3 Step Prompting

3 step prompting, or Least to Most prompting, is a very helpful tool to use with individuals who do not consistently follow instructions. In ABA speak, this may be referred to as "non-compliance".

Non- compliant means the client ignores or incorrectly responds 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 don't listen or follow directions. Non- compliance can be immediate, delayed, verbal, or non -verbal. Examples can include: 

  • You tell your daughter to brush her teeth and she screams "No" at you and runs off
  •  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
  • 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
  •  You tell your son to set the table, and he knocks over a chair and runs to his room

There are a few things to know about non- compliance. 

Firstly, avoid ASKing instructions. Be sure to clearly state the instruction and not ask a question, as "no" is a completely acceptable response if a question is asked. Instead of "Can you turn the TV off?", just say "Turn the TV off".

Secondly, is verbal noncompliance really that big of a deal? If you tell your child to clean up the toys and they do, but they start crying or whining.... which is more important? Decide in advance what is acceptable to you and stick to it.

Lastly, do not treat delayed noncompliance as if it's acceptable. When you give an instruction, expect a response within an appropriate amount of time. 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 instructions such as "Do your homework".

Three step prompting can best be understood by remembering the following sequence: Tell, Show, Do.
  1. Tell- Give an instruction to the child, such as "Clean up the toys". Wait for the child to begin to comply. If they comply at this point, provide reinforcement. If not, move to step 2.
  2. Show- Repeat the instruction, 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 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 instruction. Go over to the child and physically prompt them to clean up the toys with minimal language and eye contact. Use physical 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.

Over time this teaches that prompt, full compliance contacts good things. It also helps to decrease delayed compliance, as prompting occurs when compliance is not prompt.


-         The instruction is repeated with every prompt.

-         No step is ever repeated.

-         No other conversation takes place.

-         Reinforce when compliance occurs.


  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"


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