Successful Use of Behavior Contracts
Leslie McEnery, M.A., BCBA
Have you struggled with getting your child to complete their chores after school? Or what about getting ready for school in a timely manner in the morning? How about maintaining appropriate behaviors in school like refraining from talking out in class or possibly not engaging in aggression when frustrated or angry? Now when you are thinking of these situations, what are some strategies that have been used in the past but proved unsuccessful? Maybe something along the lines of punishment like taking away preferred activities or items? Constant nagging and/or threats? Maybe not saying anything at all and hoping it will resolve itself? While all of these strategies are commonly used in households (whether we like to admit it or not), our focus should be on the strategy of positive reinforcement, or “rewarding” the child for engaging in appropriate behaviors directly related to the problem behaviors we want to decrease.
When people hear the term positive reinforcement, they typically think of telling the child “Good job!” and that being sufficient to evoke meaningful behavior change. Rarely is this the case. Positive reinforcement is much more than that. One successful strategy that could prove beneficial for situations like those described above is that of a behavior contract.
What is a Behavior Contract?
A behavior contract is a simple and straight-forward positive reinforcement strategy to increase appropriate social or academic behaviors while decreasing any inappropriate behaviors. Behavior contracts can be developed and implemented for typically developing children as well as children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (that have a general understanding of rules). Even we, as adults, have signed into contracts that are in essence behavior contracts such as car loans or a signed job description. Do you need a special certification to implement a behavior contract? Not at all! Behavior contracts can be developed by parents, caregivers, general or special education teachers, behavior technicians/therapists, BCBAs, BCaBAs, or any other professional in the field of education that works directly with children. The beauty of behavior contracts is that they are fully customizable to the needs of that particular individual at that particular time.
The success of the behavior contract lies within each section, which has specific components that must be thought through very carefully and written out as explicitly as possible so that there is no confusion between all parties. First and foremost, we must identify and define the behaviors that we want to see increase and those we want to see decrease. For example, defining a behavior such as aggression may look very different across different children. Aggression could be pushing for one, but for another it could be biting or punching. Taking the time to clearly define what each behavior is and what it is not will take the guesswork out of the equation and provide the structure needed for success.
Rewards and Consequences
The next section explicitly describes the consequences for engaging in the appropriate behavior as well as in the problem behavior. When determining what the reward should be, we must identify an item or activity that is highly motivating to the child. The motivation to gain access to the item or activity should far outweigh the motivation to engage in the identified problem behavior.
An important consideration when identifying the reward for appropriate behavior is that of satiation and deprivation. In other words, when a child has unlimited access to say, the iPad or television, the motivation to engage in a behavior to gain access to the iPad or television will be fairly low. However, when access to these devices is limited (or even better, restricted so that access strictly occurs only after they exhibit the identified appropriate behavior), the child will be more motivated to engage in a behavior to gain access.
Implementation and Reinforcement
Once you have the reward identified, you must develop the schedule of reinforcement. This will be determined in a large part by the individual for which the contract is being written for. If the child cannot tolerate long periods of time before receiving a reward for engaging in appropriate behavior, then the schedule should include multiple opportunities to reward the behavior.
Once all sections have been written or typed out, it is time for implementation! The first step is to gather all parties and read through each section together. This is a great time to answer any questions from the child as well as address any concerns about the process and revise if needed. Once each section has been presented, each party must sign the behavior contract in agreement to the terms.
Once the terms are agreed upon, it is time to start reinforcing the appropriate behavior and watching the inappropriate behavior decrease! Keep in mind, if any revisions are needed during the implementation process, they should be written out and a new contract needs to be signed. Consistency in delivering consequences for both appropriate and inappropriate behaviors is of the utmost importance. The contract terms must be upheld for this strategy to be successful.
Additional considerations for successful implementation of a behavior contract:
- If you are a teacher or other professional, be sure to enlist the parents in the creation and implementation of the contract. If the parents are designated to deliver rewards, be sure to have backup rewards for the child if the parents cannot follow through.
- Video the child reading the contract and signing it. This will make it more formal and can be referred back to often as they are verbally stating that they will follow the guidelines written.
- Have the contract readily available for yourself as well as the child so that it can be referred to easily when needed, during praise/reinforcement, when implementing consequences, or when the child needs to be redirected.
- Consider using visual aids depending on your learner such as a calendar, sticker chart, or tokens, coupons, and points.
- Do frequent check-ins with the child to discuss progress, challenges, things they can do better, priming on how to handle certain situations, etc. For example, for a child that demonstrates problem behavior of aggression when frustrated, you can role-play various scenarios beforehand to aid in success when those situations are encountered in the natural environment.
Behavior contracts, when well thought out and implemented consistently, can be a powerful tool to achieve positive behavior change in the lives of our children and those we service.
Leslie McEnery graduated from the University of South Alabama with a Bachelor of Arts in 2008 and gained her Master of Arts in Special Education with a focus in Behavior Analysis from the University of West Florida in 2011. She obtained her Board Certification in Behavior Analysis in 2012. During her undergraduate studies, she interned at an ABA-based preschool that propelled her to pursue her graduate degree and eventual Behavior Analyst certification. She has worked for the public school system in Mobile, AL, and as a Behavior Consultant in Honolulu, HI, among other positions. Leslie now lives in Humble, TX, with her husband and two young children.
Leslie has worked as a Case Supervisor in the Stepping Stones program at Including Kids for over two years, where she places an emphasis on teaching her young learners (ages 4-7) communication skills, social and self-help skills, and functional academics. All programs are individualized to the needs of the client and foster preparation for them to transition to the least restrictive environment appropriate for their specific skill set and needs. The most rewarding part of her job is helping clients and their families acquire life-changing skills that will forever impact and improve their quality of life. She takes great joy in the big as well as the small day-to-day successes of her clients and looks forward to aiding her clients in maximizing their potential.