Why the terms “Noncompliance” and “Off task” Should be Permanently Stricken from the Vocabulary of all ABA Professionals and Students


If you currently work or study in the field of applied behavior analysis, chances are that you actively use the terms “noncompliance” and “off task. If you haven’t used them, you have at least been exposed to them. “Noncompliance” and “off task” are not behaviors and those terms should be permanently stricken from the vocabulary of all ABA professionals and students.

Join me on a trip down memory lane to a simpler time, free of the stress that comes from submitting behavior plans to insurance companies for approval. Let us journey now, back to a time before you knew how to break a line in the behavioral graph and did not have to be vigilant in your tireless efforts to avoid dual relationships. Try to recall your formative years as a student of ABA. Try to visualize yourself back in the days when you were a budding baby analyst not yet fully grown.

Now, reflect on the core principles of applied behavior analysis that you were taught or that you read about. Do the words measurable and observable ring any bells? Do you remember the blatant warnings about the failures and shortcomings of mentalism and the dangers of subjectivity? Try to remember the first time you attempted to topographically define a behavior. This may have proved to be more difficult for those of you like myself, whom came from a clinical psychology background. At this point in your education it is likely that words such as fear, anxiety and frustration were purposefully and systematically conditioned out of your vocabulary. It’s not that your professors and mentors were evil scientists maliciously manipulating your behavior, or trying to get you to drink the proverbial ABA Kool-Aid. Rather it is the simple fact that you cannot scientifically measure or observe private events such as emotions thoughts and feelings.Though Skinner did say that private events are behaviors, it is just that we as behavioral scientists cannot scientifically measure and observe them and therefor they have no place in the science of behavioral psychology and related fields.

Do you remember the dead man’s test? If a dead man can do it, it’s not a behavior that we as scientists can study examine or modify. Unless of course you referring to the walking dead, those zombies could do with some intense behavioral intervention procedures. Now I want you to try to apply the aforementioned concepts in to coming up with topographical definitions for the behavioral labels such as “noncompliance” and “off task”. If you used the words” refusal” or “failure” in your definition then it is not topographical and you have failed. Game over. The words refusal and failure are highly subjective and therefor can not be measured or observed scientifically.

Even the words “noncompliance” and “off task” are indicative of the absence of the desired behavior rather than the presence of an undesirable behavior. It is likely the behaviors you are attempting to label as “noncompliance” or “off task”, are indeed behaviors, it is just that you are mislabeling them. Don’t beat yourself up too bad, all the cool kids are doing it. Of course when I say cool kids, I’m referring to a vast majority of respected behavioral scientist’s who’s single case study designs are being published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. If in fact the “noncompliance” and “off task” behaviors of which you speak, do not consist of measurable and observable movements or actions being emitted by a client, then is it really appropriate for you to call them behaviors? If you are you simply referring to a period of time in which your client is sitting totally still and does not engage or participate in task demands, then it would be inappropriate to label them as behaviors. The last time I checked a dead man could sit still and quietly in the chair. Furthermore, it is likely that a dead man would also be unresponsive to task demands presented to him. What a troublemaker!

Webster’s definition of noncompliance: Failure or refusal to comply… and get this, Webster’s dictionary lists “noncompliance” as an adjective. Even more compelling evidence that “noncompliance” is not a behavior, is that the Oxford dictionary lists “noncompliance” as a noun. How can a true behavior be called by any other term than a verb?

Now back to that definition: failure or refusal to comply. Failure to do what? How do you measure failure? What is the criteria? What does failure look like? Refusal to do what? How do you measure refusal? What is the criteria for refusal? What does refusal look like? What is this “comply” you speak of? Is my definition or interpretation of compliance the same as your definition? Is “noncompliance” when a client is resistant to a task demand but eventually participate? Or is “noncompliance” the total non-occurrence of the desired behavior such as active participation in a task demand or the non-occurrence of a response to a discriminative stimulus? Are there time constraints as to the latency of response time that should be included in your topographical definition of “noncompliance” and “off task” behaviors? Can the non-occurrence of a behavior really be considered as a behavior itself? These are important questions folks.

Try to imagine what it looks like when your client is “noncompliant” or “off task”. The key here is to focus on the behavior that is happening rather than the absence or non-occurrence of the desired behavior. Is your client yelling “no”? Is your client getting up out of their seat? Is your client throwing their visual schedule at the heads of unsuspecting bystanders? If you can try now, to label and topographically define the behavior that is occurring, rather than a non-occurrence of the desired behavior, you might be really on to something. You could literally label those behaviors as virtually anything that describes your client’s actions that can be observed, measured and topographically defined. For the sake of my sanity though let’s at least use verbs to describe behaviors this time alright?…

For the love of B.F skinner and all that is valid and empirical I implore you, please do not use the terms “noncompliance” and “off task”. In fact, by permanently striking those terms from your vocabulary, you will surely be honoring our scientific forefather B.F Skinner. (Subjectively speaking of course)

Written by Ashton Benedickt



5 thoughts on “Why the terms “Noncompliance” and “Off task” Should be Permanently Stricken from the Vocabulary of all ABA Professionals and Students

  1. Kim

    I was very happy to see someone who was willing to take on this issue. I have been teaching in the field of ABA for well over 15 years and have always taught my students that they are not allowed to use the terms “off-task” or “non-compliance” when choosing target behaviours for the reasons you have outlined. Colleagues have challenged this position by citing the myriad of articles in JABA and other behavioural journals which show a multitude of behaviour analysts using these very terms. For some time I have thought that I’m alone in my belief that these terms are ineffective ways to pinpoint behaviours behaviourally.

    I also include the terms “on-task” and “compliance” to those stricken terms. Often, when students/professionals go to operationally define “on-task” and “compliance”, they end up with a long list of individual behaviours; all of which should be defined independently and which together, actually represent a response class of behaviours rather than a true target behaviour. In these cases, you will also see the definition filled with behaviours that should each be measured using different recording measures in order to obtain an accurate baseline. Take as an example an OD for “on-task” which includes: sitting at seat, completing math tasks and raising hand. If you were to consider all of these behaviours as representative of what a client does when he/she is “on-task”, which recording measure would you choose ? While you might use an interval recording procedure to capture all these behaviours together, I think that each of these are best measured using different recording procedures that would allow for a true and representative picture of the behaviours. Including many different behaviours together under a response class behaviour term also poses problems once implementation is considered. What do you do when you have a client who has sat at his/her seat for an entire work period, raised his/her hand but did not complete all math tasks ? Would you deny that the client has still displayed “some” on-task behaviour ? Alternatively, if the behaviour analyst had listed those as three separate target behaviours, the client would at least be able to receive reinforcement for sitting at seat and raising hand.

    While using “off-task, on-task, compliance and non-compliance” may not be theoretically wrong and be terms long used in the field of ABA, I think there are more effective ways to term behaviours which leads to more effective recording of interfering behaviours and in turn to the development of more functionally appropriate and effective intervention plans.


  2. Natasha Inman

    What are good alternatives for this? “Following directions”, maybe? How DO we define and address in a plan clients who don’t comply with instructions?
    -Budding Baby Analyst in Training



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