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[How-To Guide] Addressing Student Conduct With Behavior Contracts

Special Education

teaching helping student with homework

A behavior contract is a simple positive-reinforcement intervention teachers can use to address student behavior. It spells out in detail what is expected of the student and the teacher (and sometimes, the parents) in carrying out an intervention plan, making it a useful planning document.

Implementing Behavior Contracts

The key to a good behavior contract is letting the student have a say. Wondering what motivates them? Ask them! The more your students get to help design the reward system, the more motivated they’ll be to carry through on the contract.

Then, select specific behaviors that the contract should include. When possible, define behavior targets for the contract as positive, pro-academic or pro-social behaviors.

For example, you may notice that a student frequently calls out answers during lectures without raising his hand first to speak. In the contract, restate that positively as, “The student will participate in class lecture and discussion, raising his hand and being recognized by the teacher before offering an answer.”

Then, draw up the contract together with the student. In many cases, the student can take part in selecting positive goals to increase his involvement and motivation in participating. If appropriate, invite other school staff members, and possibly the student’s parent(s) to take part as well.

The contract should include:

  • A listing of student behaviors to be reduced or increased. State these in positive, goal-oriented terms. They should also contain enough detail to prevent disagreement about student compliance, and it should be easy to confirm whether the student has met the conditions. “Student will complete class assignments on time” is easy to observe and verify. But a goal that the student “will not steal pens from others” is more difficult to confirm.
  • The minimum criteria for earning points, stickers or other tokens for showing appropriate behaviors. Always make it clear to the student exactly what conditions to meet in order earn a point or step toward a reward. For example, a contract may say, “Johnny will add a point to his Good Behavior Chart each time he arrives at school on time and hands in his completed homework assignment to the teacher.”
  • The conditions for redeeming points, stickers or other tokens for specific rewards. The contract may say, for example, that, “When Johnny has earned 5 points on his Good Behavior Chart, he may choose a friend, choose a game from the play-materials shelf, and spend 10 minutes during free time at the end of the day playing the game.”
  • Bonus and penalty clauses (optional). Although not required, bonus and penalty clauses can provide extra incentives for the student to follow the contract. A bonus clause usually offers the student some type of additional ‘pay-off’ for consistently reaching behavioral targets. A penalty clause may prescribe a penalty for serious problem behaviors, such as disrupting the class or endangering the safety of a classmate.
  • Areas for signature. Include spaces on the contract for teacher and student signatures as a sign that both agree to live up to their responsibilities outlined in the contract. You may also want to include signature blocks for other staff members (e.g., a school administrator) or the student’s parent(s).

Troubleshooting: How to Deal With Common Problems

Q: What do I do if the behavior contract doesn’t work?
A: There may be several possible reasons why a behavior contract is ineffective:

  • The student may not be invested in the contract because they didn’t have a voice in creating it. If this is the case, talk to the student and include his input in a revised contract.
  • The rewards in the contract may not be enough to motivate the student to change his behavior. Go over the list of rewards with the student and be sure to include those that the student finds most appealing in the contract.
  • Points and rewards may not be awarded often enough to motivate the student. Each person reacts differently to reward systems like this, and some respond better to more frequent rewards. Consider changing the contract to award points — or redeem points for rewards — more often, and see if it motivates the student to follow the contract. (Once the behavior contract proves effective, you can gradually cut back the rate of rewards to a level that is more easily managed.)

Q: How do I respond if the student starts to argue about the terms of the contract?
A: It’s not unusual — especially when a behavior contract is first introduced —to have honest disagreements with the student about how to interpret its terms. If this happens, having a conference with the student to clarify the contract’s language and meaning may be effective.

Occasionally, though, a student may continue to argue that you’re enforcing the contract unfairly. If the student becomes too antagonistic, you may simply decide to suspend the contract, because it’s not having the desired effect. Or you could modify the contract again, this time adding a behavioral goal or penalty clause stating that the student will not argue with you about the contract.

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Jim Wright

Jim Wright is a highly-acclaimed national presenter, trainer and author on topics that cover the essentials and beyond of Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered System of Supports. He has worked for 17 years in public education as a school psychologist and school administrator. Jim has published "The RTI Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Schools" and is the creator of the website.