Children's Voice May/Jun 2009

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Let's Make a Deal

By Ellen Notbohm

Contracts and deals can be effective behavior management tools in the home and in the classroom environment. You already use them informally: "Pick up your room and you can go to the movies," or "Finish your math and you can have computer time." More formal deal structures include point systems or token-earning systems.

When used effectively, deals and contracts can reduce behavioral problems, keep attention focused, and help teach one of life's critical lessons: work = reward. However, pitfalls and traps abound in setting up contracts and deals, especially with children who lack important social skills that contribute to a shared understanding of the contract's parameters. Adhere to these simple but important guidelines for setting up contracts and deals.

Make the contract visual. It can be simple pictures or symbols or a formal, written document. Try using a "working for ___" card. The card can be just a picture of the reward with a space to write in steps to achieve the reward.

Check for comprehension. Contract rules need to be clear and concise. Use straightforward terms that can be easily evaluated by both parties, and don't institute the contract until you are 100% certain that the child understands what is expected of him, the timelines of the contract, and the reward. Go back and simplify or adjust the terms of the contract where needed.

Honor the deal. This is one of the biggest mistakes that well-meaning parents and professionals regularly make. Contracts involve at least two people, each with a defined part in the deal. I do this; you do that. If one party disregards any component of the agreement, trust is immediately broken and often a behavior problem develops. For example, a teacher and student made a contract. When the teacher changed the rules in the middle, the student revolted. He finished the work before the period was over, so when the teacher asked him to do more work, he became upset. Note the key word: finished. The student fulfilled his end of the contract; he did what he was asked to do. The teacher then broke the deal. Who wouldn't resist? The fact that the student finished ahead of time was a teacher planning problem, not a student behavior problem. Next time the teacher might make the contract a little tighter or include more work for the reward. It's much easier to revamp a subsequent contract than to rebuild trust in a relationship after it is broken. Once you've set up a deal, stick to it!

Be thorough. Think about the contracts and deals in your life. Most include the basics: how much work we have to do, what behaviors or actions are expected of us, what reward we'll receive, and when we'll get paid. We need to include all of these elements in our contracts with kids, too.

Avoid setting yourself and the child up for failure. Make sure the end result or actions specified in the contract are attainable by the child. And don't forget how contracts play out in real life: we often have bad days at work and we still get paid. Have alternate reinforcers available if the contract doesn't get fulfilled. And above all, refrain from using rewards that are so big or important to the child that losing them (or the anxiety caused by thinking they might not be attained) will be too stressful for the child to handle.

Watch out for blackmail. Do you ever find yourself saying, "If you stop screaming, you'll get ____?" Doing so teaches the child that he can get paid to stop behaving in a certain way. What happens after that? The child makes you raise the ante before he stops misbehaving and the time interval between payoffs gets shorter and shorter. Watch what you reinforce!

Beware of sloppy and imprecise language. The word good is sub-jective in the phrase, "If you're good, you'll get ___"; it can change from day to day and person to person. Spell out the required behavior.

Start small and expand gradually. If you're just introducing contracts or deals to a child, start simple with just a few steps, or maybe even one, such as one piece of work equaling one payoff. Don't get anxious and raise the stakes too quickly. With patience and consistency, your child will be able to start with success and build from there.

© 2004, 2009 Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk
Three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of four award-winning books on autism, including 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (with co-author Veronica Zysk), from which this column was adapted. For book excerpts or to explore her work, visit

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