Compliance and Engagement in Interaction with a Child Who Is Nonverbal

I recently followed an interaction between communication professionals on twitter in which they commented on the difference between compliance and engagement in interacting with young children. It made me acknowledge that Twitter can be used in really constructive ways: These short messages can make you think! Please see the postings as well as the comments on the postings below (Nov. 13 & 14, 2020).

Twitter Postings and Comments on Compliance and Engagement
(November 13 & 14, 2020)

Communication isn’t about pressing buttons to get things. Communication is about deepening connection, meaning-making and engagement. These things drive us to keep communicating (Alex de la Nuez).

Let’s not confuse compliance with engagement. Doing something I don’t necessarily want because someone tells me to do it is compliance. Doing something I want to do because you’ve inspired me to make my own choice is engagement. (Chris Bugaj).


• True, true, but we all have to do things that we don’t find engaging. (Cathryn Robbins)

• True. Compliance also isn’t always learning. Following directions doesn’t necessarily mean content is being learned. This can be especially true for students with language delays. (Mollie Kropp)

These postings and comments highlight some important concepts in thinking about the differentiation between compliance and engagement. I briefly summarize the primary points below.


Compliance is the ability to consent to or do something that another person wants you to do. This process often involves the use of external re-enforcements/tokens to encourage students to comply. This approach rests on the principle that the student does not have the interest to participate in the activity, hence s/he needs to be encouraged to do so. The strategy is to identify the most meaningful reinforcement strategy to get the student to pay attention to and participate in specific learning activities. The assumption is that the student will learn how to perform the activity as the instructor gradually withdraws the amount of external reinforcement. The difficulty is that even if students learn the content, they are often not able to apply what they have learned.


Engagement, on the other hand focuses on the student’s own interest and willingness to participate in an activity. The basic question here is how to find a way to spark the student’s interest in getting him/her to become involved in the activity. I recently was reminded of the work of Russel Quaglia, a pioneer in the field of education for his unwavering dedication to student voice and aspirations. His approach centers on the need to listen to and understand the voice of the student, that is, what the child is really about. This approach requires that therapist and teachers develop an intuitive understanding of what naturally appeals to the student to facilitate engagement.

In short, engagement is more than the ability to pay attention. Paying attention requires that the child is able to focus for a specific time. Engagement is the ability to attach meaning to the content or interaction to allow the student to use the information. Attention is therefore necessarily, but not sufficient in promoting engagement in interaction.

About the Voice of the Nonverbal Child

Truth be told, listening to the voice of students who are able to speak and express themselves is generally much easier than listening to the “voices” of children who are unable to express themselves. The consequences of not understanding what nonverbal students experience and need, however, can often escalate into a display of challenging behaviors that can negatively impact much of their day. The stakes are therefore high for teachers, para-educators and therapist to take the time to get to know the child.

So, how do we even begin to understand what these young children are all about? Here are some ideas…

Pointers to Facilitate Engagement of Nonverbal Students

  1. Let’s start by admitting that child learning is about much more than getting students to become compliant to what the teacher/therapist wants. Although learning requires some level of compliance, communication and application of content require that we pay close attention to how we can engage the student more actively.
  2. Learn to first be with the student without trying to “achieve or teach” anything in your interaction with the child. The only relevant goal during this phase is to allow yourself to enjoy interacting with the child. This phase is not about “assessing abilities”; rather, it is about the experience being with the child, a mutual togetherness and resonance with the child. The student will guide you in ways that you do not necessarily expect. Engage in activities that flow naturally from your interaction and observations. This phase might take more than one interaction, but it is important to video your interactions to allow you to learn from them.
  3. Look at these videos that you recorded and try to answer these questions:
    • What is this child about? What makes him/her sparkle?
    • How did my own behavior enhance and/or inhibit his/her interaction in this video?
    • How can I use what I have just observed and experience with the child to enhance his/her engagement in communication with others?
    • What core vocabulary do we need to enhance the child’s engagement?
    • How do I convey what I have just learned to others in his environment (parents and professionals) to allow us to become more observant in our interactions with the child to increase his/her engagement in learning and communication?

 Finally, a reminder from Russel Quaglia: “The students who are most engaged are the ones who think they matter to the teacher.”

Please feel free to distribute and comment. Contact me if you have further ideas or questions!

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