Using a Behavior Contract to Improve Child Behavior

I'm often told by frustrated parents that their once charming and agreeable child is no longer respectful or willing to follow the rules of the house. Most of these parents appear to be at their wit's end and feverously looking for solutions to their child's problematic behavior.

When I ask these parents whether or not they have ever tried a behavior contract, most of them look at me puzzled, yet with a sense of curiosity. Most have heard of behavior contracts but have never really explored the idea much past that initial thought.

Behavior contracts are an effective way for parents or caregivers (even teachers) to establish clear expectations and to provide a higher level of structure and consistency. Children and teens respond well to behavior contracts because of these qualities. After all, a child or teen can't really follow expectations if they don't know what those expectations are. Having those expectations spelled out for them (on a document that they have signed) leaves little room for misunderstandings and/or argument.

Another benefit of behavior contracts is the fact that they can be easily changed and/or modified in order to reflect new behavioral issues and/or problems. Once a child or teen has successfully abided by the terms of the contract then those terms can be changed to newer, more relevant ones.

Creating an effective behavior contract takes some time and effort. Parents must first decide which behaviors are to be addressed in the contract. It's best to focus on the most problematic behaviors first while also adding a few behaviors that will allow for immediate success. Adding a few behaviors that your child already does well will help him or her feel immediate success in those areas. This can be very helpful and it prevents the child from feeling discouraged.

Once the problem behaviors have been identified then parents should try to address those issues in the most positive way possible. For instance, instead of writing "no teasing your brother," a parent could write "be respectful to your brother." A good contract will then take it a step further and explain how he or she can be respectful to his/her brother. "Be respectful to your brother by using kind words, by solving disagreements without yelling or hurting, and by staying out of his room when he is not in there" is an example of a well-written "condition" for a child's contract. Being specific with expectations is essential to the success of the behavior contract.

A quality behavior contract also states the consequences (positive and negative) that will be earned for meeting (or not meeting) the conditions of the contract. Effective privileges and restrictions are essential to the success of the contract. Parents must choose those that motivate their child towards the desired behavior.

Last, there should be a place for signatures. The contract should be signed by both the child and at least one (but preferably both) parent(s).

Once the contract is signed, it's GAME ON! If the contract is well-written and well-executed, then better behavior should be just around the corner.

About the Author: Chris Theisen is the author of the parenting websites,,,