by Sam Blanco PhD, LBA, BCBA
Sometimes our learners don’t comply with instructions simply because they don’t fully understand what we are asking of them. At times, I find myself making the error of using too many words when I give directions, especially if I’m in a rush during a transition. For instance, I might say “Grab your shoes, put them on, and meet me by the door.” A few seconds later my learner meets me at the door, but with no shoes.
I may feel frustrated or irritated, but ultimately I realize my instructions are provided in a poor manner. I am at fault! It would have been more effective to point towards the shoes and say “Shoes on.” In his book Teach Like A Champion, Doug Lemov refers to this as Economy of Language, a phrase that essentially means the fewer words you use, the clearer your message. (It should be noted here that Teach Like A Champion is written for ALL teachers, not just special education teachers. This is a strategy that works across the board!) This is especially true when working with learners who struggle with listening comprehension, attention, or multi-step directions.
Here are a few suggestions to help you with economy of language:
Plan ahead. I actually write out instructions that I will be providing often and plan precisely how I will be giving them. I might plan a few variations, but, especially when working with young learners with autism, I want to provide lots of opportunities for success, then build to more complex instructions.
Consider hand signals. I often pair a hand signal with an instruction. For instance, one of my current students often sticks his fingers in his nose during instruction. I pair “Hands down” with a hand motion in which I move my hand from about shoulder-height to my lap (down). This is helpful because the learner also comprehends the signal, and I can begin providing the signal without the vocal statement. This allows me to provide instructions without interrupting the lesson.
One step at a time. Be aware of your learner’s listening comprehension and attending skills. If you notice that your learner is often only completing the first or the last thing you asked, this is a good indication that you provided too many instructions at the same time.
Avoid lengthy explanations. Sometimes I’ll hear an adult say something like “You need to hurry up and put your shoes on because your father is going to be here in a moment and we need to meet him outside and get in the car quickly so you’re not late for swim practice.” This is an easy trap to fall into, especially if vocalizing the explanation is helping you remember everything you need to do during a transition, but it may result in inaction from your learner.
Take a deep breath. If your learner is not responding correctly to instructions you’ve provided, step back, take a deep breath, and think about how to simplify the instruction.
WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBASam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.