When you want your child to make a behavior change such as helping out more at home, getting along better with siblings or finishing homework, contracts are an effective tool. A formal agreement between you and your child, behavior contracts work with children of all ages. This positive approach to problem-solving provides your child with the structure he wants and needs, while restoring some calm to your home.
Before talking with your child about a contract, make a mental list of the ways in which she benefits from making the changes. If your goal is getting her to school on time, discuss the ways this decreases stress for both her and your family. Maintaining a calm and caring tone, precisely describe the behavior you want changed, using language your child understands. Your goal is the creation of a clearly-written contract that you can pull out whenever confusion comes up or you want to negotiate new terms. It is both your child’s pledge to make better choices as well as your pledge to be clear and consistent.
Conditions for Success
For any behavioral contract to work, your child needs to experience early success. Don’t set the bar too high, and break down a complicated task into smaller steps. In the example of getting to school on time, you might define early success as three out of five days, while working up to a goal of five days a week. Discuss the steps he needs to take to reach this goal, such as setting an alarm and gathering clothes and supplies the night before. Create a chart to track his behavior and reward success immediately. Changing habits can be hard, and your child needs to feel recognized and appreciated for his efforts. Revisit your contract, adjusting it as needed and provide occasional observations on the ways his new behavior makes life easier.
Rewards and Privileges
The "rewards and earned privileges" section of your behavior contract is where you need the most buy-in and involvement from your child. Have her identify a menu of rewards and privileges she could earn by changing her behavior. You want a list of simple and inexpensive choices that also motivate her. Set up a friendly but realistic timeline that clearly lays out the type of behavior you expect and the frequency it should occur for her to earn a reward or a privilege. In the beginning of a contract, younger children might need a daily reward such as a sticker and a high five. Stretch the time out between incentives, working up to weekly or even monthly rewards that culminate in one of the privileges from her list.
Behavioral changes are uneven, at times -- one week can go well, while the next is bumpy. If the bumpy stretches outweigh the smooth ones, review the contract for problems. Perhaps the change was too big to make all at once, and needs to be broken down into smaller steps, each with its own contract. Maybe the rewards and privileges were not motivational enough or frequent enough. Sometimes consequences need to be added -- sort of an “if you don’t…then” approach. Finally, take a close look at your own behavior. If you lack follow-through, it won’t work.