A behavioral contract is an intervention strategy that is sometimes used in the field of ABA. This strategy is helpful for some individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Behavioral contracts are a way to allow the child to have some say in what happens in his day to day life as well as what he or she may experience as a positive outcome for complying with specific set expectations. Additionally, the visual nature of a behavioral contract as well as the clarity and concreteness of the information included in the contract tend to be beneficial for many children with autism.
A behavioral contract may be helpful for the parent, as well. Understandably, sometimes parents can become overwhelmed or stressed when their child does not meet expectations or displays challenging behaviors. The stress response naturally tends to elicit emotional and impulsive responding since the body’s stress system typically results in activity in the most primitive area of the brain, the brain stem. The brainstem is involved in basic physiological responses such as breathing and heart rate (Fernández-Gil, 2010).
The cardiovascular system also plays a role when stressful stimuli are presented in the environment and subsequently taken in through the body’s senses (vision, hearing, etc.) (InformedHealth.org, 2010). The cardiovascular system helps to distribute nutrients and oxygen to cells throughout the body. When you are stressed, the body may provide energy to various parts of your body (such as to change your body posture or tone of voice) and result in behaviors that have worked in the past to lead to an effective outcome and helped you in a similar situation (as in positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, or negative punishment).
When our behaviors are influenced by messages sent from the limbic system and the brain stem, we tend to act in ways that are not always optimal for the situation or the outcome we are looking for. This is seen when a parent responds inconsistently to their child’s tantrums or when a parent gets overwhelmed and either yells at the child or maybe just walks away from the child to cool off themselves. These are totally understandable reactions for parents to engage in when their child behaves in undesirable ways. However, conditioning one’s self, as a parent, to respond to a child with consistency and strategies that have been thought out ahead of time can be so much more beneficial to the outcomes that we are hoping to achieve for our child and with our child.
Using a behavioral contract is beneficial for both the child and the parent as it provides a clear plan for what is expected of the child, what role the parent will play, and can also identify the outcome for desired and undesired behaviors.
The behavioral contract in ABA parent training would be written up with the parent and the child in mind. The parent and child sign the document stating they agree to the arrangements written in the document. The contract will include the specific behaviors that the parent would like the child to display (the things the parent wants the child to do) as well as the outcome for the child (what does the child want to earn for doing what the parent wants them to do). This contract must be very specific and leave little to no room for negotiation or misunderstanding. For instance, if the reward is video games, the contract should specify how much, when it can be used, and any other details that may arise for the child and family that you are working with. For some kids, you may need to specify what kind of video games are allowed.
Behavioral contracts will include the benefits for each person involved in the contract. What does the parent get from signing the contract? (ex: the kitchen table cleaned off by 5:00pm, the dog fed, the child to complete his homework, etc.) What does the child get from signing the contract? (ex: electronic time, dessert after dinner, a day off from chores, etc.)
Behavioral contracts should also include behaviors that are observable and measurable. Having something subjective or not necessarily observable is not beneficial. For instance, stating that the child should “be good for one day” or the child should “stop getting angry at his sister” is not specific enough or clear enough to be beneficial for the purposes of a behavioral contract (or for any ABA goal for that matter).
If there are going to be negative consequences for not meeting the expectation, this should be included in the behavioral contract. For example, if the child will lose video game privileges for the rest of the evening if they have not completed their homework by 6:00pm, then this should be clearly stated in the contract.
Including a bonus clause for complying with the contract and regularly meeting the terms of the contract can help reinforce the desired behaviors. This could be a statement that says something to the effect of if the child completes his homework by 6:00pm for 4 out of 5 days a week, they will earn an extra reward (which would also be clearly specified).
It can also be helpful to include a statement that talks about how the contract can be renegotiated. Sometimes we (as adults or children) plan things that don’t always play out super smoothly. Or maybe one of the parties changes their mind or has a new idea. Changing the contract should not occur without a formal procedure written out a head of time to make sure that no one is changing the terms or trying to negotiate when it is not beneficial to do so (Kazdin, 2005).
Behavioral contracts are an excellent tool to use. They can be as simple or as complex as you would like them to be. Parents can use behavioral contracts with their children outside of ABA session time which makes this a great strategy to recommend during ABA parent training.
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Fernández-Gil, M. Á., Palacios-Bote, R., Leo-Barahona, M., & Mora-Encinas, J. P. (2010, June). Anatomy of the brainstem: a gaze into the stem of life. In Seminars in Ultrasound, CT and MRI (Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 196-219). WB Saunders.
Kazdin, A. E. (2005). Parent Management Training. New York, New York. Oxford University Press.