By: Waverly Ann Harris

Most of us recognize that we work best when we have clear expectations from our employers, however, we often forget that it is important in other aspects of our lives as well. It reduces anxiety when we know what to expect and what is expected of us. It helps us be more productive and feel like we have more control. Of course, we can depend upon expectations too much, which can lead to disappointment and frustration. Finding a balance is a good practice for everyone.  


For individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD)cognitive flexibility may be challenging. Other skills that are often related to Executive Function include planning and organization, impulse control, and self-regulating emotions and tasks from start to finish. Having another person clearly define what is expected takes the guess work out and can make it easier for a person to meet those expectations. 

Most of us have shared living space with family members and even non-family members at some point in our life. We are probably all guilty of expecting those we share a home with to understand what we are thinking and wanting at certain times. And most of us have unspoken rules that we expect others to follow. Further, most of us have been in a situation where someone is frustrated because we did not meet their expectations. Individuals with IDD may have an even harder time understanding unspoken rules and may need literal explanations of expectations and consequences. 


Reviewing “expected behaviors” regularly and before certain activities may be very helpful for an individuals who is learning to be more independent at home. Think Social Publishing has a series of books, articles, and programs that discuss the value of using the “unexpected-expected vocabulary.” It is as simple as establishing what is “expected” and “unexpected” in multiple situations. For example, when preparing food in the kitchen, you are expected to 1) wash your hands before you touch food, 2) use a cutting board and the knife with the blue handle, 3) put all items back where you found them, 4) wipe off counter tops, 5) wash all dishes when you are finished.  You may also list “unexpected behaviors” such as, 1) use a plate to cut foods, 2) leave items on the counter, 3) use the stove or oven. Once these expectations are established, it is important to review them frequently. Once explained, be sure to ask the individuals what the expectations are so that they feel empowered and knowledgeable 


Expectations can also be explained in written form. For some individuals, having something to read or visually review will help them remember and understand expectations, as well as consequences. You could use the following simple outline as a template. 


    You may also use very simple sentences of IF ______, THEN _______.  Keeping it very simple and direct will help a person stay focused and understand clear cause and effect behaviors. You an also substitute visuals for any of these words, creating a social story that can be read by pictures instead. 


    When a person understands both expectations AND consequences, they feel empowered. They have the ability to make choices. While at home, if a person is acting out inappropriate behaviors, it is likely related to a feeling of not having control or not having the ability to make choices. To have autonomy and feel empowered to be independent, a person must understand their options and be given this information to make informed decisions.  


    Once a person understands the expectations and the consequences, it is important to note that they may not choose to act on the expected behaviors. Consequences must stay true to the original explanation. If the expectation is to complete responsibilities in the morning in order to have the consequences of extra time to then do a preferred activity, it is very important to follow through on those consequences. All behavior is learned by consequences. Therefore, if a person chooses not to fulfill those responsibilities in the morning, with the understanding that the resulting consequence is to NOT have time to spend in the afternoon on the preferred activity, then it is important that the person does not get to do the preferred activity in the afternoon. Just as important, if the person chooses to fulfill that responsibility, it is very important to follow through on that preferred activity.  

    Similarly, if a person may be told that the expectation is to pack a lunch each day, then they will be able to choose the foods they want to eat and if they do not choose to pack a lunch, then they will not have anything to eat that day for lunch. However, if someone packs the lunch for them, out of kindness or because it is faster, or because they did not want them to go hungry, instead of doing them a favor, it actually takes autonomy away from the individual. And it is impossible for them to learn actual expectations and consequences for independence.  


    To hold people accountable to the consequences of their behaviors is to believe they are capable of meeting those expectations. Avoid setting expectations that are unrealistic. And avoid preventing the person from meeting those expectations. Instead, establish opportunities for them to exceed expectations and to experience the positive consequences and celebrations of setting new expectations and goals.