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Teaching Compliance with First/Then (Premack Principle)

One of the most important first steps that a child needs to make in ABA therapy is learning the concept of first/then – “First I do something (fill in demand here), then I get something (fill in reward here)”.   The Premack principle states that if high-probability behaviors (more desirable behaviors) are made contingent upon lower-probability behaviors (less desirable behaviors), then the lower-probability behaviors are more likely to occur. This means that if I only get ice cream when I finish writing a behaviour plan, the likelihood of me finishing my work increases. Another example: getting paid for a job you do increases the likelihood of you doing your job (assuming that money is reinforcing!).

Why is First/Then Important?

Compliance is such an important part of what we do. Without the most basic compliance, teaching can’t happen. In order for toilet training to be successful, the child must understand that “first I pee in the toilet, then I get a reward”. This applies to early learners who are just beginning to explore their world and learn that interactions with adults get them good things. It also applies to older children who may not have strong compliance but need it in order to be successful in the classroom. By following these strategies to build compliance, the skills and programs you’ll be teaching have a better chance of success!

How to Teach Compliance

From the first meeting with an early learner, we begin working on compliance and teaching the first/then concept. Requesting is a great place to start. Teach the student that “first I ______ (exchange a picture; say a word; make a sign), then I get _________ (toy; chips; juice).” Another form of requesting is to teach the student to give the adult an item as a “request” for help. I might spin a top and then when it stops, wait for the child to pick it up and hand it to me as a request to spin again. The child beings to learn, “first I ask adults for things, then I get what I want.” Then, do these activities repetitively so that the child has multiple opportunities for practice.

Be as Errorless as Possible

In addition to basic requesting, we teach compliance with first/then through teaching the child to follow basic 1-step instructions. It might start with “give me 5” while my hand is out and open or “come sit” while motioning to the empty chair. If a student isn’t naturally following those instructions, then we need to teach it. Errorless teaching allows for the leaner to solidify the concept of first/then because we are not allowing anything to happen in between the demand and response. So if I say “come here” and the student doesn’t respond within 3 seconds, I will go over and physically prompt the response (and reinforce at first). So even if the child isn’t coming on his own, he is beginning to learn the “first I follow instructions, then I get something good”.

Use Visuals

We sometimes assume that just because a child “heard” us say something, he should be able to listen. This is not always the case. Often, putting instructions into visual format helps increase compliance tremendously. So while you’re giving an instruction like “first clean up, then you can have snack”, put it into a clear and easy first/then board. Once a child is following a first/then board, it can be expanded to include more activities. This visual schedule can include steps that are as broken down as necessary and for any tasks. I love the Choiceworks app (by BeeVisual) for easy visual schedules because you can snap pictures and put them right into the schedule!

Be Consistent

A demand or request (SD) from a parent or therapist is a powerful thing. We want to teach our students that when we talk, we mean business. When we give instructions, it also signifies that good things become available when they comply. In order for this to be true, we must be consistent! If you’re going to give an instruction, be prepared to follow through. When they hear instructions repeated multiple times, they begin to tune out those instructions and not attend to them.

Compliance is an important first step that projects a learner into being able to learn so many more skills. Use these tips to solidify this concept early!



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