A behavioral contract is sometimes used by parents, teachers, counselors and mental health professionals. It is designed to reinforce or strengthen the frequency of desirable behavior and decrease the severity or frequency of undesirable behavior.
It is important to clearly identify the desired behavior in terms understood by anyone involved. Language may need to be adjusted for participants of various ages and ability levels. Ambiguous terminology will lessen the contract's effectiveness. For example, "Jane will wash her face, brush her teeth and comb her hair every morning before school" is clearer and more effective than "Jane will get ready for school."
Making the behavioral contract visual to the people involved acts as a reminder and can be positively reinforcing. For example, a chart posted on the refrigerator that lists the desired behavior, dates the behavior is expected and a clearly stated outcome allows for greater accountability for everyone involved. It doesn't need to be fancy, just easy to read and understand. For young children or for those who are unable to read, using pictures is an effective way to communicate.
Behavioral contracts are based on a system of performance of a desired behavior followed by reinforcement. Reinforcement can be either the removal of something the participant doesn't like or the addition of something the participant does desire. Common examples of reinforcements include money, extra play time, a special treat, one-on-one time with a parent or caregiver, or points that can be accumulated and then traded in for a reward of choice. Points can be represented by tangible items such as stickers placed on the chart, play money or checkers collected in a jar.
Aline Lindemann is a health, food and travel writer. She has also worked as a social worker, preschool teacher and art educator. Lindemann holds a Master of Liberal Studies in culture, health and creative nonfiction writing from Arizona State University.