Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

The Role of Ineffective Directives in the Development of Early Childhood "Noncompliance"

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

The Role of Ineffective Directives in the Development of Early Childhood "Noncompliance"

Article excerpt

We provide a conceptual model for understanding the role of stimulus control within directives and a rationale for the use of experimental analysis methodology to assess the effects of task directives on the accuracy of task completion and the early development of noncompliance in young children. An overview of the interaction between organism variables (e.g., skill deficits such as language disorders), idiosyncratic histories of reinforcement during demand situations, and the specific type of directive used during demand situations will be discussed along with a brief review of relevant studies. Some directions for future research on early childhood noncompliance and related behaviors are discussed.


Catania (1994) defined stimulus control as an antecedent stimulus event that sets the occasion for a specific response. Therefore, when a specific response occurs following the presentation of a specific stimulus (e.g., instructional prompt), but not in the presence of another stimulus, then the response is considered to be under stimulus control. For example, when a room becomes cluttered and disorganized, this stimulus may serve as a discriminative stimulus (SD) for the individual to clean the room. In this case, the cluttered room is a cue to the individual to clean it up, if cleaning up has historically been associated with reinforcement (e.g., parental praise). For some children, however, the natural situation (a cluttered room) does not function as an SD, and additional prompting (e.g., instructions from the parents) is required to set the occasion for the desired behavior to be emitted.

The type of additional cue or instructional prompt provided to the child may have a substantial effect on the behavior or chain of behavior that follows the instructional prompt (see Figure 1). If the child is provided with an effective instructional prompt that has historically been associated with reinforcement, this type of instructional prompt will set the occasion for a chain of behavior that begins with the child discriminating the task requirements, completing the task accurately, and then receiving reinforcement through a variety of operant mechanisms such as parental praise and access to preferred activities. In this case, we can say that the child has complied. However, if the child has a history of being provided with ineffective stimulus prompts that do not guide the child in discriminating the task requirements, these types of prompts may produce a different chain of behavior that is perceived by caregivers as noncompliance. If the child is not able to discriminate the task requirements, the parent may assume that the child is displaying noncompliant behavior, and the parent then provides various forms of redirection or punishment (e.g., reprimands, removal of preferred activities, physical punishment). Over time, the presentation of prompts is repeatedly paired with extinction or punishment, leading to avoidance or escape-maintained problem behavior. In this case, the child is repeatedly exposed to ineffective directives and then punished for perceived noncompliance. Thus, care providers may inadvertently shape a chain of problematic behaviors that are maintained by negative reinforcement (e.g., the child may display disruptive behavior to escape completing the demand).


In this conceptual model, compliance can be defined as consisting of two distinct behaviors: (a) discriminating the components presented in the instructional prompt and (b) performing the specific acts requested (Richman et al., in review). Two distinctly different sets of outcomes for each chain of behavior are shown in the bottom of Figure 1. For compliant behavior (behavior chain A), ongoing compliance is maintained by positive reinforcement. Of equal importance, the pairing of positive reinforcement with task directives assists the child to discriminate the SDs present in the natural situation, which may reduce the future need for task directives delivered by the care provider. …

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