"Calm & Compliant"

Photo source: www.pinterest.com, www.wgarri.wordpress.com

Teachers and parents often want more than anything to have a perfectly calm, mostly quiet, super attentive learner/child, and an absence of any problem behavior. “Calm & Compliant” is often the #1 goal I hear when I first meet with teachers or parents.

When discussing problem behaviors, in order to start generating ideas for skill acquisition I will usually ask something like “Okay, instead of (problem behavior) what do you want the child to DO?”. Sometimes this question is just met with a blank stare, but often there’s a hesitant “….I don’t know…..Just sit still!”

This is usually an indicator that “calm & compliant” is going to be the name of the game, regardless of any social, emotional, adaptive, or communication deficits that child might have.

Here is why I take issue with that:
-          When did full on, 24-7 compliance become a realistic expectation of anyone, let alone a child??
-          And on that note, when did a stereotype of ABA become a reason to seek out ABA therapy? (you know the stereotype: that ABA produces mindless robots)

Some of the most impressive and memorable classrooms I have observed in did not have row after row of silent, perfectly compliant children. The ones that stick out in my memory were messy, loud, controlled chaos kind of classrooms. Why? Because those classrooms were full of active, excited, and engaged learners who could not WAIT to see what they would do next. Those are the classrooms I love to observe in because teachers like that just inspire me not to follow the norm.

For many of the children I work with, the big problem is that they can outwardly appear to be “engaged” with the class (they can pass the calm & compliant test) but are they learning anything?  The teacher may not notice they have taken off their shoes, and are silently ripping the seams off their sock. Or, that they are quietly scripting an entire episode of Doc McStuffins under their breath, or, while appearing to be attending to Circle Time, they are actually staring down at the Circle Time rug and counting all the ladybugs.
 I do notice these things, and often have to point out that while my client is quiet and staying with the group, they are 100% checked out.

This isn’t about pointing the finger at teachers, or parents, ABA staff often make this mistake too. A quiet and calm student should not be the standard of effective teaching.

Are you actually teaching your students to attend and engage or just to “appear” to be attentive and engaged? Are your students able to not just recite back information, but expand on the information they learned to generate new ideas? These are all good starting point questions to ask yourself, to move away from the “C & C” dead zone.

Here are a few more points to consider:

  1. Seek more than just C&C - Have higher expectations than this! Aim for enthusiastic and engaged learners who care about what you are teaching. When the client is motivated to learn, your effectiveness as an instructor increases. It’s like TV watching: If they don’t care, then why tune in?
  2. When C&C is not happening, look for the unmet need- Instead of blaming the learner when they start to jump around the room, or push your materials on the floor, do some problem solving. View yourself from the child’s perspective: Are your tone of voice and facial expression interesting? Then why look at you? Are your reinforcers meaningful and powerful to the child? Then why work for them? Are the child’s interests embedded into activities/tasks? Then why complete them?
  3. A lack of C&C isn’t necessarily a problem – For many of my younger clients, or the ones who are more significantly impacted by their diagnosis, I WISH they could complain to me “Awwww, not math flashcards again”. Or that they would abruptly change the conversation to tell me about a new toy they got last weekend. Or give an incorrect response and then giggle and say “Just kidding”. It’s all about perspective. It takes a high level of social interest/social reciprocity and emotional reasoning to play around with someone, be sarcastic, or try to negotiate the teacher into having recess 3 times instead of 2. We should be encouraging energetic and creative free thinkers, not requiring learners to just “sit down and be quiet”.

Speaking as a former preschool teacher and ABA therapist, some of my best moments happened when my learner/client completely checked out from my structured checklist and, in pure frustration, I decided to let them show me what we would do instead. Those are the sweet spot teaching moments, when you follow the child’s lead, capture their interest, and then embed your instruction into that.

* Suggested Reading:

Apparently CNN agrees with me :-)


  1. Thank You!

    This is just what I needed to read to confirm my own thoughts on this subject matter!

  2. OMG...what an intelligent and deep (and assuring!) article!!! Big thank you!!!

    Looks like my 3 year old is super smart and very far from calm and obedient. At the same time, his learning is by far not affected at all by his inability to sit still. He knows things that 4 year old NT does not, from reading 100s of sight words to counting objects, to following 3 step commands...when he is interested!

    I always wished for him to just sit still and behave...but maybe I will give him some slack and wait for maturation to help there.


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