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"


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