Behavioral Contracting

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A Technique for Handling Disruptive Behavior

Behavioral contracting is an excellent strategy for reducing a child's disruptive behavior if you have one child or just a few who are being disruptive. A behavioral contract is a written contract that specifies the child's behavioral obligations in meeting the terms of the contract and the teacher's (or parent's) obligations once the child has met his or her obligation. If the child needs an incentive to engage in an activity he or she does not like (or dreads), behavioral contracting is an excellent way to reduce disruptive behavior.

The following is a scenario depicting a hypothetical first-grade child who does not enjoy listening to the teacher read a story while she sits on the carpet with the other children.

During story time, Melissa is hard to control. The teacher, Mr. Zumwalt, places Melissa right next to him in the hope that this will make Melissa less distractible. But this has not worked. Melissa is constantly getting up and wandering around the class. When she is asked to come back to the carpet area to listen to the story, she often has a tantrum. Melissa can handle about three minutes of story time, but she subsequently becomes bored and leaves the group. Mr. Zumwalt tried giving Melissa mints for a two-week period as an incentive, but they did not help him keep her in the story time activity.

Do you have children like Melissa? The grade level and instructional context can be different, but the disruptive behaviors and their purpose are the same. Melissa enjoys story time only for a few minutes. After that, listening becomes a task she dislikes, and she prefers doing something else. While many other children develop attention skills for longer periods of time, some children have great difficulty acquiring this skill.

The teacher may try pleading with them and cajoling them to be good, but often those techniques do not work, or at best they are successful for only a brief time. The point of confrontation and conflict is clear: Mr. Zumwalt wants Melissa to stay on the carpet and attend to the story to its completion. Melissa wants to end her participation in the first few minutes. Can there be a resolution? When there is a dispute between two parties in everyday life, contracts are negotiated. The following contract might be helpful in breaking the stalemate between Melissa and Mr. Zumwalt.
  1. I, Melissa Shaeffer, agree to stay on the carpet and listen to the story being read by Mr. Zumwalt for the first five minutes of each story time in class.

  2. In exchange, Mr. Zumwalt agrees to let me go play quietly with a toy close to the carpet for the remainder of the story.

  3. This contract is valid for the following two-week period beginning March 1. It expires 14 days hence, at which time a new contract will be drawn up.

Note that Melissa's behavioral obligation is to attend to the story for a set period of time, five minutes as measured by a kitchen timer. Melissa obligates herself to do this during Mr. Zumwalt's storybook reading each day. In consideration of Melissa's obligation to be nondisruptive and to pay attention during this time, the teacher will allow Melissa to skip the last few minutes of the story and play with a toy, provided Melissa has lived up to her part of the bargain. Over time, the length of time that Melissa will sit and listen to the story can be increased. However, note that on the current contract these obligations expire in two weeks; therefore, a new contract will have to be written up.

Behavioral contracting is a good way to teach children to learn the following adult-like behaviors:

  1. Develop self-control and responsibility for one's own behavior through verbal or written obligation.

  2. Learn to negotiate and compromise with other people and begin to self-monitor behavior according to a designated standard. In this particular case, Melissa negotiates both the level of attending behavior required of her during story time and the incentive for her to perform to that level of attention.

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