As indicated by research done by King, behavior contracts can be used to target behaviors such as a child’s inability to complete their homework, aggression displays towards other children, and attention-seeking behaviors. These contracts and usually facilitated by a school psychologist, who first talks to both the child’s teachers and parents in order to identify a target behavior or the desired behavior. The use of behavior contracts is a very effective behavior intervention strategy that can be used to help a child make better choices. However, the contracts should be limited to behaviors that a student has control over and is therefore capable of changing (King).
According to Cipani (2008), a behavioral contract is a simple arrangement that links an individual student's behavior with long-term rewards or incentives. These contracts usually are made to cover a long period of time, which is called the contract period, and can usually last from two to four weeks (Cipani, 2008). During the contract period, the child’s behavior is evaluated daily against a certain behavior standard, which is known as a daily behavioral standard. The number of days in which the child must achieve the behavior standard is specified by the contract (King). As specified in research by Fitzpatrick and Knowlton (2009), if and when the child satisfies the contract terms, a reinforcer that was originally specified in the contract is provided to the child. The time, place, and amount of the reinforcer delivered to the child are also specified by the contract (Fitzpatrick & Knowlton, 2009). Once the standards of the behavior contract have been met, the teacher can then write a new behavioral contract for covering another period of time. This allows several successive contracts to be written over the course of a term or semester (Cipani, 2008).
In order for this plan to be implemented, the teacher or school psychologist needs to first identify the target children. Next, the target behavior(s) also need to be identified. This means that the goal will either be for an undesirable or disruptive behavior to decrease or for a desirable behavior to increase (Cipani, 2008). The next step would be to collect baseline data about the frequency of the targeted behavior for each student (King). For instance, is a teacher is trying to increase the number of times a child raises their hand in the classroom, they would first observe how many times the child is raising their hand currently before the behavioral contract is in place so that they are able to set realistic behavior standards (Fitzpatrick & Knowlton, 2009). This is important so that the children will be able to achieve success within the first several contract periods. In some cases, baseline data might underestimate the level of disruptive behavior (King). In order to counteract this, the teacher can set a high initial behavior standard than what the child is currently capable of performing. However, this might be the reason for the child not succeeding during the first few behavioral contracts. Once the baseline data has been collected and the behavior standard has been set, the teacher or school psychologist will also need to designate how the target behavior will be monitored (Cipani, 2008).
The next steps include setting up the terms of the behavioral contract with the child (Cipani, 2008). The teacher or school psychologist should indicate how many days the behavior standard must be achieved within the contract period, designate the reinforcers the child would like to earn as a reward for meeting the terms of the contract and implement the behavior monitoring system (Fitzpatrick & Knowlton, 2009). Whenever possible, teachers should define behavior targets for the contract in the form of positive, pro-academic or pro-social behaviors. Additionally, the list of student behaviors to be increased or decreased should be described with sufficient details in order to prevent any disagreements about the student’s compliance with the contract. The teacher should also ensure that the targeted behaviors are easy to observe and verify (Cipani, 2008).
The teacher or school psychologist must make sure that the child is interested in the reinforcer and is unable to get it in ways other than satisfying the terms of the behavioral contract (Cipani, 2008). The eventual goal is for the students to become intrinsically motivated, meaning they receive reinforcement directly from performing a task (Fitzpatrick & Knowlton, 2009). For many students, this is difficult in the beginning phases of implementing a behavioral contract, so extrinsic motivators, operant conditioning, or reinforcement from outside the performance of a task are often used to motivate a student to engage in a more appropriate behavior (King). However, these extrinsic motivators should be temporary because the goal is to motivate the student extrinsically until they begin to feel success and intrinsic motivation when the behavior is changed (Fitzpatrick & Knowlton, 2009).
It is often a good idea to involve the student in the process of drawing up a behavioral contract (King). When a student starts to take some ownership of their behavior, it tends to increase the chances that the student will also take some responsibility toward changing their behavior (Fitzpatric & Knowlton, 2009). Research has shown that it is often very beneficial to let the student help write and share some of their input into the rewards and consequences outlined by the contract. Since the child’s response to the contract is the choice of the child, the contract is more likely to be successful when the student has had some ownership in its development (Cipani, 2008).
If the child achieves the behavior standard for the day, they will receive a check mark for it on the contract chart (King). If the child meets the terms of the contract by the end of the contract period, the reinforcer should be delivered at the predetermined time and place. However, if the child does not meet the behavioral obligations of the contract, the current contract in place should be ended and revised (Cipani, 2008).
Behavioral contracts work by targeting children who are having more difficulty than the rest of the children in the classroom or school (Fitzpatrick & Knowlton, 2009). By basing the start of a behavioral contract of baseline data for the target behavior, children should be fully able to achieve the behavior standards of their contract (Cipani, 2008). When the child achieves success in their first few contracts and experiences the reward for positive behavior changes, they will be more motivated to continue behaving appropriately and keep meeting the standards for the rest of the behavioral contracts that are set up afterward (King). The teacher or school psychologist is then able to shape the child’s level of disruptive behavior to lower the numbers of its occurrences by gradually moving the behavior standards closer to the desired goal (Cipani, 2008).
This evidence-based practice behavior interventional plan will usually take place in two major phases (Cipani, 2008). In the first phase, students will learn how to become conscious of their internalized and externalized behaviors that have been targeted for modification. The second phase is when students learn to implement strategies for helping them modify their behavior (King). Fitzpatrick and Knowlton (2009) define self-management as the main process that an individual uses to influences their behavior in the second phase of the intervention. The process of self-management refers to any process that an individual uses for influencing their behavior and is considered a very important strategy for decreasing challenging and undesirable classroom behaviors while simultaneously promoting independence. Additionally, self-management strategies have been found to be very successful for students with a variety of disabilities including emotional and behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, mild cognitive disabilities, and severe cognitive disabilities (Fitzpatrick & Knowlton, 2009).
In addition to creating a behavioral contract, there are several additional behavioral strategies that classroom teachers and school psychologists can use to aid the success of the contract (King). When these strategies are implemented, they will help the child be more successful in achieving the desired behavior goals. These strategies include planned ignoring, in which the teacher ignores the problem behavior (Cipani, 2008). This is a particularly useful strategy for reducing attention-seeking behaviors. Another strategy is known as signal interference, which refers to having a planned signal with the student as a reminder for redirecting their inappropriate and undesirable behaviors (Fitzpatrick & Knowlton, 2009). Proximity control involves placing target students closer to the teacher or increasing the number of occurrences in which the teacher comes closer to the student who is at risk of engaging in the unwanted behaviors (King).
Furthermore, some teachers make use of token reinforcement systems as part of a behavioral contract. In these systems, a student receives a ‘token’ of some kind when they perform a clearly defined target behavior (King). These tokens can then be exchanged for a wide variety of pre-determined reinforcers. This strategy is usually very effective for extremely disruptive students and can be easily administered with checkmarks or stickers. However, in order to be most effective, tokens must be given immediately after the student performs the target behavior to help enhance their self-control (Fitzpatrick & Knowlton, 2009). Contingency management refers to when a student receives a positive outcome or reward if certain conditions are met. Other strategies include social reinforcement, where the teacher uses attention and praise to promote the student's appropriate behavior. Finally, the modeling strategy involves when the student observes other students receiving rewards for displaying appropriate behavior (Cipani, 2008).
Cipani, E. (2008). Classroom management for all teachers: plans for evidence-based practice (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Fitzpatrick, M., & Knowlton, E. (2009). Bringing evidence-based self-directed intervention practices to the trenches for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Preventing School Failure, 53(4), 253-266.
King, E. (n.d.). Creating behavior plans. School Psychologist Files. Retrieved December 9, 2013, from http://www.schoolpsychologistfiles.com/behavioralplans