Behavior Contracts

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused; ASD and DD, Child-focused

A behavior contract, also known as a contingency contract, is an extremely powerful tool that uses positive reinforcement to modify a person’s behavior. It is a written document that describes a specific behavior or habit you want to change and the reward you will receive if you succeed.

Behavior contracts can be used in a variety of settings. They can help typically developing students and those with special needs achieve academic, vocational, and athletic goals. In addition, they can help all of us make healthy lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking or losing weight.

In schools, behavior contracts can be used to enhance academic performance, facilitate a student’s task completion, and address problematic behaviors.

Behavior contracts are also great ways to promote independence at home. Parents can use them to help their children complete household activities, finish homework assignments, and improve hygiene habits.

Let’s say 12-year-old David, a student with an autism spectrum disorder, is having difficulty getting ready for school in the morning. His parents must constantly remind him to stay “on task.” Still, he is often late for the bus. A behavior contract might be the perfect way to help David do everything he needs to do in order to make it to the bus on time. Not only would this document provide him with the structure and organization he needs to succeed, it would describe the reward he will earn if he meets all the requirements of the contract.

Behavior contracts are typically divided into three essential sections. The first section describes the “task,” or the job to be done. This description includes the name of the person who will complete the task, the name of the task (e.g. “preparing for school”), and when the task should be completed. It also includes a detailed description of the behavioral expectation (how well the behavior should be performed in order for the reward to be earned). For example, “David will make his bed, get dressed, and pack his lunch every morning by 6:30 a.m. with no more than one reminder. This must be completed for four out of five days of the school week for the reward to be earned.”

The second section of the contract describes the reward (e.g. “staying up later”), who will provide the reward, and when it will be earned. It also includes a description of how much of the reward will be earned. For example, “David can stay up an extra hour for two consecutive nights.”

The third section of the contract describes the “task record,” which is where David will record his progress toward earning the reward. The task record might list the days of the week, and include two empty boxes next to each day. One box would be for David to check off after he completes the task(s); the other box would be for his parents to verify that he completed the required tasks and received his reward.

In designing the behavior contract, David and his parents would sit down together and identify a reward that would be highly motivating to David. They would also determine which tasks David would need to complete in order to earn the reward. The contract should include his parents’ expectations, but must also include David’s expectations for what he will earn. David’s input is extremely valuable, as it increases the likelihood that he will commit to completing the tasks, be motivated by the reward, and abide by the rules.

Behavior contracts can be fun and easy to create, and they have many advantages. They not only provide clear expectations for the person doing the work, but also for the person providing the reward. Well designed behavior contracts provide consistency, structure, and organization, and can be helpful to anyone working toward an important goal. They can be applied to almost any behavior, and they have the added benefit of facilitating and improving communication between the parties involved.

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. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit