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Behavior Contracts

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Randy dropped me an email recently asking how he should handle a pre-teen son who was becoming really difficult at home. He just wanted to spend time with his friends and was not doing chores, following rules or treating his parents with respect. "Is this just a phase or is there something I can do to make the situation work better?" he asked.

I asked him if he had tried behavior contracting, and it was a tool he had never heard of as a father. So we spent some time talking about this tool and, along with making expectations clear, how he might apply it with his son. He reported later that they had entered into a behavior contract and, so far, things were going better.

Behavior contracts were initially developed for use in an educational setting and many teachers and parents swear by them as an effective tool in the classroom. Behavior contracts have been used with disruptive students in modifying their inappropriate behavior for many years, and more and more parents are using the tool with their own children at home.

The general concept behind a behavior contract is that the parents and the child enter into a written agreement that describes specifically the behavior expectations of parents for a child and then the positive or negative consequences that attend a child's behavioral choice.

Why Behavior Contracts Work

Clarity. Children are highly motivated by behavior contracts because they bring clarity to the situation. Often children find themselves caught in a situation where they were not sure whether the behavior was acceptable or not or whether it was worth it to the child to make an appropriate choice. For example, when a child violates curfew, he may or may not have understood the clear standard of the time and also may not understand the consequences if he violates curfew. A behavior contract helps both parents and children clearly understand what is expected.

Structure. One of the key elements of a good behavior contract is that it brings structure to the discipline process. Whether they admit it or not, children are best served when there is clear structure. Specific rules and expectations, written down and associated with positive and negative consequences, provide a level of structure that help kids feel more secure.

Accountability. A vital skill that every responsible child needs to learn is accountability. Let's face it - every adult needs to function in a world where accountability is king. If you spend more money than you have, there are consequences. You miss a couple of mortgage payments and your lender will demand accountability. Behavior contracts can help children learn this critical principle early in life, and that will serve them well as teenagers and adults.

How to Set Up a Behavior Contract

Set the stage. Setting up a behavior contract is best done when things are calm and not in the heat of a disciplinary battle. Create an opportunity where parents and the child can be alone and can talk somewhat rationally. Help your child to understand that the concept of a behavioral contract will help them be more clear on expectations and consequences and will help you be fair in enforcing consequences.

Make a list of what's important. Before you sit down with your child, make a list of the behaviors that your child is struggling with and that are important to you. Try to stay focused on the bigger issues; behavior contracts that have long lists are not as effective as those that are short and specific about the expectations. Define the expectations that are non-negotiable and that need to be at the top of your list.

Create the contract together. One of the most important keys to success is to work together with your child to create the behavior contract. When they are part of the process of drafting, they can have a better understanding on the expectations and can participate in defining the consequences, positive or negative, associated with the behaviors. The more the child participates, the easier the enforcement will be later.

Commit to the consequences. If you put a consequence, positive or negative, in the contract, you have to be ready to perform on your commitment. If you commit to a family vacation if certain behaviors are maintained over a long period, you had better pencil the time in on your calendar. Similarly, if the consequence of misbehavior is grounding, parents had better be prepared to impose it. Nothing is more devastating to a child to deliver on his commitment, only to have the parents not deliver on theirs.

Define the method of monitoring. Behavior contracts often fail because the measurements involved are not part of the agreement. Be clear about the standard. For example, if the contract is about curfew and you define 11:00 p.m. on a weekend night, you should synchronize watches, you should define whether there is a five minute leeway, and one or the other parent had better be awake and at home at 11:00 p.m.

Make sure everyone signs it. Once the contract is drafted to everyone's satisfaction, then all parties to the contract need to sign. It is especially important that both parents sign so that the child has clarity that whoever is there is empowered to deliver on the agreed-upon consequences.

Using behavior contracting will help parents and children get on the same page as far as expectations for a child's behavior and the consequences of that behavior on him and on the family. Experiment with this effective tool for communication and discipline and make sure what you do works for all parties concerned. You will be impressed with the outcome.

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