Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Precision Commands

Part of my foster care training blitz the other week was a class on children with autism spectrum disorders. The teacher was a staffer from an intensive school for autistic children who claimed that autistic children can be taught to do most everything other children can do, but while normal children may learn a task automatically--like how to sit in a chair and listen to a teacher--autistic children need to have that task broken down into perhaps a hundred steps--feet on the floor, hands calm, voice quiet.

Foster parenting training has been a great blessing for Mark and me. We have never had children with autism, but learning the extreme tactics used to teach those kids gives us great ammunition for ours. And the same has been true for what we've learned about parenting kids with attachment disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome, abuse and trauma, etc.

So here's an obedience tactic I picked up from the autism class that we're using to good effect. When you want to issue an instruction, follow this exact procedure:

1. Make a "please" request.
Jesse, please shut the door.

2. Wait 5-10 seconds.
If the child complies, dole out enthusiastic praise and reinforcement. If not, move on to step 3.

3. Make a "you need to" statement.
Jesse, you need to shut the door now.

4. Wait 5-10 seconds.
If the child complies, dole out enthusiastic praise and reinforcement. If not, move on to step 5.

5. Apply a consequence.

Looks unimpressively simple, doesn't it? But it's been very effective for us. We're doing some pretty major obedience training (and power struggles) with Jesse, but still we hardly ever get to step 5.

I think the genius is partly that stating every instruction with a "please" request trains children to respond. It's like a Pavlovian signal to turn on "obey" mode. Also, waiting those several seconds shows kids that this instruction is for real. Sometimes Jesse will immediately say "no," but then obey while I stand silently counting to five.

And to be frank, partly this is training for me. It makes me think about commands before I issue them. Instead of blazing through a room shouting instructions haphazardly, I have to slow down and follow the procedure. If it's not worth enforcing, I shouldn't say it.

So try it for one day, then come back and tell me how it went. I'd love to hear from you!


  1. just wondering in the example (shutting the door) what do they suggest is an appropriate consequence?

  2. This is very good. I think I will try it with zach tomorrow. He is getting in a "no mom" habit these days. I will let you know how it goes

  3. What age range do they suggest for this kind of instruction? I'll try it with Roko; we'll return and report.

  4. I'm so glad you posted this. I learned that method when I was the lone teacher for a Downs Syndrome boy at church, but I forgot it.

    Lately I feel like I just nag and nag, so I'm glad to have something structured to change it up.

  5. I've tried it, and I dig it. I'm not sure it works magic for my kids or anything - there have been plenty of consequences dolled out. But maybe that's what's so good about it. I have a set reaction to their misbehaviors. When I'm feeling emotional and am on the edge of an explosion I can recall these simple steps and go with that.
    Thanks, Ang.

  6. I love this idea. I just need more patience overall, and this would force me to find it...

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