Group Contingencies Promote Cooperation, Improve Behavior

Categories: Applied Behavior Analysis; ASD and DD, Adult-focused; ASD and DD, Child-focused

Those of us responsible for a group of individuals with special needs often find it challenging to address the problem behaviors of one or more of our charges. This is true for parents who have more than one child, teachers in the classroom, and caretakers in day or residential programs.

Although using an individualized plan for each person can work well – especially if you have unlimited time and many resources – it can be impractical and difficult if you are working with of a group of people.

In this case, contingency programs are often the best way to reduce problematic behaviors, reinforce good behaviors, and teach important skills. Group contingencies – behavior management programs that provide reinforcements and rewards for more than one person – save time and resources and encourage members of the group to cooperate with one another.

There are three types of group contingencies – dependent, independent, and interdependent.

A dependent group contingency offers a reward to an entire group based upon the behavior or performance of one or more of its members. Let’s say John, a student with special needs, often refuses to remain seated during class time. Using a dependent group contingency, the teacher would focus on John’s behavior just as she would with an individualized plan, but instead of providing the reward of a field trip only to John if he remained seated, the entire class would earn a field trip if he remained in his seat. The advantage of this type of group contingency is that John’s classmates would be eager to earn the reward, and would likely encourage John to stay in his seat. This might also promote positive interactions between John and his peers, as John would become the “hero” of the class, earning rewards for everyone.

The independent group contingency provides rewards to the members of the group who meet a specified criterion. Using the above example, John’s entire class would again be eligible to earn the reward, but only the members of the group who remained in their seats during class time would be able to attend the trip. The advantage of this type of contingency plan is that it holds each individual responsible for meeting the specified criterion. It motivates each student to “keep up” with the rest of the group in order to earn the reward.

An interdependent group contingency provides rewards to the entire group if, and only if, each member of the group meets the criterion. Let’s say a father of three wants to encourage his children to complete household chores. He might assign one task to each child, to be completed before dinner is served. If each of the three children completes his or her task, then all three would earn a trip to the arcade. If one or more of the children did not complete their task, then none of the children would earn the trip. The advantage of this type of group contingency is that it encourages the individuals to work together as a team to earn the same reward. Like the dependent group contingency, the interdependent program capitalizes on peer influence, as group members are likely to encourage each other to earn the reward.

The “Good Behavior Game” is an example of an interdependent group contingency. This involves dividing a group into teams, and offering a reward contingent upon good behavior exhibited by everyone on the team. Instead of earning rewards for good behavior, each team receives “strikes” against it for any problematic behaviors exhibited by any one of the team’s members. The team with the fewest strikes earns the reward.

Group contingencies are a great way to effectively address behavior problems of multiple people at once. When implementing a group contingency program, it is important that the parent, teacher, or caretaker be wary of any negative outcomes, especially as peer pressure may have a negative impact on certain individuals. When implemented and managed correctly, group contingencies can be a safe and economical way to not only change behavior, but to promote solidarity and encourage healthy competition in the classroom or at home.

by Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit