Part 2

Mar 18, 2021

by Maria Carolina Starr M.Ed. / BCBA

In the previous Play and Pairing article, we discussed how to build rapport and associate yourself with preferred stimuli (i.e., pairing) so that you can achieve instructional control. Pairing is a technique to help form and maintain rapport with your client by combining the learning environment, including yourself, with reinforcers. Having instructional control with your child increases the likelihood that your delivered instruction will lead to the desired response from them. It is the most important aspect of any autism intervention or learning relationship (Schramm, 2017).

How do I know if pairing is complete and when can I add demands? Once your client is starting to respond to you (e.g., gives you eye contact, follows play demands without problem behavior), then you are ready to start giving demands (Evenstad, Flynn-Privett and Gudding, n.d.). Begin with play instructions such as “give me a ball,” “put the piece here,” “come and get me.” Then, slowly add work without them noticing the difference. Take advantage of behavior momentum by quickly giving 2-3 easy, preferred tasks followed by a non-preferred task (e.g., “high five” > “Great job!” > “clap hands” > “Nice!” > “tap the table” > “Awesome!” > “Write letter “A” “YES!”).

Here are some highlights from the manual, “The 7 Steps of Earning Instructional Control,” written by Robert Schramm, BCBA:

1. Show your client you are in control of the reinforcers. It is your decision when and for how long they will have access to them.
2. Establish yourself as fun! Make interaction with you enjoyable by playing with the client. They will be more likely to follow your instruction and spend more time with you.
3. Show your client you can be trusted by “saying what you mean” and “meaning what you say.” Follow through on consequences. Do not promise something you cannot complete and avoid demands that your client cannot complete.
4. Show your client that following your instructions will be beneficial for him and the best way to get what he/she wants. Keep directions clear and simple then reinforce decisions to participate by following them with good experiences.
5. Give a high rate of reinforcement for every positive response (i.e., continuous reinforcement). Gradually thin the schedule by delivering reinforcement intermittently when compliance increases. Reserve high value reinforcers for difficult tasks.
6. Priorities! Demonstrate you know your child’s priorities by really understanding what they like and what motivates them. Reinforcers change over time, so conduct preference assessments regularly and take a note of items or activities that might increase the likelihood of satisfying a specific need. Know your priorities as well by thinking, “What is the most important thing to teach right now?”
7. Place problem behaviors on extinction. Show your client that ignoring your instructions and engaging in problem behaviors will not result in reinforcement. This is often the most difficult step to perform so make sure you consult with your BCBA supervisor.

Following these steps could pave the way to a smoother ABA therapy session and decrease “power struggles.” The manner in which instruction is delivered should also be evaluated. They must be complete, clear, and uninterrupted. Results of a preliminary analysis of instructional control and maintenance on appropriate behaviors by Falcomata et. al. (2008), suggested that instructional control and maintenance were achieved by contingency-specifying instructions (e.g., first/then) but not with incomplete instructions. Verbal statements that have implied consequences are referred to as incomplete or minimal instructions (e.g., “BE QUIET!” has the implied consequence “or you’re really gonna get it…”). Contingency-specifying instructions, on the other hand (e.g., “Good job waiting quietly; you can have a coupon”) promote appropriate behavior.

Falcomata, T. S., Northup, J. A., Dutt, A., Stricker, J. M., Vinquist, K. M., & Engebretson, B. J. (2008). A preliminary analysis of instructional control in the maintenance of appropriate behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 41(3), 429-434. doi:10.1901/jaba.2008.41-429

Garvey, J. (n.d.). Seven Steps to Building Respectful Relationships with Children. Retrieved 2021, from

Schramm, R. (n.d.). Seven Steps to Earning Instructional Control. Retrieved 2021, from

Leave a Reply