There are a lot of tools in my BCBA tool box that I use regularly to help shape positive behaviour. A behaviour contract is one of my go-tos for learners who are able to wait for delayed reinforcement. When implementing, it’s important that the learner understands what behaviours are being reinforced even if they’re not accessing reinforcement for a few hours. Behaviour contracts are written agreements that outline expected behaviours/tasks during a defined amount of time and the reward the student earns if she fulfills her end of the bargain.
These contracts motivate kids to try their best and help teach self-responsibility and self-monitoring. For example, I work with a learner who had trouble staying in his seat, keeping his hands to himself and raising his hand to ask questions during teaching time. So, I started using a contract that targeted these specific behaviours. Eager to earn his prize, it didn’t take long before his classroom demeanor was more appropriate.
Behaviour contracts are helpful with my clients and I’m they’ll benefit yours, too. But they will only work if they’re written correctly. Here’s how to craft an effective behaviour contract.
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What to put in writing
Your client has to be crystal-clear on what she’s expected to do to earn her reward. Spell out the terms in simple, positive language (avoid negatives like no, don’t, not) and use I/Me/My pronouns. Here’s what I like to include on behaviour contracts:
NAME: Write down who has to fulfill the expected behaviours (your client) and who will dish out the reward (you).
TASK(S): Detail what your client has to do – include no more than 5 targets per interval– and where she has to do them. If, for example, I was using a contract to help shape positive behaviour on car rides, I might include conditions like: I keep my seatbelt fastened; I stay in my car seat; I use a quiet and calm voice. When writing targets, be as specific as possible. Instead of a vague instruction like clean your room, tell what to clean and how to clean.
TIP: Choose tasks that your client has the ability to perform. Do not include targets in acquisition. If she cannot read yet, use pictures instead of words on the contract.
DURATION: Define when and how long your client has to do the task(s). In the case of a car ride contract, I’d note that she would have to follow the rules for, let’s say, the entire 30-minute commute on Wednesday to Grandma’s. Or I might tuck in duration by adding it right to the task description: Work quietly at your desk for 10 minutes.
RATING SYSTEM: For students new to behaviour contracts, use a token or sticker format to reinforce every time they demonstrate the desired behaviour. For more advanced learners, use a Yes/No rating system where you help them self-evaluate how they did at the end of the interval.
REWARD: Give your learner a few choices of what she can work for, then let her pick her prize. Write down how much she’ll get and when she’ll get it. Remember to reward exactly as you promised to!
TIP: The reward must match the effort of the task. Riding in the car nicely for 30-minutes would give my client access to something like a favourite cookie or playing chase; whereas riding nicely in the car all week deserves a more substantial prize like going out for ice cream or 30 extra minutes of iPad time.
Put it to work
Review the contract before you implement, confirming that it is doable for your learner and that the reward is in line with the effort required of her. When first using a behaviour contract with a child, set it up so she’s successful. Realizing what’s in it for her – the prize! – will motivate her to stick to the conditions on contracts going forward.
Once it’s in effect, put it in a visible place. And refer to it often. Throughout the contractual period, I give lots of positive reinforcement using the language on the contract (“Yay, your seatbelt is on!”); and I point to the expectations and reward as a reminder if my client is on the verge of breaking a rule.
Go through the behaviour contract together when its time is up. Talk about how and if your client met the conditions, getting her to take ownership by circling Yes or No or appropriately checking off the checklist. Follow through precisely: If she fulfilled her end of the bargain, give her the prize described on the contract (throw in plenty of cheers and high-fives, too, for a job well done!); on the flip side, withhold the reward, reminding her that she’ll have chance to earn next time.
Image by Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net