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Learner Cooperation — Establishing Instructional Control

As someone who works with individuals with developmental delays, you want to teach your learners the skills they need to be independent in the world. Beyond that, you want them to be receptive to your teaching plan and chosen reinforcers. As we reviewed in a previous post, establishing instructional control and learner cooperation are essential to forming a reinforcing relationship with your learner, and Partington Behavior Analysts is here to help. In today’s post, we’ll review information that can help encourage learner cooperation, and we will discuss the importance of using social reinforcers and intermittent reinforcement. Continue reading to learn more.

Considerations for Giving Instructions

What does it take to get the learner to do what you ask? This is the question that many parents and teachers ask themselves as they work to establish instructional control. The overall goal is for you to increase the probability that your learner will do what is asked of them, and the following considerations can help you be successful:

  • Timing of instruction. Your instruction should be made when you can provide a reinforcer. It should not be made when the learner is already engaged in a favorite activity, or when you are engaged in other activities.
  • Presentation of instruction. The instruction should be stated clearly and simply, and it should not give the learner the option of saying, “no.” Be sure you can get on eye level with the learner and that he is paying attention to you before you deliver the instruction.
  • Learner motivation. Consider what is motivating the learner to comply with your instructions. If they are involved in a favorite activity, they are more likely to comply with a positive command (e.g., “sit down”) than a negative command (e.g., “stop jumping”).
  • Follow through. When you are preparing to deliver an instruction to your learner, be sure that you are available to follow through. Consistently following through with reinforcers will help build your learner’s trust in you.
  • Start simple. Providing your learner with a simple instruction that requires minimal effort encourages cooperation, eventually leading to an increase in the number of instructor-controlled responses performed by the learner each day. 

Remember that your learner needs to see that reinforcers come from you and that they will only receive one when they do what is asked of them. Associating yourself with the delivery of reinforcers is essential to establishing instructional control.

Further Developing Instructional Control

There are a few ways that teachers can increase the number of situations in which learners will follow instructions, including using social reinforcers and intermittent reinforcement. Let’s take a closer look at these below.

Using Social Reinforcers


Although praise statements are not actual reinforcers since they have no strengthening effect on subsequent behavior, they can be used as a conditioned reinforcer. In fact, it is natural for teachers to praise learners when they comply with your instructions by saying things like, “way to go,” or “great job.” However, it is important to remember to diversify praise statements and pair them with an actual reinforcer to ensure they continue to be effective.

Facial Expressions

Similar to words of praise, facial expressions can be used as conditioned reinforcers. For example, your learner will associate a notable change in your expression and tone of voice just prior to something good happening, like receiving a reinforcer. As this happens more and more over time, your learner will often use your facial expressions and tone of voice to see if good things are about to happen.

Strategically Delivering Reinforcers

Both how and when reinforcers are delivered, also known as “schedules of reinforcement,” have a great impact on encouraging and maintaining your learner’s response to instructions provided to them. Many parents and teachers worry that learners will become dependent on actual, tangible reinforcers if they are used consistently. However, it has been found that thinning the schedule of tangible reinforcers over time can minimize occurrences of dependence.

Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement focuses on teaching the learner that not every response results in a tangible reinforcer. Rather than the child learning that any every response will result in a reinforcer, they learn that any response could result in delivery of a reinforcer. This leads the learner to understand that it is in their best interest to continue to respond, and that goes a long way in establishing instructional control. Additional benefits of intermittent reinforcement are discussed further in Chapter 8 of Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism.

Required Cooperation in All Settings

Some parents and teachers find the learners cooperate best when in certain situations, such as at a table or during the course of their daily activities. Establishing instructional control in all settings is essential to the success of your teaching plan, as it encourages learners to respond to instruction regardless of the setting in which they are delivered. The best strategy for developing the learner’s cooperation in a variety of situations is teaching them to follow instructions by reinforcing behavior that complies with your instructions in various settings. This increases the likelihood of compliance in different learning situations, as well as compliance with reasonable requests and expectations.

Resources on Establishing Reinforcers for Autism and Instructional Control

Partington Behavior Analysts is here to help you develop effective strategies for teaching children with autism and other developmental delays. We offer a variety of resources for parents, educators, and clinicians that can help you identify effective reinforcers for autism and establish instructional control, elevating the quality of life for your learner. Contact our team today to learn more about our products and services — we look forward to helping you.

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