Simply Good Ideas Column
By David Freschi


Deals and Contracts: Work = Reward

Most of us go through daily life with some form of mental or written framework that governs certain actions we perform. These deals or contracts can be implied, verbal, or written. Serious contracts, like the one that results in a paycheck, are generally written and agreed to by both parties. Other, less formal deals happen in an instant, without much forethought or planning.

Contracts not only make life work better, they also ease stress. Many of us wouldn’t be comfortable without the inherent structure and organization they lend to many areas of our life. They define what we do, when we do it, how we do it, and often, with whom.

Contracts and deals can be effective tools with our kids, both at home or in the classroom environment. We already use them informally: “Pick up your room and you can go to the movies.” “Finish your math and you can watch that TV program.” More formal systems, such as Point systems and earning systems, are probably already familiar to many parents and special education professionals.

When used effectively, deals and contracts can reduce behavioral problems, keep attention focused, and help teach one of life’s critical lessons: work = reward. However, pitfalls and traps abound in setting up contracts and deals, especially with individuals with autism/AS who often lack important social skills that contribute to a shared understanding of the contract’s parameters. To follow are some simple but important guidelines to remember in setting up contacts and deals.

  • Whenever possible, make the contract visual. This can range from very simple to a more formal written document. If the student can’t read yet, or doesn’t respond well to textual information, use pictures or symbols. We often use a “Working for ___” card (ie tangible reward like candy or a favorite toy or activity). The card can be just a picture of the reward with a space where we write in steps to achieve the reward. Start simple, with just a few steps, or maybe even one. We want the child to start with success and build from there.

  • Contract rules need to be clear and concise. When in doubt, take it to a simpler level. Remember that individuals with autism think in a very literal manner. Use straightforward terms that can be clearly evaluated by both parties involved.

  • Check for comprehension by the person with autism/AS. Unless you are 100% certain that the student understands what is expected of him, the timelines of the contract, and the reward, don’t institute the contract. Go back and simplify or adjust the terms of the contract. On the other hand, don’t underestimate the person’s ability to understand a contract concept. I have rarely seen a person who could not quickly get the concept if the teaching was concrete and clear.

  • Honor the deal. This is one of the biggest deal busters that well-meaning parents and professionals regularly make. Contracts involve at least two people, and each person has a defined part in the deal. I do this; you do that. These ‘rules’ are accepted as part of the agreement and govern the interaction. If one party ‘breaks the rules’, trust is immediately broken and often a behavior problem develops. I have witnessed behavioral problems arise because a teacher changes the rules in midstream. “He finished the work before the period was over, so I asked him to do some more work. He became upset.” Note the key word “finished.” The student fulfilled his end of the contract; he did what he was asked to do. However, the teacher broke the deal. Who wouldn’t resist? The fact that the student finished ahead of time was a planning problem, not a behavioral problem. Next time the teacher might make the contract a little tighter or include more work for the reward. It’s much easier to revamp a subsequent contract than to rebuild trust in a relationship after it is broken. Once you’ve set up a deal, stick to it!

  • Include all the elements in the deal. Think about the many contracts and deals in your life. Most include the basics: how much work we have to do, what behaviors or actions are expected of us, what reward we’ll receive and when we get paid. We need to include all of these elements in our contracts with kids, too.

  • Start small and expand gradually. If you’re just introducing contracts or deals to a child, make the terms simple. One piece of work equals one payoff or reward. Don’t get anxious and raise the stakes too quickly. Remember: each time the child is successful you have reinforced work and the child has had an opportunity to practice effective social interaction. Those are good things to do!

  • Avoid setting yourself – and the child – up for failure. Discouragement is another big deal-buster when using contracts and deals with kids with disabilities. Make sure the end result or actions specified in the contract are attainable by the child. Add time or work amounts slowly. And don’t forget that these contracts play out in real-life. We often have bad days at work and we still get paid. Consider having alternate reinforcers available if the contract doesn’t get fulfilled.

  • Make “payday or payoff” reasonable. The timeline for the contract has to be within the student’s ability right from the start. If the payoff is too far in the future, motivation will slip. Even worse, we may find that behavioral problems develop. If a student is working on good behaviors for a favorite reward and on Wednesday realizes he will not be able to earn enough points by Friday to get what he’s working for, why continue? He may decide there is no benefit in behaving on Thursday or Friday.

 

COMMON ERRORS TO AVOID:

  1. Watch out for “blackmail.” If you find yourself saying “If you stop your tantrum you’ll get ____”, you are setting yourself up for trouble. You are now teaching the child that s/he can get paid to stop behaving in a certain way. What happens after that? (Remember: these kids are not dumb.) The child makes you raise the ante before he stops misbehaving and the time interval between paydays gets shorter and shorter. That’s not a direction you want to go in.

  2. Watch out for sloppy and imprecise language. “If you’re good, you’ll get____.” “Good” is subjective; it can change from day to day and person to person. Terms like this in a contract can be very confusing to a person with autism or Asperger’s. The result is usually a return to the behavioral problem we’re trying to work on, because the person won’t be able to understand, or comply, with the rules of the contract.

  3. Don’t use rewards that are so big or important to the person that losing them (or the anxiety caused by thinking they might not be attained) will be too stressful for the child to handle. We want to encourage progress, not add undue stress to the experience.

 

COMMON CONCERNS ABOUT CONTRACTS:

  1. “My students are too young to understand this idea.” Although we hear this concern expressed frequently, we have witnessed programs in which children as young as two are successfully completing simple “work for” cards.

  2. “My students are too low functioning.” This is a generalization that we simply do not find applicable, based on experience. I learned this ‘lesson’ from a wonderful young man with autism, Ralph, during my very first teaching job. We had set up a school store for a group of “high functioning” students, where they could redeem their contract points for favorite rewards. Ralph was in another group, the “low functioning” group and it was ‘obvious’ to us that neither Ralph, nor the rest of the group, could understand a point system or contract. One day, during store hours when kids were making their purchases, Ralph appeared in the line. He came up to the counter and handed me a scrap of paper that he had picked up on the playground. It was one of our receipts for points. Ralph had found a pencil and aptly filled it in with the contract-specified check marks. Needless to say I “paid” Ralph and learned a valuable lesson about underestimating students. Since then, I have used contracts with all levels of students with various types of challenges.

  3. “They should work for the enjoyment or the intrinsic value of the task.” Let’s get real. Will you show up each day at work if come Friday, there’s no paycheck, just a ‘good job’ pat on the back by your boss? The fact is, some of our kids need a little – or a lot – of motivation as we work with them. Some activities we ask them to do don’t have all that much appeal. (Again, this is real life.) Even the best teacher can present a boring or unpleasant lesson on occasion. So, drop this line of thought early on if you want real progress.

    Another variation of this idea is that children should be able to behave because they are ‘old enough’ or because they ‘should know better.’ I recently worked with a group of bus drivers who were having lots of behavior problems with kids on their buses. One of the drivers had instituted a point system that specified clear behavior rules and a candy reward. The contract was based on good common sense and she was having great results. Her supervisor made her stop using the system, offering the reason “These kids should know how to behave.” Well, she now has as many behavior problems to deal with as do all the other drivers. Remember: what kids “should” be doing may not always be what they can do.

Try using contracts and deals with your students with autism. If you follow the guidelines, I’m willing to bet you’ll be surprised – pleasantly surprised – with the results. Let us know if you run into any problems, or if you have a simply good idea of your own to share.




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