Monday, March 19, 2012

Improving Children's Compliance- Part 2: Mastering the Alpha Command

On my last blog post, “Improving Children’s Compliance- Part 1: Kinds of Commands,” we learned about the three most common kinds of commands: the initiating command, the terminating command, and the mixed command. With an initiating command, we start behavior; with the terminating command, we end behavior. The mixed command aims at, first, terminating the behavior that we do not want, and then start a new behavior, or initiate the specific behavior that we want. (To read this blog post in full, click on the link at the bottom.) Another way in which we can analyze commands is in terms of both their efficiency and compliance rate; most specifically, distinguishing between the beta command and the alpha command. Details of each kind of command follow.

Forehand and McMahon developed a list of five beta commands, or commands with lower efficiency and reduced compliance, that is still relevant today (As presented on Walker and Walker, 1991):

1.      The Chain Command or giving multiple commands simultaneously. Because we are giving the child several directives at the same time, the child may get confused, or he may forget one or more steps. An example of a chain command would be, “Open your math workbooks on page 344. Complete exercises 3, 5, and 9, and then, go to page 345 and complete exercises 1 and 2. Make sure that you put your final answers inside a circle, and use graph paper.” There are eight different directives on the above command. Can you find them? They are:

a.      Open your math workbook

b.      Open your math workbook

c.       Open your math workbook on page 344

d.      Complete exercises 3, 5, and 9

e.      Go to page 345

f.        Complete exercises 1 and 2

g.      Put your final answers in a circle

h.      Use graph paper

As we can see, chain commands can represent an overload of information to some children, in particular, students with attention problems and students with low oral comprehension skills. These children’s difficulties in complying with the chain command aggravate when they must follow specific steps in a specific order; if they skip steps or switch the order of steps, they are not going to be able to perform the task adequately.

2.      Vague Commands or commands that are not clear in terms of what the child is supposed to do. Because we are using ambiguous terms, we cannot measure compliance. Examples of vague commands are, “Be nice to Frankie” and “You need to be more careful with your work.” Ambiguous terms like “nice” and “more careful” are subject to different interpretations.

3.      Question Commands or commands that sound more like a request. When we give requests, we are no longer telling the child what we want; instead, we ask the child if he can do what we want. Simply put, with requests, we are giving the child the options to comply or to refuse.

4.      “Let Us” Commands or commands that imply a joint participation between the child and the adult even when this is not necessarily true. For example, saying, “Let’s try to complete these word problems together.”

5.      Commands Followed by a Rationale or a justification. That is, we explain to children why they need to comply with the command (e.g., “We need to line up quickly or we are going to be late for Science”). The authors do not disagree with giving children a rationale, but they recommend that any rationale included must precede the command, not follow it (e.g., “We are going to be late for Science, so, line up quickly”). When a rationale follows the command, the rationale tends to obscure the directive, confusing some children.

 Walker and Walker (1991) expand the list above, adding the most common kind of beta command, which is no other than the command that includes excessive verbalizations. Most commands downgrade into a beta command simply because we cannot resist the temptation of talking too much. From the authors, we get the following example, “Jimmy, your room is such a mess! Why don’t you clean it up instead of waiting for me to do it for you? I get so tired of always picking up after you!” (The phrase in italics is the beta command.) If we replace the word “room” with the word “desk,” we just created the perfect classroom example. In addition of having an excessive amount of words, we can easily spot two other mistakes from this example: (a) presenting the command as a question and (b) using a negation in the question. The question gives the child the option to refuse; the negation projects insecurity about the child’s compliance. A better command to give Jimmy would be, “Jimmy, clean up your desk.” From the example, we can start defining the alpha command as a short statement that uses positive terms to give the child one directive. How short is a short statement? You can follow one of these two rules, whichever works best for you: (1) put the directive in 15 words or less or (2) put the directive in one sentence.

Let us continue analyzing the above command (“Jimmy, clean up your desk”) in terms of the alpha command requirements. We can see that it already meets the three most basic requirements; that is, it is stated in 15 words or less, it is stated positively, and gives only one directive at a time. To upgrade our directive into a more efficient alpha command, we still need to address two important requirements; first, we need to tell Jimmy, clearly and specifically, what we want him to do, and secondly, we need to tell the child when we want it done. Just telling Jimmy to “clean it up” it is not going to do the trick. What exactly we want the child to do? Maybe we want the child to label his notebooks and books, maybe we want all unnecessary books and materials removed from the desk, or maybe, we want the child to do both. Whatever we want Jimmy to do; we need to tell the child using specific and measurable behavioral terms, or observation of behavior. With regard to the second important requirement, we need to give the child the time frame to comply. Now, let us put all five requirements together, so that we can start giving Jimmy alpha commands: “Jimmy, by 2:00 PM, you need to remove all unnecessary books and materials from your desk.” (Pause) (Continue) “Return any extra book and materials back to the shelves.”  So, with the first command, we give Jimmy one directive (removing from his desk), and with the second command, we tell him what to do next (returning to the shelves). Both commands are stated as observations of behavior that we can follow and measure. If we want Jimmy to label his notebooks too, then, we just wait for the child to comply with the first part of the task (removing and storage), and only then, we tell the child the next task using a third alpha command.

Guidelines for Giving Alpha Commands

Additional guidelines to increase children’s compliance with our commands are:

·         Use commands that describe appropriate behavior instead of inappropriate behavior. For example, replace “Don’t run” with “Walk.”

·         “Starts” are easier to comply than “stops.” Tell the child what to start doing instead of what to stop doing.

·         If you need to give more than one command, make sure that you break each command into a specific action that the child does.

·         Separate different commands; you can either put a brief 3-to-5 seconds pause in between, or you can number the different steps (1, 2, and 3). Then, ask the child to repeat in her own words each step, so that you can clarify.

·         Make sure that you give a clear time limit, for example, “right now” or “before _____.”

·         Do not expect instant compliance; give the child 5-to-10 seconds to comply with the command.

·         If after the ten seconds the child still does not comply, repeat the directive, but this time adding, “You need to…” and giving a mild consequence. For example, you would say, “You need to _____; if not, you have to go to time out for five minutes.” Be consistent in enforcing any consequence that you give the child.


Walker, H. M., & Walker, J. E. (1991). Coping with noncompliance in the classroom: A positive approach for teachers. Austin: Pro-Ed.

Related Blog Post:

Improving Children’s Compliance- Part 1: Kinds of Commands. To read this article, click here.
Related Reading...

All Behavior is Communication: How to Give Feedback, Criticism, and Corrections that Improve Behavior
To preview this book on Amazon, click here.

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  1. Many of the students in special ed are visual learners, back from my early days of learning in college. If we become too "wordy" we only confuse a child who may not yet have a good control of language. (My son was echolalic to grade four. This isn't typical of most kids!)

    I agree with everything you've said, with one exception, "if/then" consequences. Rather than sending my son to a "time-out"--I took something he desired away. I told him these privileges were earned by good behavior, an not "due" him just for being alive. Thus, if he was disrespectful, it cost him, literally, as so many dollars were deducted from his allowance. If he didn't do his homework, it cost him t.v. time. That took care of 90% of his negative behaviors. I'm not kidding.

    For the 10% that remained, there were certain things that I couldn't demand of him. He would go into meltdown. It was as though I was taking a pound of flesh, literally. These areas were very touchy. I had to somehow deal with him in a way that allowed him to save face. I used humor, ie, going all Drama Mama on him, to attempt to get him to laugh. That took care of 9% more of his negative behavior. The last one percent...I had to give in to him. It was a matter of something so beyond what I was able to understand...I just sensed it was an area not to cross. I had to give in.

    I KNOW what you are doing is exceedingly difficult. I never had the option of giving up...kids labelled with behavior problems have the capacity to have the worst outcomes of any children. (Forty percent of dyslexic kids, often labelled with behavior problems, end up in prison.) They also have the capacity to have the best outcomes...Forty percent of entrepreneurs are dyslexic. I think the difference is the successful students learn to deal with their weaknesses by accepting the help of others.

    It doesn't seem possible, but our learning-disabled/behaviorally-disordered kids have the most fragile egos. I hope I have done right by my son. I was very thankful for my teaching background. It helped me to never give up.

  2. As we can read from your insightful comment, disciplining children with behavior problems is not an easy task. We need multiple strategies, we need creativity, and we need innovation, among other things. The key, as you put it beautifully in your last sentence, is to never give up.