3 Step Prompting

3 step prompting, or least to most prompting, is a very helpful tool to use with individuals who are Non Compliant. 
Non compliant means the child ignores or fails to appropriately respond to a given directive or instruction. While the term "non compliance" is actually not a behavior (it describes a lack of something), most laypersons often use this term to describe individuals who just don't listen or follow directions. Non compliance can be immediate, delayed, verbal, or non verbal. Examples of noncompliance include: 

  • You tell your daughter to brush her teeth and she screams "No" at you and runs off.  (Verbal and nonverbal noncompliance)
  •  You tell your son to turn off the TV and come eat dinner, and he waits 10 minutes for a commercial to come on before he comes to dinner. (Delayed noncompliance)
  • You tell your daughter to pick up her toys and she starts crying that she doesn't want to. She eventually does pick up the toys, but cries and whines the entire time. (Verbal noncompliance)
  •  You tell your son to set the table, and he knocks over a chair and runs to his room. (Immediate and nonverbal noncompliance) 

There are a few things to know about non compliance. 
Firstly, do not ASK the child to do anything. Make sure you are giving a demand, not making a request. Don't say "Can you turn the TV off?" unless an acceptable answer is "No". Say "Turn the TV off".
Secondly, ask yourself how important verbal noncompliance is. If you tell the child to clean up the toys and they do, but they start crying how important is that? You didn't say "Clean the toys up nicely". So is the crying a big deal? Decide in advance what is acceptable to you and stick to it.
Lastly, do not treat delayed noncompliance as acceptable. When you give a demand the child has a reasonable amount of time (about 3-5 seconds) to comply. If they still have not begun to comply after that time has passed, that is unacceptable. You don't want to teach the child that they can take their time responding to a demand from an adult. In the school setting teachers place multiple demands on children throughout the day and they expect the children to respond quickly. Don't let your child be at a disadvantage by responding slowly.

A child who is consistently non compliant can have difficulties with learning at school, in their ABA therapy sessions, and it makes interacting with the child stressful. It also makes it difficult to transition the child throughout the day from one activity to the next in a timely manner, and everything becomes a battle of wills from simple requests such as "Come here" to more important demands such as "Do your homework".

Three step prompting can best be understood by remembering the following sequence: Tell, Show, Do.
  1. Tell- Give a demand to the child, such as "Clean up the toys". Wait 3-5 seconds for the child to begin to comply. If they comply at this point, provide huge reinforcement. If not, move to step 2.
  2. Show- Repeat the demand, while modeling or gesturing to what you want the child to do. Say "Clean up the toys like this" as you actually pick up a few toys and put them away. Wait 3-5 seconds for the child to begin to comply. If they comply at this point, provide praise and/or reinforcement, but to a lesser degree than if they had complied at step 1. If they don't comply, move to step 3.
  3. Do- Repeat the demand. Go over to the child and physically prompt them to clean up the toys with minimal language and eye contact. Use HOH prompting to have them pick up and put away each toy. Ignore any problem behaviors the child may exhibit such as whining. Do not provide praise or reinforcement once they are done. Do not stop the HOH prompting until the task is done.
Over time the individual will learn that they have two options: comply and contact praise or reinforcement, or refuse to comply, receive no praise or reinforcement, and be physically forced to comply. Non compliance tends to decrease very quickly once 3 step prompting is used consistently. This procedure can be used by anyone who interacts with the child and also during therapy sessions.


-         The instruction is repeated with every prompt.

-         No step is ever repeated.

-         No other conversation takes place.

-         Reinforce when compliance occurs.

-         Do not reinforce when physical guidance is necessary.

**Quick Tip: If the original demand is an expressive demand, such as "Say bye -bye" and the child refuses to speak, for step 3 you can make the demand receptive and have the child wave instead. You cant physically prompt a verbal response, so just change it to a nonverbal response.


  1. How do you know when you have a good therapist? I am considering changing to a new company because it appears that the one that I am using is not introducing new ideas to help with my child's behavior.

  2. Hello,

    Have you discussed your concerns with the therapist or their supervisor? I find that often parents will switch companies or therapists but not state their dissatisfaction, which could be very helpful feedback for these people to hear. Speaking for myself, I always like hearing feedback from the families I work with (good or bad).

    There are 2 posts on my blog that I would recommend for you. The first one will help you know how to evaluate ABA therapists, and the second post will help you know how to evaluate an ABA agency or company. I hope its helpful:

    "What Does A Great ABA Therapist Look Like"
    "Selecting An ABA Provider"

  3. Hi! I am a first year SLP working for an EI agency. I've found myself not knowing what to do in many situations due to behavioral issues. I was not trained in ABA (but I think there should've been training for it!) so I've been researching here and there on my own. I just found your website this afternoon and have learned quite a few strategies I'll be using from now on! I wanted to share one situation with you though: I have a 3 y.o. child who has unofficially been diagnosed with apraxia. He is only using jargon and is reported to use dada. For no, he waves his finger in front of the listener's face. Mom reports she knows he means 'yes' when he does not respond to her yes/no question... I've been seeing him for the past 2 weeks and I've judged his receptive language to be fairly age-appropriate. However, he will not shake or nod his head for yes/no and mom does not want me to teach him any sign language/gestures. When I prompt him to nod for "yes" to receive a toy animal I know he wants (because he will grab it if not held out of reach), he "shuts down" by banging on the table with both hands, screaming, and then running away. He comes back to the table on his own after 10 seconds or so and is ready to work. I have been withholding the iPad (highly motivating reinforcer, as usual) unless he sits down in his chair. Today he would not do that but would stand next to me instead and try to see it from there. I don't know how to get him to sit down. Do I physically seat him on my lap? (The answer is probably no...). If I ignore him until he calms down (and he usually does return to his seat), there's a chance he will play with the other toys/books in the room. I can't remove those distractions because it is a daycare and my space is limited. I'm sorry if I'm unclear and all over the place!

    1. Hi Kristi,

      I'm so glad you found the blog and that its been helpful to you!

      Is there a Behavioral Specialist or BCBA available to staff at your workplace? Is it possible the parent can hire a BCBA/ABA professional privately? That is what I would recommend, as you need someone who is familiar with the child and the specifics of the situation, and who can conduct a full Functional Behavior Assessment.

      I know everyone does not have access to ABA professionals, so I think your research and fact finding is commendable.

      It isn't uncommon for the client to resist using communication when they are used to accessing desired things without having to communicate. I would suggest researching Mand Training, as it will help you greatly to know how to get the child to communicate wants and needs, instead of engaging in problem behavior. What is important is that whatever the system of communication is, it is the only way the client can access what they want.

      I would recommend researching Shaping techniques, as it sounds like the little guy is coming over and showing interest in the Ipad but wont sit down. You can gradually reinforce closer and closer movements towards sitting down, such as standing within 3 feet, standing within 1 foot, etc. until he will sit down to access the Ipad.

      Good luck to you!

  4. Hi Tameika, this is my first comment, but I have enjoyed reading your blog ever since I discovered it a few months ago. I got to this post after searching for tips on working with older kids. I am a BCBA working with a teen whose problem behavior has been reinforced by parental attention. He is just being introduced to simple demands (easy tasks). Recently when his technician gave a physical prompt after non-compliance with a motor imitation demand, he responded with aggression. I'd like to hear your thoughts on two points: Do you think age and size of the learner should be taken into consideration when thinking about the 3 step prompt? Secondly, if the learner is most highly motivated by attention from a particular person who is not present and may be engaging in problem behavior related to her absence, would you use that strategically in any way? What do you think about having the client work for attention from a parent?

    1. Hi Rose,

      Thanks for commenting! :-)
      YES, definitely the behavioral intervention selected needs to take into consideration the age of the client, the severity of their learner profile, their cognitive level, etc. At one of the companies I consult with, they have a "no restraint" policy. So the behavioral interventions used there are focused on de-esacalation and giving the client space, and physical prompting is rarely used. So for you working with teens, perhaps physical prompting isn't the best behavioral strategy. This is just one behavioral tool that could be used, depending on the client.

      For your 2nd question, it sounds like the lesser preferred individual needs to spend more time pairing up with the client. You could potentially have the client work for parent attention. Without knowing the specifics of the case I can't say whether or not that would be ideal..... But yes, that is something I have done in the past with certain clients and had success.

      Good luck to you,


  5. I would love some more ideas regarding how to help some of the little ones I work with who are visually stimming and resistant to engagement with others. Should I try the 3 step prompts or use their sensory interests to try and get some interaction and engagement with the item/activity of the child's preference. I struggle with knowing how to integrate a child's sensory needs whilst using an ABA approach. Any suggestions would be hugely appreciated!!!!

  6. Hi there!

    There are differing schools of thought on how to hold and gain the attention/motivation of a learner who engages in high rates of stereotypy, that often interferes with instruction or social engagement.

    I would suggest researching Differential Reinforcement and teaching replacement behaviors, which can help greatly with interacting with these types of learners who may not yet know how to attend. Rather than approaching this thinking "I have to get rid of those behaviors", think about it like "How can I teach you a more appropriate replacement for that behavior".

    I think these two posts will be helpful for you:

    Good luck!



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