Written by Emily Braff, B.A., BCaBA
Sometimes a child or teenager may have responsibilities or expectations to behave a certain way in a given situation. If the child is uncooperative or behaves inappropriately, this can become a source of tension between a child and their parents or caregivers. Making a contract can help alleviate this problem or prevent it from occurring in the future.
When to Make a Contract
Contracts are meant to establish expectations and consequences so everyone knows ahead of time how to handle a given situation. The child knows what he or she is expected to do and what will happen if they do or don’t behave appropriately. And, parents are saved from having to determine consequences in the heat of the moment. Therefore, when you decide to make a contract with your child, you should have the discussion well before the behavior is expected to occur. Additionally, the conversation should take place in a neutral area not associated with the behavior (i.e. not in their room if the behavior in question is cleaning their room).
Define the Behavior
The first step is deciding exactly what it is you want the child to do. Be as specific as possible, even for tasks which seem straightforward, and include when the activity should occur. For example, taking out the trash could be stated as, “Every Wednesday when you get home from school, you will remove the trash bag from all of the garbage cans, dispose of the bags in the appropriate place, and put new trash bags in the garbage cans.” If you are trying to encourage appropriate behavior at an event, you could say, “Look at people when they greet you, say hello, and if you need a break come tell me quietly.” Make sure that the child is capable of completing all of the steps independently (i.e. knows where to put the trash and where to find new bags). Additionally, if the child questions the importance of this behavior, be sure to explain how the behavior and contract will benefit both you and the child.
Decide on Consequences
Once the behavior has been defined, inform the child of the consequences both for engaging in the correct and incorrect behavior. Again, be very specific. For example, instead of saying that the child may earn extra video game time, say, “If you do [behavior] exactly as we have defined it, you will earn 15 minutes of extra video game time before 9:00 (bedtime).” This specifies exactly what the child earns and when he or she can get their reward. Also be sure to specify what will happen if the child does not engage in the appropriate behavior. Say something like, “If you do not do [behavior] as we have defined it, you do not earn any extra video game time and you must do [behavior] correctly before bedtime.”
Make sure you negotiate these terms with the child if he or she is not satisfied with the suggested consequences. The contract will not be effective if the child does not agree with it, so you must be willing to discuss alternatives. For example, if the child does not think 15 minutes is enough extra time, discuss the possibility of adding another component, such as extra dessert or an allowance of some sort. Be reasonable- make compromises but do not give in to unreasonable demands. If you cannot agree on a reward then maybe the frequency or difficulty of the target behavior can be changed.
Once the behavior and the consequences have been set, put it in writing and have the child sign it. If the child is too young for a written contract, use a picture representation. This is important because, if an issue arises, you can reference the document and avoid arguing or making impulsive decisions.
Enforcing the Contract
Consistency is the key to using contracts effectively. Every time the child completes the behavior appropriately, he or she should get the agreed upon reward. If this is not feasible for some reason, tell the child why and discuss an appropriate alternative. Do not make these decisions without consulting the child as it may confuse or upset them if the contract is changed without their knowledge. Similarly, if the child does not engage in the appropriate behavior, then the agreed upon consequence must be upheld. If the child gets upset over not getting the reward, refer them to the original document and remind them how they can earn the reward next time. Do not give in and deliver the reward as then the child will have learned that they can get the reward without doing the behavior as long as they get upset about it. If the child is consistently not meeting the goal, reevaluate the contract to ensure they can be successful.
Contracts are easy to use and, if implemented appropriately, can make ensuring appropriate behavior easier and more rewarding for both the child and parent. Do you have an example of how your family has benefited from putting a contract in place? Please share your experience in the comment section below.