Using a behaviour contract with teenagers
Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of reward charts. They help children to focus on the behaviour that is expected from them and they remind parents to catch their children being good and pay attention to it.
But when it comes to teenagers, a sticker chart is not going to do the trick. A slightly more grown up approach is required. One version of this is a ‘behaviour contract’.
The idea of a behaviour contract is that, just like a reward chart for younger children, it sets out clearly what behaviour is expected, what rewards or privileges will be earned by doing that behaviour but also what the consequences will be for misbehaviour.
A behaviour contract works best when the target (good) behaviour is clearly defined, when the rewards are achievable and when your teenager cares about the rewards and the consequences. Breaking habits takes effort – from both you and your teen – and behaviour contracts only succeed when both of you are on board.
With my teen, we use tech time as our currency. He is allowed only a very small amount of time playing games on his Xbox or the computer each day. If he wants extra time, he has to earn it. And the ways he can earn that extra time are laid out in his behaviour contract.
In his case, rewards are focussed on having a positive attitude at school (measured through participation in extra-curricular activities, his termly Attitude to Learning grades, school House points and other formal recognitions from school of good conduct and attitude). He can earn additional tech time by reading books and participating in sport too.
Our behaviour contract also specifies circumstances in which tech time will be lost (including poor Attitude to Learning grades, detentions, notes/emails home from school etc). The contract is written down and signed by us both.
We review the contract monthly to ensure that it is working well and to adjust the terms according to current circumstances and challenges. I wouldn’t say my teenager participates willingly in this system (grudgingly would be a better description) but he cares enough about having some tech time that he is prepared to do the things necessary to earn it and not to lose it. The key was in setting his basic allowance low enough that he would always want to top it up. And in me remembering to praise and encourage and acknowledge when he gets it right (rather than losing it when he gets it wrong).
The currency you choose with your teenager will depend on their interests and passions. Money is obviously an option, and phone credit, or a points system that adds up to weekly prizes (these don’t have to cost money – a bike ride with Dad would do it, if that’s what your teen cares about).
The target behaviour will depend on your teenager’s particular challenges. Self-organisation, studying, and helping out around the house are all good themes for a behaviour contract.
The crucial factor is to define very precisely what will earn the reward – if you are too vague you are guaranteed to end up in an argument about whether or not they have done enough to get the payoff!