Seven Steps to Building Respectful Teaching Relationships with Children

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA

Ever notice how some adults seem to have a knack for working with children? Whether it is the parent who can keep his (or her) child from throwing a tantrum, the favorite teacher who is able to capture a child’s attention, or the babysitter to whom the child immediately runs – some adults seem to have a gift for establishing rapport with children. What’s their secret?

There is a fundamental step for teaching any child new skills while preventing problematic behavior. It is establishing what is called instructional control. In its simplest form, instructional control means the child listens to you because you have established a good working relationship with him. When done right, he readily approaches you, willing and eager to learn, and excited to take part in learning opportunities. Why? Because he knows that if he cooperates with you, he will be able to get things he wants.

The idea of instructional control is well established in the field of applied behavior analysis. It is particularly important when working with a child with autism because: 1) the child may engage in problematic behavior, and 2) quality instruction is vital to addressing deficits in language and academics.

Robert Schramm, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), is the author of The Seven Steps to Earning Instructional Control, a book that provides a useful guideline to establishing a relationship with a child based on mutual respect. Read on for a brief summary of Schramm’s Seven Steps:

1. Show your child you are in control of the items and activities he wants to access. This is essential. You hold the key to fun! This is how you set yourself up as the “boss.”

2. Establish yourself as fun! Before you try to teach anything, show the child that it’s fun to be with you, engaged and learning. Let the child come to you on his terms, because he wants to take part in a fun interaction with you. This prevents “power struggles” because the child is initiating the interaction.

3. Follow through. Show the child you can be trusted, and that you’ll do what you say. It’s important to follow through, both in terms of positive or negative consequences. Your actions should be predictable. Don’t move the goal posts. This also means if you ask a child to do something, you may have to prompt him to complete an action. Avoid repeating yourself (this just teaches a child that you’ll continue to repeat directions, so he doesn’t need to comply the first time).

4. Show your child that following your directions will benefit him. Once you’ve established that you’re in control of fun things and that following your directions will provide access to desirable things, provide opportunities for practice. Start with easy-to-follow directions.

5. In the beginning, provide reinforcement for every positive response. Eventually, though, reduce the amount of reinforcement. Use it carefully for harder tasks. When starting out, give lots of reinforcement to establish rapport. There’s no such thing as too much in this stage!

6. Demonstrate you know your child’s priorities as well as your own. Make sure you’re offering reinforcement, or rewards, that are truly interesting to him.

7. Demonstrate that engaging in undesirable behaviors will not result in reinforcement. The goal is to provide the child with access to things he cares about when he engages in appropriate behavior. For example, if a child screams at you demanding a lollipop, you may want to have him ask nicely before you give it to him. Over time, you want to teach that screaming is not the easiest way to gain access to things.

This very brief summary of Schramm’s Seven Steps can be useful in understanding that instructional control improves working relationships and can be established in a systematic way. For more information, check out Robert Schramm’s book. And for advice on your individual situation, especially if your child engages in dangerous or severe problematic behavior, consult a BCBA.

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA. BCBA, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit