Do we really want kids to be compliant?

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Compliance should no longer be a goal with children

Compliance is what a lot of people focus on when working with kids with self-regulation problems. They want the children to ‘do as they’re told’.

Compliance happens when someone agrees with or does things they’re asked or told to do.

There are different ways adults try to get children to comply. There’s coercion – forcing someone to do what you want. Then there’s use of rewards, like treats or favorite activities, for doing what the adult asks. The third major way is punishment. That’s where the child is given a time-out or is ignored if they don’t comply.

There are situations where compliance is important. When safety is involved, unquestioning compliance can be critical. If you’re about to step into the road with a car zooming toward you, and someone yells, “Stop!”, you need to do as you’re told. There’s also willing compliance where a child does what they’re told because they want to. They might be told to eat their ice cream or get their favorite toy and willingly comply.

Compliance in response to coercion or promises of rewards or punishment are different. When force, rewards, or punishment are used there’s a power imbalance. The adult tries to control, regulate, or direct the child. The child is generally helpless. This type of compliance is seen too often in teaching and therapy situations. The adult tells the child to sit still, put their hands in their lap, be quiet, etc. The adult has all the power.

Where does learning compliance lead?

 Forcing children to comply can push them do things that are uncomfortable or make learning more difficult. Urging children with autism to make eye contact is one example. Eye contact is uncomfortable for most autistic people and can overload their systems. Making them comply with an eye contact rule can create high stress levels where they simply can’t learn. Read our article on eye contact.
 Focusing on compliance can lead children to develop learned helplessness. They expect others will tell them what to do. I’ve watched young adults with autism stand around flapping and pacing while waiting for directions.

Teaching children to comply can also lead to their becoming victims of bullies and other unscrupulous people. Up to 77% of children with autism experience bullying (1). If a child learns to do what they’re told, they can be more easily manipulated. This is the case for many adults with autism (2). They often don’t know they can say, “No.”

Children might also learn to become bullies themselves. They learn that coercion, threat of punishment, or rewards can make other people do what they want. They might then go on to bully others.   

What should we do?

First, remember that certain amounts of resistance to  compliance are a normal, positive part of development. Children are learning to be more independent. They’re finding they have choices. Toddlers love to say, “No”, to exercise their new-found independence. Teenagers aren’t much different.

Second, all children can make choices. With some children, you might present two options to choose from (see our article on simplified choice-making). For other children, you can give more complicated options. Simply adjust what you offer as options and how you present them. One teacher I knew would say to a reluctant child, “You can do it yourself or my hands can help you.” It was a bit coercive but in a gentle way and was often successful in gaining cooperation.  

Third, recognize that change is difficult for children with autism (see our article on cognitive flexibility). If you ask them to do something different from what they’re presently doing, it can be a strain. They might struggle and reject your suggestion, at least initially. Providing simple reasons why you’re asking for change can improve cooperation. 

Finally, making decisions is challenging for autistic people (3). Remember, people with autism typically have problems with executive functions. This makes it difficult to narrow down choices and figure out what’s most important. It can lead to ‘analysis paralysis’. They may also be afraid of making a mistake. These things can cause stress which, in turn, challenge decision-making.

Compliance should no longer be a goal with children. Instead, focus on setting up the conditions to allow them to be self-motivated. All children are motivated; we just have to help them be more engaged. Watch the video in the next section to find out ways.

We also need to teach children strategies for making decisions. Turtle Breathing will help them remain calm (check out our article on the effect of calmness). Then cognitive self-regulation skills will make sure they don’t end up with ‘analysis paralysis’. They learn to figure out what’s most important and what they have to do. They then keep this in mind while recalling similar experiences that might help them. Teach them to keep their options open so they can change if needed.

Give children time to think things through. Try different approaches. Provide guidance,  support, and reasons for what you’re asking them to do. Simple prompts like, “How about …” can create wonderful opportunities for children to make decisions. For example, “How about we look over here to see what to do?”, “How about we try this one?”, or “How about you see what happens if you try it?”  

Rather than focusing on compliance, work with children on learning to make decisions on their own. This will build lifelong skills which lead to a better quality of life.
(1) Cappadocia, M. C., Weiss, J. A., & Pepler, D. (2012). Bullying Experiences Among Children and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders42(2), 266–277.

(2) Chandler, R. J., Russell, A., & Maras, K. L. (2019). Compliance in autism: Self-report in action. Autism23(4), 1005–1017.

(3) Luke, L., Clare, I. C. H., Ring, H., Redley, M., & Watson, P. (2012). Decision-making difficulties experienced by adults with autism spectrum conditions. Autism16(6), 612–621.

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