Parents and teachers can dramatically increase the compliance of preschool children who don't obey - and head off serious behavior problems down the road - by closely following a little-known, three-step "guided compliance" regimen, according to new research forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.
The study examined hundreds of directives given to preschool-age children over twice-weekly sessions that spanned six months, testing whether a three-step prompting procedure would increase a child's compliance.
David Wilder, a psychology professor at the Florida Institute of Technology who led the study, reports that when the regimen is implemented consistently, children are much more likely to carry out an authority figure's command.
"It may sound simple, but if parents don't do it consistently, the results aren't there," says Wilder.
Over a six-month period, Wilder tested a little-known three-step prompting system at three different levels of consistency (or "integrity") on two pre-school-age children for 45-minute sessions several times a week. (Wilder later replicated the study on two different children, in a study that is forthcoming.) During the course of a session, the children received simple instructions, such as "Give me the snack item," "Put the toy away," and "Come here." If the child complied on first request, the instructor responded with brief praise. If the child did not comply, the instructor made eye contact with the child by first stating the child's name, and then (if necessary) gently touching the child's chin. The instructor then repeated the instruction and modeled the behavior for the child. If the child complied this time, the instructor responded with praise; if the child did not comply within 10 seconds, the instructor again repeated the request, while guiding the child to perform the activity.
To test the role of consistency, instructors used three levels of "integrity" - i.e., varying the consistency of their responses to a non-compliant child. Some instructions were assigned 100 percent integrity - meaning the instructor consistently followed the three-step model of stating the request, making eye contact and demonstrating the request, and finally guiding the child to carry out the request. Other instructions were carried out at 50 percent integrity - so the instructor was consistent only half the time; and some instructions were carried out at zero percent.
Wilder found that when instructors consistently followed the guided-compliance model, children's compliance improved dramatically - (91 percent for one participant, 79 percent for a second); at 50 percent consistency, the children's compliance improved somewhat (54 percent and 41 percent); and at zero percent, compliance either did not improve, or decreased (6 percent and 0 percent).
"These results have implications for the use of the three-step prompting as a method to increase compliance among children," Wilder writes in his study published in the fall issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. "Inconsistent implementation of the procedure, which may be likely to occur when parents or teachers become busy or when they must supervise many children, may result in less than ideal effects. On the other hand, consistent implementation of the procedure may produce substantial increases in compliance."
A parent or teacher's ability to control his or her emotions is also key to improving compliance, Wilder says - the second and third steps of the prompting should be carried out unemotionally, without a parent or teacher raising his or her voice or displaying anger.