Instructional Control: Who's The Boss?

Instructional control is a clinical term that describes how to establish a paired, cooperative, therapeutic relationship.

Instructional control is a concept that excellent ABA clinicians are aware of, and understand how to establish. Since I don’t come across many parents who understand the need for instructional control or how to maintain it, this post is targeted to parents/caregivers.

If you are fine with your 3 -year- old running the house, then this post isn’t for you. However, if you want to know how your 3 -year -old began running the house, and how to stop that, then read on. :-)

*NOTE: Some non-ABA treatments for Autism focus on child-led, child initiated therapy, and minimize or eliminate the step of the therapist establishing instructional control. For therapists or parents who support or engage in those treatment techniques, this post probably won’t be helpful for you.

“Instructional control” probably sounds like a cold, technical, intimidating term that is only applicable to professionals. I would disagree with that. If more parents knew what instructional control was and how to get it, you would save yourself much stress and conflict in your home. As a parent, you teach your child everyday and you give demands to your child throughout each most cases, ALL day long. Proper instructional control is what motivates them to listen to you, to cooperate with your instructions an requests, and to do so in a timely manner.

Many parents have asked me with a surprised or amazed face, “How did you get my child to do _____?” or parents will state to me that their child will listen to the therapist, but not to them. Why is that? Why will the child do something for me or the RBT, but not for the parent? 

There are a few reasons for this, but a primary reason is lack of instructional control.

So what exactly is instructional control? How do you get it? How do you lose it? How do you know if it’s lacking in your home?

The best way I can explain instructional control is to say in a situation lacking instructional control, the child is the BOSS. They are in charge, and they call the shots.
 Kids don’t just wake up one day and start running the house. That is a misconception. Inappropriate behaviors were reinforced, consequences were not delivered, and over time the child learned that they are in charge.

Based on my experiences, these are the top errors I see parents make that cause them to lose (or never gain) instructional control:

  • Arguing/debating with children
  • Bargaining/compromising with children
  • Parents not on the same page
  • Giving excessive attention to disruptive/inappropriate/undesirable behaviors
  • Allowing aggression to any form ( Yes, your toddler “playfully” slapping you as she cries is still aggression)
  • Avoiding giving demands to avoid problem behaviors
  • No structure or order in the home
  • Making endless and empty threats, always “promising” to punish but never actually doing it
  • Underestimating the child/rationalizing problem behaviors (“I know she just bit me, but she’s really tired”)
  • Problem with seeing the child unhappy/ Child must always like you and your discipline

If you see one, or two, or several things on that list that you do regularly, don’t feel bad. I have been inside of enough households to know that many parents don’t understand how the errors listed above undermine their authority and lead to a lack of instructional control.

When I first start working with a client (after successful Pairing) I'm going to begin establishing the relationship that the child and I will have.

I can’t properly teach a child who doesn’t listen to what I say or refuses to do anything I ask them to do. Establishing instructional control isn’t difficult, but it does require a certain mind-set. Sometimes parents have difficulty being firm with their children, and aren’t comfortable being a disciplinarian.

When I am working with a child I am the giver of reinforcers, I am “that fun lady who shows up to play", I am giving undivided attention to the child, and I am always modifying my curriculum to keep them successful. BUT, I am also swift to provide consequences, I put structure and order in place, and I follow through with what I say.
Despite what some may think, ABA therapy isn’t about being mean, harsh, or cold. If I never showed compassion, gentleness, or kindness to my clients they would never want to work with me (and understandably so). This post is not about being Ms. Trunchbull from Matilda. 

About 80% of the things I do with a new client serve the purpose of establishing instructional control. Even simple actions can help me communicate to the child that they are not in control, they do not run the session, and their behaviors have consequences. Here are a few examples of things I intentionally do with new clients in order to establish instructional control right from the start:

  • Limit access to reinforcers- The child should not have free access to highly reinforcing items. If they do, what is their motivation to complete tasks or comply? The child should be clearly taught "I do ____, I get _____". Making reinforcers contingent upon target behaviors will help you gain instructional control.
  • Present a united front with the adults in the home- For me this means that I present myself as being on the same team as the parents. If Dad says the child must wear mittens to go outside, then I help enforce that. If I say that the child can’t watch TV while I am in the home for a session, the parents help enforce that. To parents I would say: Do all the adults in the home present themselves as a united team? Does Mom back up Dad, and Dad back up Mom?
  • Create a schedule/routine and stick to it- Decide how you want the day to flow, and fill the child's day with activities and transitions. Don't avoid transitions because they are challenging. The way we make them less challenging is with MORE practice, not less.       
  • Provide a stark contrast between “I love how you did that!” and “Let’s Try That Again”- When clients respond correctly, I immediately reinforce with an animated tone of voice and facial expression. When they do not, my tone of voice changes, my facial expression changes, and I do not provide reinforcement. If your child was only responding to your face or tone of voice, would they know when they have done the right thing?
  • Be prepared before giving any demand-  If I am writing data and the child bolts out of the room, I won't continue to write as I yell out “Come back and sit down”. I will stop writing, get up, and go get the child. Stop and prepare yourself before giving any demand, no matter how small. Treat every demand you give like an opportunity to reinforce, or provide a consequence (because it is).
  • Create opportunities to address problem behaviors- If a parent tells me about a behavioral trigger, I'm not going to avoid it. I can't correct a behavior I never see. If a parent tells me that turning off the TV causes a tantrum, then I'm going to sit down with the child to watch TV and then abruptly turn the TV off. When the tantrum occurs, I now have an opportunity to teach the child a replacement behavior. Parents, don’t get in the habit of avoiding behavioral triggers to prevent problem behaviors. That isn’t prevention, its avoidance.
  • Offer more choices combined with follow through-  You’d be surprised how rare it is for children to be offered choices. Especially children with disabilities. All day long they have a variety of adults telling them where to sit, to be quiet, to walk over there, etc. When dealing with defiant children I will often offer a choice between activities instead of giving a demand. For example, instead of saying “Clean up the toys” I will say “Do you want to clean up the dolls, or the puzzle?”. Every request or instruction does not have to be a battle. Does it really matter if your child sits on the floor or at the table to eat snack? No? Then let them sit wherever they want, as long as the important part (eat the snack) actually occurs.

*Quick Tip: 
A great and helpful resource to fully understand establishing instructional control-  7 Steps to Instructional Control


  1. Thank you for this excellent post. Instructional control is so important, yet it has such a pejorative name. You did a great job explaining what it is and isn't.

    1. Thank you! Its a hope of mine that more parents will understand what instructional control is, and how to gain it.

  2. Thank you for the suggestions Tameika! You are so helpful. By the way I love your book 101 Ways To Do ABA which is how I discovered your blog. Keep up the great work. It inspires and reaches so many individuals like myself.

    1. Thank you so much, I can really tell you are passionate about the field!

  3. Thank you so much with this...I struggle with my son right now, and one of the main reasons I have changed my career to become a BCBA. He has become very defiant and most of my attention was given during tantrums, or when he is doing something he isn't supposed to. And it never popped in my mind, about ABA with my own child. I've tried somethings, but it's never been as consistent as it has been with my clients. Something I have felt really guilty about.

    1. Congrats on your career choice, and your path to becoming a BCBA! I think thats great, and you bring a unique perspective to this field that is very much needed.

  4. The most important part of teaching! I am going to print this article for paras.

    1. I agree! This is such an important start to a successful teaching relationship.

  5. Fantastically explained Tameika. Thank you.

    As a parent of an autistic 7 yr old with challenging behaviour I implement what you outline pretty successfully. But there is one aspect I don't know how to deal with.

    Occasionally when I withhold reinforcement because of bad behaviour he becomes violent with me. I find this very difficult to deal with because any response I give is reinforcing for him. He is very oppositional and so relishes confrontation - e.g. I have spent hours at a time trying to enforce a timeout with no benefit. If I could remove myself (the reinforce) that would solve the problem, but most of time I can't because of where we are or because he may run off. Most of the time I am able to avoid the situation because I have spent so much time pairing myself, but I feel there must be a way to avoid this lapse in instructional control. Is there a protocol for this sort of issue. Thank you

    1. Thanks so much for commenting.

      The issue you are describing (the problem behavior worsens/grows more severe/gets more difficult to handle) is what professionals refer to as the Extinction Burst. I will include a link to a post below so you can read more about that.

      Issues like what you are describing are NOT DIY situations. You need the help of a behavioral professional, as doing the wrong thing during a Burst could have far reaching consequences, or accidentally worsen problem behavior even further.


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