Should We Be Targeting Non-Compliance?

Let’s talk about “non-compliance.” I hear people use this term A LOT in Facebook group threads, classrooms, and even ABA practices when referring to maladaptive behavior that occurs after a demand is placed.


Here are my thoughts about non-compliance, teaching compliance, and other considerations that should be weighed when developing treatment goals.


“Non-compliance” (or non-anything, really) fails the dead man’s test.

  • Non-compliance in and of itself is not a behavior by behavior analytic standards as a dead man can very easily fail to comply. It is the absence of behavior.
  • Non-compliance fails to consider things like context, existing skillsets, and MOs.
    • Often, OUR behavior shapes the data.

What behaviors are we actually interested in changing (and tracking)?

  • Are we aiming to increase compliance?
  • Are we aiming to reduce maladaptive behavior when a demand is presented?
  • Is this behavior socially significant?
  • Have we operationally defined what the behavior is in a way that’s clear to others taking data?
  • Have we provided non-examples of situations/behaviors that don’t quite meet the criteria?

Are we actively working on changing this behavior?

  • What are we doing to increase desirable behavior?
  • What are we doing to reduce undesirable behavior?
  • Are we considering skill deficits impeding skill acquisition?
  • Have we considered the impact of the environment on the learner and this/these behaviors?
  • Are there additional modifications/supports required?
  • Are we being mindful of MOs?
  • Are our reinforcers ACTUALLY reinforcing?
  • Are we reinforcing often enough?
  • Are we providing enough opportunities per session to target this goal?
  • Are we treating our client with dignity?

What kinds of demands should be complied with?

  • Safety
  • Academic
  • Transitions
  • In Play

Who is delivering the demand?

  • Should they comply with everyone’s demands?
    • What about peers?
  • Do they respond differently to different people?
  • Does the person delivering the demand have instructional control?
  • Has the person delivering the demand have rapport with the client?

How are we tracking this goal and does the data reflect valid and valuable information? Here are a few examples with various recording types.

  • Trials: Percent of demands complied with (can even split by location, person, demand type, etc.)
  • Trials: Percent of demands met with verbal refusal/maladaptive behavior
  • Frequency: How many times client engaged in x behavior when a demand is presented
  • Latency: How long the client takes to initiate the task
  • Duration: How long it takes to complete the task
  • Duration: How long the client engages in the behavior for
  • Interval recording: The percent of intervals the behavior is occurring
  • Permanent Product: The physical outcome of said compliance

Consider the BIG PICTURE – Do we comply all the time?

  • Compliance to instructions is often an important skill in the avenues of skill acquisition and even safety.
  • Compliance requires the learner to
    • 1. Hear/see the demand
    • 2. Understand the demand
    • 3. Have the skills to “comply”
  • Although teaching the broad skill of compliance may make our sessions run smoother, it misses the big picture – Do we really want the client to comply with every demand ever, regardless of whom delivers it or the potential impact of compliance?
    • Like all humans, our clients will have histories, preferences, private events, medical considerations, etc. that may contribute to their willingness to comply.
    • Consider contexts where compliance is either beneficial or detrimental to the client.
    • Those with developmental disabilities are more vulnerable to harm and exploitation.
    • Complying with certain demands may result in undesired outcomes like damaged relationships, disciplinary action, legal troubles, injury, or even death.

Skills to teach alongside compliance

  • Discrimination
    • Whose demands should we comply with (police, teachers, parents)?
    • What types of demands should we comply with (academic instructions, safety instructions).
    • What demands should we NOT comply with (engaging in behaviors that are embarrassing, demeaning, illegal, or unsafe).
    • In what situations is compliance optional (realistically, legal situations exempt, we ALWAYS have a choice)?
  • Self-advocacy – the ability to advocate for what you want, what you need, and what you do NOT want or need
    • Appropriate Protesting
      • “No Thanks”
      • “I don’t like this”
      • “Stop it”
    • Manding
      • For a break
      • For space
      • For help
      • For information
        • “Can I have some more time with what I’m doing?”
        • “When can I finish what I was doing?”
        • “Can I do the task later?”
        • “How do I do the task?”
        • “Where can I find what I need?”
        • “Is this going to take a long time?”
        • “Is this going to be hard?”
        • “Is this going to be painful?”
        • “Do I have to do this?”
        • “Can someone else do it”
  • Safety Skills
    • How to tell if you’re in a dangerous situation
    • How to respond
    • Knowing which behaviors may have dangerous outcomes
  • Reporting
    • Who to call when you are in danger
    • Who to call after after a dangerous/scary/illegal event has occurred
    • What type of information to give

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