Children who present with issues with compliance are often anxious. Noncompliance is a strategy they use to feel as though they can influence what happens to them and feel safe. Any measure to address issues with compliance needs to recognise this and balance it with the need to support feelings of safety and potency (that is, feeling able to influence their world) for the child.
Noncompliance with requests and directions often arises when children experience adults as being inattentive, unresponsive, and/or out of control. Ultimately, children appropriately depend on adults and feel most safe when adults are attentive, responsive, and in control.
What follows are some gentle strategies that, when used in combination, help to restore adult authority and influence (which children need) while also supporting the child or young person’s feelings of safety and potency. That is, they address the reason for the behaviour, as well as the behaviour.
1. Use ‘controlled choices’
Also referred to as ‘forced choices’, this involves offering the child options that are determined by the adult. The child may be offered the choice of one shirt or another, or between brushing their teeth or their hair first, or between holding the left hand or the right hand before crossing the road. The most important thing here is that the child feels as though they have some say, which meets their need to feel in control and able to influence what happens to them. Nevertheless, adult authority and influence is reinforced as the adult determines what the options are. No choice is too trivial, though the adult must always be happy with whatever the child chooses.
2. Teach a new skill
Children often love to learn a new activity or skill in line with their needs and/or interests. When an adult supports this by teaching them a new activity or interest, the child is motivated to attend to and comply with adult directions. It is intended that the experience of complying is non-threatening, and that the child relinquishes control with no associated negative outcome that threatens their sense of safety and wellbeing. Examples of activities to teach the child include cooking, gardening, craftwork, or board and card games.
3. Don’t ask; say!
Some children pay very close attention to the way we speak to them, including the language we use and tone of voice. When we ask them to do something some children think we are offering them a choice. Rather, gently, but firmly, say what you require the child to do in a manner that projects an expectation of compliance. This strategy, though it may not always result in compliance, helps reduce the child’s perception of being unfairly treated when, having been asked to do something and exercising their perceived choice to say no, the adult insists they comply anyway.
4. Help them be compliant
When you direct a child to do something, help them to be compliant. Do part of the task. The intent here is for the child to experience the adult as accessible, supportive, and safe when compliance is expected.
5. Catch them in the act
This is potentially the most helpful strategy of all. What I mean here is to observe the child and what they are doing, and gently direct them to do the very same activity. This is intended to help them get used to following directions, with nothing bad happening, and support a perception of adults being in control whilst avoiding challenging their own sense of choice. Again, nothing is too trivial to direct the child over. The only caveat is that it must be an activity that the adult is fine for the child to be engaging in. After a while, you may also be able to anticipate the child’s next move and direct them to do this too.