this choice is simple. We apply ABA therapy with people! People have a right to choose activities and environments they enjoy. They have a right to be free from coercion. They have a right to live the way they’d like.
When we focus on the person we work with at all times, we can recognize behavior and diagnosis have a real effect on their ability to work with us so we must meet them where they are. Many things can impede an individual’s ability to engage with therapy. A student that has trouble communicating when upset will not learn anything helpful from a teacher that insists they use complete and kindly worded sentences to escape a demand when they’re upset.
To change behavior, we must change the environment. The environment that will offer the best chance at change is an environment that teaches students adults are there to support and help, they are not a punishing and aversive figure of control.
ABA should teach safe skills
Cooperation teaches students they have a will and rights and can expect collaboration from those around them. An overly compliant child is not a safe child. If the end result of a “therapeutic program” is a student that complies with any adult they have not been well prepared to enter the real world. Without being too graphic we can acknowledge the fact that there are many people in life who would like to have compliance from those around them but would not make moral use of that compliance.
Teaching cooperation helps a child know they have rights. They can say “no” and should be given the opportunity to do so. As teachers, professionals, and parents we have the obligation to teach our children that their will is not inferior simply because they are younger. There might be times they must do things they’d prefer to avoid; in those times they have a right to understand why that’s required and have space to feel and express those emotions. With this expectation they can learn that an adult that ignores their communication and moves to coercion is one that should set off internal alarms.
Our end goal is agency and Self-Advocacy
Applied Behavior Analysis professionals and all those in a therapy field should have a goal that they work themselves out of a job. The tools we implement daily and the skills we make our students practice should have a clear path to independence.
Compliance falls short of the goal. Compliance relies heavily on artificial reinforcement for the action rather than the natural reinforcement. A child might comply with a directive because they desire the teacher’s approval and praise, not because brushing their teeth makes their friends more receptive to carry on a conversation with them. When only their instructor’s will matters, they can find themselves directionless when they’re not being told what to do! They haven’t learned that reinforcement comes from the world around them and not just from the people barking orders at them.
With a cooperative approach a student can learn their voice and will matters. We take every opportunity to understand them and help them understand how they access the things they want. They apply tools to managing their feelings and knowing how those things affect them. An expectation is given that while others in life should cooperate with them to an extent accessing the things they value will require effort on their part as well.
The result of this mental state is that a transition of the controlling stimulus for behavior occurs. The knowledge that the values and reinforcers we all seek are available in the world, but they often require effort that is not preferred, and might even seem unrelated, to access them.
|Compliant Thought Process||Cooperative Thought Process|
|I want to go play outside.|
My teacher told me to clean my locker.
I Clean my locker
My teacher praises me and gives me a sticker. If I don’t complete it we stay inside until I do.
I clean my desk and classroom area for 2 more stickers and more praise.
I have enough tokens to go play outside now.
|I want to go play with my friend.|
My teacher told me I should brush my teeth first.
My teacher told me show knows I don’t like to brush my teeth but explains that if my breath stinks my friend might not want to talk to me or be too close.
I go brush my teeth.
My friend and I play Candyland and it’s so much fun!
I need praise and tokens from my teacher to get the things I want.
I need to meet social hygiene standards to have fun with my friends.
To put it another way, the direction of teachers and parents is a prompt for an action. Children can become dependent on these prompts, not acting, or doing what they should even though they know what comes next, because they’re accustomed to being told and they enjoy the reinforcement that follows. While this is effective for managing therapy sessions, it is not a long-term solution.
A functional and independent adult gets up every morning and takes a shower and combs their hair before work. These tasks are unlikely to be individually reinforcing but they know their reinforcers might be cordial conversation at work and snowboarding on the weekends. Poor hygiene precludes the first and lack of income precludes the second. Furthermore, hygiene standards are required to obtain and maintain a job.
This same adult drives the speed limit on the way to work. Driving 35 miles per hour through empty streets is not reinforcing, however, escaping the possible negative consequences of disregarding traffic laws is reinforcing.
It’s not hard to see why it’s important we transition from directives provided by an adult to providing understanding, tools, and coping methods for receiving this direction from the natural environment. Applied Behavior Analysis and behavior science should be used with people to teach them to be the people they want to be in this world. Blending in with society or simply becoming a special needs chameleon are not just insignificant goals, they are dehumanizing.